I was a judge in the National Pie Championships! (Again!)

I like sweets and desserts as much as anyone, but I can usually stay strong in the face of  chocolate, candy, cupcakes, or cake, and turn them down without regret.  Even cookies have to be some pretty serious, next-level cookies to get me to indulge.  But one thing I will always choose and never refuse is PIE, that most humble and all-American of desserts.  Whether it’s a custard, cream, or fruit filling, a flaky dough crust or a crumb topping, hot or cold, sweet or tart or even savory, pie is everything.

There is a group called the American Pie Council that agrees with me.  From their website: “The American Pie Council Is The Only Organization Committed To Maintaining America’s Pie Heritage, Passing On The Tradition Of Pie-Making And Promoting America’s Love Affair With Pie.”  If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is.  They publish a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times (I love it!), full of tips, tricks, recipes, promotions, and networking information for bakers.

But the American Pie Council’s most visible event is hosting the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida every year — a chance for the most gifted commercial, professional, and amateur pie bakers to prove themselves in the ultimate pie arena, like Pie Thunderdome. These brave bakers descend upon Orlando from throughout the United States to compete for those blue ribbons and bragging rights, mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor of being the best.  Here is a Bon Appetit article about last year’s National Pie Championships, and here is an essay on Taste by two bakers who competed last year.  Christopher Guest really needs to write and direct a mockumentary about the world of competitive pie-baking, something like Best in Show meets Iron Chef meets… I don’t know, The Fast & the Furious.  “I live my life one quarter-stick of butter at a time.”  “If your dough isn’t out of control, you’re not in control.”  And what good is pie if you can’t share it with family (including chosen family)?

Anyway, last year, a fellow foodie friend told me that she regularly volunteers to judge the National Pie Championships, and I could apply to be a volunteer judge as well.  What the–?!!  People actually do this?  You can get chosen to sample a bunch of delicious pies from some of the best bakers in the country — for free!! — and then evaluate and rank them and offer constructive feedback?  I felt like every event in my life to date, everything I’ve ever learned and accomplished, had brought me to that point, and it could be a lifelong dream coming true.  I’m not a baker on the level of these master bakers — I have one EXCELLENT pie recipe that everybody goes crazy for — but I thought I would be a great pie judge between my two Orlando Weekly best-of-the-year food lists, blogging here as The Saboscrivner, and having pretty good taste in general.  Luckily, the American Pie Council agreed.  I volunteered and served for the first time in 2018, and just did it again last weekend, this time with my best friend, who drove all the way up from Miami.

When you are a National Pie Championships judge, you get assigned to a table in a huge hotel conference room where all the judging takes place, and each table gets one pie category the entire time.  They judge the commercial pies (think supermarket bakeries, frozen foods, and restaurant chains) on the Friday, and then professional and amateur pies on the Saturday, which is what I did both years.  On your judging application, you can choose your top six categories, and hopefully you will be placed in one of those.  You can choose among apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, nut (expect to overdose on heavy pecan pies!), peanut butter, citrus, tropical fruit, “open” fruit, “open” cream, and more.  There are 16 professional categories, and even more in the amateur division.  There is even a savory pot pie category!  Last year, the APC included a category for Hollywood-inspired pies, and this year’s unique category was for pies inspired by special and memorable vacations.

In 2018, I got moved away from my top choice at the last minute and placed at the Comstock apple pie table.  Comstock is one of the National Pie Championships sponsors, the company that makes canned apple, cherry, peach, strawberry, and blueberry pie fillings that you can buy at most supermarkets.  I was skeptical, but I got to taste some really solid apple pies that day.  I was definitely burned out on apple pie by the end, but luckily we then got to judge the Comstock “Best in Show” pies — the best apple pie from our table (a maple praline apple pie), plus the winners from the other Comstock categories: a chocolate-covered cherry pie, a raspberry peach bellini pie, a classic, old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie, and the delightful blueberry lemon cream pie that we crowned the winner.  I still remember this one fondly, over a year later, so enjoy the recipe and this photo:
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This year, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of the National Pie Championships, my buddy and I made sure to fill out the same six categories, and I asked the powers that be to seat us at the same table so we could hang out.  And we were lucky enough to get placed at the Professional cream pie table, a highly-desirable category that was one of my top choices.

