Friday, February 28, 2014

DOING DISHES: Tapas Part II of V - Carmen's Café

Patience and Zena are two words that have never, EVER, been used in the same sentence. Except just this once. And never again. 

Foodie Friend and I made it over to Carmen's Café in Troy, NY in record time last Friday despite snow and ice and slush and parked cars on both sides of all those one-ways, the cold and the wet and the foggy everything. We were very hungry and excited to be on an adventure without the usual villains chasing us about.

What a welcome sight to find our destination! This small corner bistro was painted in colors reminiscent of warmer climes, brightly lit, and very welcoming. There were patio chairs and tables outside for summer service, or winter ninnies. A signboard advertised Latin Jazz, but that wouldn't be until Troy Night Out, so we were going to be spared a $5 cover. Street parking only, the neighborhood is a bit dreary, and, sorry to say, it smelled like gasoline and a recent fire somewhere nearby. But the good aromas wafting out of Carmen's captured our attention and we happily darted inside looking forward to trying some of what Executive Chef Chris Faraci had to offer.

Carmen's is mostly a breakfast and lunch destination, with some weird hours, but on Friday nights they stay open past 6 p.m. and offer up tapas - a separate menu, half of which are specials. The promise of something new on the menu is a good idea to get those return customers. The decor is really lovely, rustic in a way that was still somewhat savvy, with simple chairs and tables, good art, and a pretty bar area that is probably more of a lunch counter most days. Even with just a few guests the place was noisy, but happily noisy. Not sure what it would be like filled with music - the place is pretty small; some day we'll have to check that out.

We were almost 30 minutes early for our reservation, probably because I was driving too fast, but the table was ready for us and the place was relatively quiet, only two other tables, one a party of six and the other nine. It never got much busier. We were greeted and seated; our other two friends hadn't arrived yet.

Then we waited and waited and waited while the only server busied herself with the two other tables. We got water at one point, then the special tapas menu to look over. I asked for a Corona but was told they only had Corona Light. OK. But this was not a good start. Finally, after 35 minutes, my beer finally arrived. Things went quickly south in the north when FF decided she wanted a beer. The server asked "What do you want" and FF replied "What do you have?" and the server said "Magic Hat, Corona Light, I don't know." She reluctantly brought a regular menu over - the one that has the breakfast and lunch offerings - because the menu binder included the beer and wine list. But we were warned that they didn't have everything. So when FF looked at the scant beer choices and decided she wanted a glass of wine instead the conversation went something like this -  FF: "What do you have then?", and the server replied "What do you like - white or red?" and suggested a Zinfandel. OK FF decided. The server brought FF a white (pink) Zin. O-K. Strike 2.

She returned with the wine, as well as some olives and oil and bread. These were delicious - tiny salt cured black olives, green Arbequina olives, chewy rustic bread, and a bowl of olive oil laced with herbs. With drinks in hand and a snack we were feeling a bit less agitated.

The complimentary bread, olives and oil with herbs (tarragon?) were lovely

As our friends arrived I continued to peruse the regular menu, which I asked our server to leave for me to look over. I really liked what I saw. Breakfast offerings included spicy Latino dishes like chorizo hash, interesting sides like yucca fries and a Portuguese roll, omelets, and pancakes galore; lunch promised salads, Flamenca Chorizo Stew, and a Cubano sandwich. Rusty liked the idea of chorizo hash - he said that alone made him want to come back soon. Oh, we finally got plates and napkins and silverware, although my bundle was fork-free.

But when Rusty (not his real name) ordered a Peppermint Decaf Iced Tea off that regular menu our server got all wound up for some reason. I think maybe we weren't supposed to HAVE that menu, or order off of it. She snatched it up and went away with it, but not before giving FF the hairy eyeball. I tried to calm myself. Zena, Goddess of Fire wanted to continue to look at that menu but didn't want to start her shift early by fighting the forces of food service. I drank some more beer....

The tea was actually really tasty - slightly sweetened and real.

We ordered our first round of tapas, which were all delivered at one time, not necessary but good form. We really enjoyed the Marinated Manchego cheese with garlic, rosemary, olive oil, crunchy little marcona almonds and sun-dried cherries. The combination of flavors was lovely, really delicious, lip-smackingingly good - dry and tart at the time time and nicely balanced. But it wasn't finger food. And it wasn't fork food either. However, very tasty. That same combination of flavors in a form that's easier to get into your face would be a simple but worthwhile improvement. Note this was the ONLY cold tapas on the entire menu of 13 offerings, not sure why.

Messy but tasty Marinated Manchego
We also enjoyed the Alcachofas Fritas, fried artichokes that were slightly crunchy on the outside, hot, a bit greasy, served with a squiggle of house made aioli. Then 2 Empanadas - we ordered one meat seasoned with olives, capers and onions, and one shrimp flavored with onions and piquillo peppers (they also had a veggie option and a chicken option). The crusts were oily but still tender and flaky; the beef tasted a bit like salisbury steak, but still good. The shrimp was really delicious - delicate and fresh. The emps were also served with that aioli - nice and gentle, smokey, not overwhelming. I appreciated that Chef took the time and trouble to prepare it. Our fourth choice for this round was Roasted Chicken Thighs, which is English for Roasted Chicken Thighs. These were fabulous - wrapped in salty Jamon Serrano ham (really?), and a crunchy thin round of sweet potato, surrounded by fried beet slices and beet greens. This was my personal favorite of the night - complex, salty, sweet, bitter, crunchy, and nice tender chicken - a real treat.

Clockwise from left - an empanada cut into three servings, the fried artichokes, and a personal plate of of shared goodies, including some of that chicken I loved so much

Round 2: Everything in foodsville was so far so good and Zena and friends were slowing down a bit and getting into the laid back groove of being out in Troy of all places on a Friday night. We ordered the Pan Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with balsamic, the Albondigas al Jerez (meatballs sauteed with sherry and garlic), the Chorizo Stuffed Mushrooms because Rusty was NOT leaving without a hit of chorizo, and an order of the Platanos.

Platanos on the right, mushrooms on the bottom, meatballs on the left and the brussels at 12:00 o'clock
The Platanos were fried, sweet, not too firm and, to use the technical term, not too gushy either. The mushrooms were buried in chorizo and cheese and cilantro. Bride of Rusty pointed out that it was a good mushroom dish for people who didn't like mushrooms, because you couldn't taste them. The meatballs were laced with the flavors of oil and lemon and stock and sherry, scrumptious. We thought they were baked, not pan sauteed as it said on the menu, because the texture was quite soft and tender and there was no browning, but that's not a complaint. Finally, the brussels: they tasted burnt to my palette, with hard/crispy outer leaves, and greasy; also these creepy deep fried white beans sat on top. The beans were dry, kinda mealy. I wasn't crazy about this dish but everyone else seemed pleased so I'll just leave it at that. 
Small salt cured black olives and green Arbequina olives. Very nice.
Overall we were very happy with the tapas at Carmen's. Some of the dishes were quietly creative, and all of it made from scratch, with a nice variety of meat, fish and veggies. Our one complaint about the food was only that everything was greasy, not always in a bad way, and fine when you are going out for tapas as a snack with a drink. However, as a meal it was heavy like I was being held down, and you KNOW how much I hate that! We loved the platanos but I think if any one of us had eaten all four they would surely have died. Hmmmmmm - maybe there's a secret weapon here that I need to consider. Anyway, more fresh, cold tapas would have been welcome additions to the menu. These could be very simple preparations to foil the richness of the current spread. 

Carmen's needs to make some serious improvements in their wine and beer offerings (selection and availability!), and the servers need to know what the hey they are serving. Tapas is about the drinks as much as it is about the food. You can make lots of moola-ka-hi serving nice beers and wines. People drink more, and eat more, when the pairings are good. A separate wine/beer/beverage menu is a must.

Dinner for four, with four drinks and one soft drink and eight tapas with tax and tip was $27.00/person, which was very reasonable considering the quality of the food. 

It was nice that during our visit Chef Chris came to the table to say "hi" and ask if we were enjoying our meal. He's a nice guy and he's going places, that's for sure. I suggest you check out their web site - It's very hip and up to date and fun to explore.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: FYI if you are following a Honda Civic, gold, 4-door that doesn't appear to have a driver it's probably me. Steer clear. I may be in a big hurry to check out some more tapas!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Harvard MOOC: Units 6 to 10

I'm little. I like little things, like little appliances and little bites of tapas and little sips of really good wine, little smiles, little cups of coffee, little dogs and cats, even the little mouse that the cats cornered in my family room yesterday, which I caught up under a dishtowel and threw into the snowbank across the street, still alive, knowing he'll be moving back in soon. Zena is fearless, as long as the enemy is little.