The way it works is volunteer pie servers pass the unsliced pie around our round table so we can all ooh and ahh and photograph it if we wish, to evaluate each pie in its uncut state.  Then the server returns with one slice removed, so we can evaluate how the slice holds up on its own, as well as how the pie looks with a slice taken out.  Then we pass the one slice around the table and cut off small slivers for ourselves, so everyone just gets a tiny taste.  Believe me, we don’t each eat an entire slice from each of these pies.  That would be ill-advised.  Each pie judge fills out an anonymous scoring worksheet as we evaluate each pie, with our judging number and the pie’s identification number.  There is even math involved!

We ended up sampling 14 pies in all:

The first of many coconut cream pies:DSC02000DSC02001

The first banana cream, which included some pineapple and crispy banana chips:DSC02004DSC02003

A chocolate-mint brownie cream pie, which was a big hit at our table:DSC02006DSC02005

Another coconut cream:DSC02008DSC02009

This lovely coconut cream was extremely thick and firm, and it was my favorite of the many coconut cream pies we tried.DSC02010DSC02011

I felt so bad for this baker, because this beautiful berry cream pie was damaged when the slicers tried to slice it.  However, it was delicious, and I would totally buy one if I ever saw it for sale or on a menu:DSC02012

I think everyone lost their minds over this Oreo cookies ‘n’ creme cream pie.  I know it was my friend’s favorite.DSC02014DSC02016

WHO DAT?  This was a New Orleans Saints-themed banana cream pie.  It would have been a nice touch if the baker went full N’awlins and made it a Bananas Foster cream pie.  I still don’t know if the fleur-de-lis was edible.DSC02017DSC02018

I don’t even remember if this one was banana cream, coconut cream, or something else entirely, but it was good, because how could it not be?  Those things around the crust might have been candied nuts, so maybe banana walnut?DSC02019DSC02020

This hypnotically beautiful cinnamon roll cream pie won our superlative award for Prettiest Pie at our table.DSC02021DSC02023

Another coconut cream:DSC02024DSC02025

This strawberry cream pie was far and away my favorite, and the only one I gave a perfect score to.  It was a cross between a strawberry cream pie and a strawberry cheesecake.DSC02026DSC02027

I forget what this one was:DSC02028DSC02029

And this was a heaven-themed coconut cream pie to end our judging, with edible golden sugar “glitter” and sparkling whipped cream.DSC02030DSC02032

We probably each ate the equivalent of 2-3 slices of pie, passing all of those around the table and cutting off tiny tastes from each slice — but that’s still a lot of rich cream pie for a regular person.  We were the first table to finish, and it came as a relief.

The second-place winner from our Professional Cream Pie table was the “Sunsational Islandtime Coconut Cream Pie,” baked by Avon Park, Florida’s own Amy Freeze.  I don’t remember which coconut cream pie that was, so apologies to the talented Ms. Freeze, but I enjoyed every single coconut cream pie we tried that day.

The winner, as you might have guessed, was the “Double the Good Stuff Cookies and Cream” pie, baked by Michele Stuart, who traveled all the way from Norwalk, Connecticut and entered several pies, with a grand total of FIVE winning either first or second place in different categories!  Ms. Stuart is a PIE BAWSS.

When each table of judges is finished, the scores are tallied to select first and second-place winners in each category.  Then each of those first-place pies compete against each other for the Best in Show, in both professional and amateur categories.

I have been sitting on this review for a week, waiting for the American Pie Council to release a formal announcement of all the winners, and here they are.  The Professional Best in Show pie was Iceland’s Café Loki-Inspired Rye Bread Cream Pie, baked by David Eaheart from Kansas City, Missouri.  “Layered with a cream filling, toasted rye bread, piped meringue and a caramel sauce drizzle, this pie is based on Café Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream, which Eaheart discovered on a walking food tour of Reykjavik.”  I didn’t get to try this pie, but I would have awarded it a perfect score for creativity.

On our way out of the judging room, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this gorgeous apple pie.  It has been over a year, so maybe I can start eating apple pies again, while taking a break from cream pies.  DSC02033

Being an official pie judge in the National Pie Championships two years in a row has been a great experience, and even a great responsibility, for which I have no regrets.  I’ll probably volunteer again, because it’s such a treat to sample so many delicious pies from bakers at the top of their game.  I’m just glad it only happens once a year!  DSC02046

EDIT (4/22/19): The American Pie Council posted hundreds of photos from the event, so feel free to spend some hours scrolling through beautiful pies.