So when I started my first massive open online course, or MOOC, SPU27x Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science offered by Harvard, I was a bit overwhelmed. There were 85,000 registered (a lot of introductions to get through on a wiki, FYI), big name chefs (including a cool guy from America's Test Kitchen that can make chocolate chip cookies for me anytime), lots and lots of equations with exponents and logarithms and constants and laws and moles (not the soft fuzzy ones that live in your garden [slightly smaller than the mouse that flew]), weighty software and graphs and charts and explanations for strange food phenomena, and huge amounts of time invested in fumbling through the homework and labs. I was spending hours fighting the forces of physics. Somehow I've managed to get through all 10 units - and you know what? It's been great! It's a big deal (at least to me and some of my superhero buddies) to get this far - I've learned a lot, been frustrated more than a few times, and had some late nights in front of the PC as a result (so much for saving the world in my off-hours; besides, it's been way too cold lately for tights ). I shared a few highlights here on Albany Dish about the first 5 units back in November 2013. I thought I'd tell you a bit more about what I've learned in the second half of the course.

Week 6: Heat Diffusion

I learned that all have foods with a heat diffusion constant. So you ask, what about peas? Peas, it turns out, are quoted at having a heat diffusion constant of about 1.8 times 10 to be minus 3 centimeters squared per second. And there's a fundamental law for heating food where l equals the square root of 4Dt, with D the heat diffusion constant of the food, such as peas. This is all very useful. Some smarty-pants "real" Harvard students created an applet to predict what would happen if you cook a steak in different ways, like flipping it constantly as one chef prefers to do, or leaving it in the pan as you go off to watch some more of the game and forget that you were cooking, as some others might prefer to do. For one of the labs we made molten chocolate cake to calculate the heat diffusion constant, D, of molten chocolate cake, which I determined (correctly!) is 6.0 times 10 to the minus 4 centimeters squared per second. Trust me, even the overdone ones were delicious.

Week 7: Viscosity and Polymers

A lot of the big stuff in this unit had to do with "modernist thickeners", polymers such as methyl cellulose (uhm, an adhesive, actually) that is pretty easy to work with and is natural and edible and not available at Price Chopper at the time of this report. One guy made these little corn on the cobs - they were fried in butter after being shaped to resemble the little corn on the cobs that the chef cut the little corns off of and flavored and reassembled to look like - a little corn on the cob. I like little but this was all a bit wierd. Anyway, did you know that there are non-Newtonian forces at work when you try to mix cornstarch and water 2:1 (oobleck), and that the reason you now have way too much ketchup on your hamburger isn't because you're a nit but because of "sheer thinning"? When you finally give the bottle a whack to get the ketchup out it liquefies and gets very, very thin for a reason, which I don't remember right now, but I digress. I made sugar water and tested their viscosities for the Lab. And then I had a mint julep. Or two. But again, I digress.

This is not my Lab - credit to MaryJudith

Week 8: Emulsions and Foams

In this unit we learned a bit more about surfactants, especially lecithin from egg yolks, and how important they are for stabilizing mayo and aioli and hollandaise, and that there is surface tension at the oil-water interface equal to 70 millijoules per meter squared. This is much like the tension in any relationship, which can fail if the phases invert, if that's at all helpful in understanding how not to break up an emulsion. Anyway, I found foams easier to understand, what with my familiarity with Guinness and cappuccino and all. I thought the examples of carrot and oyster foams that the celebrity chefs demonstrated were really strange, but ATK dude did a great demo making angel food cake. For the lab I whipped an egg white by hand with a little whisk and in 60 minutes took 30 ml of cold egg white to 225 ml of foam, which meant I had incorporated 195 ml of air! This is no big deal for a superhero, of course.

Week 9: Baking

I don't do much baking, mostly because I believe that the gods made bakeries for a reason.  But I was inspired by this unit to spend a bit more time playing with dough - sweet dough that's just right for making cookies, flaky dough for pie and flaky friends, and nice yeasty breads. One celebrity chef made a croquembouche. What is croquembouche? Croquembouche is a tower of cream puffs, filled with pastry cream, and then drizzled with tons and tons of spun sugar. It gets its name because pate means batter, and choux means cabbage in French. So these cream puffs, when they come out of the oven, resemble a cabbage head, or something like that. What a lot of fuss, but it was pretty and probably pretty tasty, too. I learned that a critical element of baking is the production of gas and its release to expand bubbles within the baked good.The things you learn online! All this time I thought it was all about the flour and sugar, which, I might add, are also critical to some recipes.

Joanne Chang demonstrates making Yellow Birthday Cake
Week 10: Fermentation

The last unit was very cool. There was info about enzymes (proteins that act like catalysts), including something called transglutaminase that a couple of chefs used to make noodles entirely out of shrimp, which, I thought again, was really strange. Also all kinds of stuff about microbes, a.k.a. bugs, and they all like the environment to be perfect (just like some of my former co-workers) so they can do the "cooking" for you. Now you can say "EEEEEEEWWWWWWWWW" but only if you wish to eliminate wine, beer, spirits, real fermented pickles, cheese, yogurt, bread, salamis, bread, cultured butters, and, believe it or not, chocolate, from your diet. These bugs take things from bland to delicious. Others cause things to spoil, like E. coli, which divides every 20 minutes, and C. botulinum cells, a bacteria that also grows exponentially, dividing once every 50 minutes. We did the math to figure out how long it would take, theoretically, for one C. botulinum cell to consume 200 grams of peaches in a can. I know there's a video in there somewhere.

David Chang (left) and Ryan Miller discuss fermentation and the making of Hozon and Banji

So microbes are really small but their also really big in terms of flavor and how we preserve food and how food goes off. I like little because it's really amazing how little things can be really powerful. Like little cats and little superheroes and E.coli. Unit 10 was my favorite of the entire course.

There are no labs for weeks 9 and 10. Instead we should be working on our Final Projects.  I'm trying to make a delicious New England Clam Chowder without a roux to eliminate the gluten and the dairy and the fat, but so far it's only making me crazy. That's another post. 

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: Note to self - next time you whip egg whites use an electric appliance. The little whisk was cute but standing there whipping it was a bore.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Crodo, Not Cronut

After reading about it last year and going all the way out to East Greenbush or Schodack (where's that line again?), only to be told that they're gone, and that they're almost always gone very quickly, the stars aligned today and I was able to try the lovely crodo at Crisp Cannoli on Columbia turnpike.

The original press about this confection was all about the cronut, a donut made with croissant dough developed by Dominique Ansel. Yes.  It's true. A donut made with croissant pastry. It enjoyed some moments of fame in New York City, and made enough noise so that baker Jason Grant wanted to try it.  I'm soooooo glad he did.

I think the Crisp Canoli is producing a wonderful variety by using fillings and toppings for the pastry, which I was able to get at opening time this morning. Today they had Boston Cream, Raspberry, Strawberry Shortcake, and plain.  Not too long after that, their facebook page announced that they're all gone, but more batches are coming up for the afternoon. They clearly are gaining a following.

Mine was warm, delicate and perfectly balanced in flavor and texture. It had red raspberry filling and a lacy icing, and was dipped in sugar. I can't recall what I was imagining, but I would now describe the flavor as a blend of yeasty perfectly done pastry with a raspberry filling that beautifully complements it. It's fried at the Crisp Cannoli, but I think it also could be baked with excellent results. It has a tiny bit of tooth, but on the whole I found it to be tender rather than chewy. I didn't find the pastry to be very sweet, which is why the berry filling didn't take it over the top but balanced it instead.

They are making enough to provide them through several outlets for Valentine's Day, so scout out a nearby location and see what you think.

LorreBob gives it a thumbs up.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

DOING DISHES: Tapas, Part I of V - Barcelona

WARNING: This blog post contains wireless calories. 

Okay you were warned.

In celebration of large puffy coats, oversize sweaters, and layering up against the cold, I think wine and multiple small plates, tapas, enjoyed with friends, is the way to go if you imagine you should be eating "light" and avoiding adding inches to your waistline and think you can hide under your large puffy coat, oversize sweater, and less than stylish layers. Advice from Zena, Goddess of Fire (and, according to Cookie, Gym Rat): go slow and learn to savor every bite. Then have another. It's what tapas is all about.