Maple Street Biscuit Company

Despite living not too far from Oviedo, I almost never drive all the way east to head out there.  Every time I do, I’m always amazed by how much the area has been developed, with so many new restaurants popping up.  One of Oviedo’s newest neighbors is the Maple Street Biscuit Company (https://maplestreetbiscuits.com), a small chain that was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, and has since expanded into six Southern states (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas).  Despite being a chain, it has a very “down-home” Southern feeling, with everything in the bright, spacious dining room made of wood (or wood veneers).

Maple Street Biscuit Company specializes in fried chicken sandwiches made with fresh, white meat chicken breasts on fresh-baked biscuits, but they have lots of other options.  They make their jams and jellies from scratch too, which is not that common anymore.

I ordered the Squawking Goat sandwich, which includes fried chicken breast, a fried goat cheese medallion, and house-made pepper jelly on one of those fantastic biscuits.  I loved it.  It was awesome.  They were generous with the pepper jelly, ladling it on all over the plate, so it was definitely a sandwich to eat with a knife and fork.  I thought the goat cheese “medallion” was quite small, but it was so delicious, coated in seasoned bread crumbs, that I craved more.

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My wife ordered the Sticky Maple sandwich, with a fried chicken breast and pecanwood smoked bacon on a biscuit, with real maple syrup from the Bissell Family Farm served on the side.  (They usually pour it right on.)

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We had meant to share the Smoky Mountain Mac n Cheese, a $4 side of macaroni and cheese made with three different types of cheese and topped with a crunchy cheese cracker crumble, but then I think my wife remembered she isn’t the hugest mac and cheese fan.  More for me, I thought!  But the portion was very small, so it wasn’t that much more for me after all.  Still, it was rich and cheesy and gooey and tasty, so how can I complain?

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Also pictured above is the iced cinnamon pecan biscuit they were gracious enough to include with our order because it was our first visit.  It was delicious — much more of a dessert that something you should eat for breakfast, but I feel that way about most breakfast pastries (muffins, doughnuts, danishes, Pop-Tarts, and their ilk).  The icing was very fresh and very thin, like you would find on a cinnamon roll or a good cheese danish.  

My wife studied the menu in advance, and she knew she wanted the house-made ganache hot chocolate with steamed milk.  She tasted cinnamon and said it reminded her of Mexican hot chocolate, which she always loves.

I rarely drink coffee, but I love anything with vanilla and maple flavors, so I couldn’t turn down an iced maple vanilla latte.  Of course it was more like a dessert than anything else, but that’s how I like my coffee (like my women): sweet, smooth, and cool.

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And finally, because we didn’t have enough carbs and sugar already, they had fresh-baked cookies near the cash register, where you place your order, and we couldn’t resist trying the lemon blueberry cookie.  I was surprised my wife suggested it, since I love anything with lemon and with berries, and she usually doesn’t, opting for chocolatey sweets instead.  And I think she liked it, but I definitely liked it more.  It was obviously very freshly-baked, extremely soft, still warm, and delightfully lemony.  We ripped into it so quickly, I almost forgot to photograph it, as you will be able to tell:

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Maple Street Biscuit Company closes at 2:00 most days and stays closed on Sundays, so it isn’t the easiest place for us to get to.  Still, I’m glad we were finally able to try it.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, but I definitely would return to get that Squawking Goat again, and maybe I’ll ask for extra fried goat cheese next time.  I’d get that cookie again, too!

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.

Cafe Madrid

Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine.  Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay.  I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food.  We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.

As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami.  So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day.  Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me.  I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner!  I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/).  It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.

And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant.  Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters.  They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation.  It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials.  It ended up being exactly what I… wanted?  NO.  It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.

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Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich.  I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.

The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house.  It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo.  Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant.  It was great!  DSC01800

The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself.  I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo.  You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”dsc01802.jpg

Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better.  And you know what?  It was a delicious sandwich, even cold.  I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich.  The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for).  It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.  DSC01806DSC01807

I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like.  The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche.  Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux.  But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.

In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised.  I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home.  And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.dsc01801.jpg

I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada.  (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)dsc01799.jpg

And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.DSC01803

Braza gitana!dsc01805.jpg

So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location.  If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place.  And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was.  While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.

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.

The Coop

John Rivers has built a successful restaurant empire from right here in the Orlando area, starting with his first, tiny 4 Rivers Smokehouse location in Winter Park that grew into an empire throughout Florida and even beyond.  We love 4 Rivers for barbecue, and I will get around to reviewing it here eventually, even though we’ve been there countless times over the last decade.

Mr. Rivers founded The Coop (https://asouthernaffair.com/), his Southern home-cookin’ restaurant, back in 2014, also in Winter Park.  I made it our goal to be there on opening day, and my wife and I were within the first 20 or so people lined up for lunch that first day.  At some point they started serving breakfast, and one morning a few years back, we met John Rivers, the man himself.  We had to gush a bit over how much we love 4 Rivers and The Coop, and I can tell you he could not have been friendlier, more down-to-Earth, more humble, or more welcoming.  He even treated us to breakfast that morning, which he did NOT have to do.  He does a lot of charitable work with these restaurants as well, and is an all-around mensch.

Anyway, The Coop serves some of the best fried chicken in Orlando and all kinds of down-home Southern sides and other dishes.  Chicken and waffles?  Chicken and dumplings?  Roasted chicken?  Shrimp and grits?  Fried seafood?  Pimento cheese?  Biscuits?  Cornbread?  Delicious breakfasts?  Decadent desserts?  You name it, they have it.

I have lost count of the times we’ve been there since it opened five years ago.  I have also brought my best friend from Miami there, and lots of co-workers as well.  This review is based on our two most recent visits.

Even though I love a good fried chicken thigh, The Coop’s roasted chicken is quite good, so I’ve been ordering it more often.  You can get a quarter- or half-chicken a la carte, or with two or three sides and a biscuit or cornbread.  I always get collard greens at The Coop and 4 Rivers.  Theirs are some of the best greens I’ve ever had.  They are slow-cooked with smoked pork, and I always add some generous dashes of pepper vinegar to them.  I can even drink the juice when I finish those greens, it is that delicious.  That square thing below is actually a biscuit, and it is flaky and rich.  Feel free to add butter, jam, syrup, or dip it in your meat juices or barbecue sauce, but it doesn’t need anything.coop1

Thighs and legs are my favorite parts of any bird, so I always go for the dark meat quarter chicken (or sometimes the half, if I’m hungry enough).  The skin is attached, brushed with barbecue sauce or some kind of sweet glaze but not smoked like the chicken at 4 Rivers.  It is always moist, juicy, and tender.  I asked for it with a side of Alabama white barbecue sauce, which might look like ranch and smell like ranch, but BROTHER, it ain’t ranch.  It is creamy, peppery, tangy, and subtly sweet, so it goes well with any kind of chicken, especially with that skin.  coop2

I also chose the side called “Hoppin’ John,” a Southern stew of rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra.  It is always okay, never quite as good as I think it’s going to be, but some people go gaga over this dish.  coop3

My wife loves fried catfish more than anyone I’ve ever met, so she vacillates between ordering fried chicken and catfish at The Coop.  She ordered catfish both of our last two visits, which comes with grits and hush puppies.  These are grits cooked the real, traditional way, as “NO SELF-RESPECTIN’ SOUTHERNER USES INSTANT GRITS.”  The Coop takes pride in its grits!

This was from one visit:coop4

And this was from a different visit.  This time, the hush puppies came out later, hot, crispy, and fresh.  She’s not so big on hush puppies, which is great, because I ate them, dipping them in the remoulade sauce that came with the catfish.  (She has never been into condiments or sauces or dipping things in other things, whereas I obsess over that.)20190103_125257_resized

As for me, I switched things around and created a new dish.  I’m not wild about grits, believe it or not, which is ironic because I love the way shrimp is prepared in shrimp and grits, that classic Low Country cuisine dish from the Carolinas and Georgia, stewed with salty, smoky andouille sausage and sometimes tasso ham.  Totally kosher, am I right?

I had a crazy idea, but I didn’t know if they would let me get away with it.  I asked if I could get the shrimp with something other than grits, and the patient girl told me that some people get the shrimp ladled over white rice.  I had other plans that day, and asked if I could get the shrimp over macaroni and cheese!  (The Coop has really nice, creamy macaroni and cheese, by the way.  It is never dried-out.)  She indulged me, and this is something they should seriously add to the menu, because it was forking amazing.  In fact, inspired by my bravado and culinary creativity, the older gentleman in line behind me requested the same thing!  Dear readers, have I become a dreaded “influencer”?  Say it ain’t so!20190103_124811_resized

And they always have beautiful cakes there, so my wife got this piece of chocolate cake wrapped up to go, which she loved.coop5

So yeah, come to The Coop for the excellent fried chicken, but stay for everything else!  Just don’t bother showing up on Sundays, because it is closed.  Of course, now I have incepted the idea into your heads that you will crave Coop food on Sundays, as we too often do.