As a bit of background, according to Penelope Casas, from her book The Little Dishes of Spain (one of my favorite cookbooks of all time), tapas originated in the nineteenth century in Andalucia. The original "tapa" was a complimentary slice of cured ham or sausage placed over the mouth of a wineglass, the verb "tapar" meaning 'to cover' - to keep out the flies. I've never eaten a fly (uh, well, maybe fruit flies in my wine on the back deck in summertime) but I think keeping them out of the food should be a rule, rather than a guideline. Anyway, she says there are no rules, but most tapas are eaten out of hand, in portions that lend themselves to sampling and eating good food and moving about the bar, engaging in conversation.

While we don't have the same culture as the Spanish, with their tapas taken between meals and in the off-hours, we do have a few restaurants in the Capital district that are offering alternatives to that big evening meal, whether at the bar or seated in the dining room with friends. After scouring the web, looking for places that were offering tapas as a central option, rather than a sideline, we decided to start with Barcelona on Western Avenue, near the University at Albany.

The bar at Barcelona is lovely, but we took a table with arrangements in advance to order from their tapas menu. The dining room is very elegant, surrounded by windows looking onto Western Avenue; the crowd was older and dressy and low key. We ordered our first bottle of wine, a bottle of Marqués De Riscal Sauvignon Blanc Rueda. The wine list had a nice selection, not just offerings from California (Lexus noted that it was a nice international selection), with lots of choices by the glass,  between $7.00 and $8.50/each. We all thought the prices were very reasonable. The waiter emptied the first bottle into our four glasses (yes, there were four of us). It was light, fruity, slightly acidic, tart, not too dry, with no bosom (Foodie Friend being abundant in this department, so she should know). It was a good choice. We ordered our first round of tapas.

On the top left was the Eggplant Rollitini, clockwise to the Patatas Bravas, and at the bottom the Calamares Fritas. Note the Spanish-ish names, because all were decidedly not Spanish in nature, more Italian in keeping with the comfort zone of Barcelona's regular menu. The eggplant slices were rolled with a mixture of ricotta and fresh spinach and baked to perfection - simple, lovely, rich and delicious. The Patatas were roasted reds with a spicy chili pepper sauce served with a side of blue cheese dressing that I personally found ordinary and reminiscent of "wings". Red thought they were a bit overwhelming but tasty; Foodie Friend also liked and suggested they were a bit more complex than Frank's Red Sauce. I didn't think they were all that great. Not very Spanish.There was something really hot in there that I thought was unpleasant, so I drank more wine, which was good. The calamari was wonderful, not greasy or chewy, with the classic Italian side of marinara, although eating them out of hand without any lemon or sauce I thought they tasted very bland. The servings were quite a bit bigger than I would have expected for a tapas, which was a nice surprise, since they were all under $8.00.

Round Two: In keeping with the tapas tradition we talked and talked and decided it was time for more food and wine. Staff reset the table with flatware - very professional and attentive. Garlic Shrimp, Gambas al Ajillo, and a salad-off menu, which our server was happy to prepare for us, and Chorizo Con Cebolla. The shrimp was a classic tapas, not too garlicky served on toast points - my favorite dish of the night. Very Spanish. We ordered the salad as a double side serving with a balsamic vinaigrette - it was crispy and very tasty.

The chorizo wasn't at all greasy, very tender and smokey. Oh, and another bottle of the Rueda. A nice balanced meal, unbalanced by alcohol, and very filling and satisfying overall.

The tapas menu at Barcelona was a strange hybrid of Spanish ideas and Italian realizations that didn't quite cut it as tapas in the traditional sense, but pretty tasty. I wish they had more variety on their bar menu - things with pastry, olives, more fresh veggies. Maybe a basket of bread as part of the service, something I noticed no one in our vicinity seemed to have at table (and they weren't doing tapas, either). Lexus noted that the appetizer menu and the tapas menu had a lot of overlap. We overstayed our welcome - three hours of yak and food and wine and happiness, and had to be reminded by the staff that they wanted to reset the table for waiting guests- but we we more or less sober at that point and were ready to take our leave.

Dinner was $26/person including tax and tip at 18%. Good value for a great night out. 

I think the service at Barcelona is excellent and though I thought the food was really darn good but maybe not exceptional I appreciated how comfortable and well-cared for I felt during our time there. Sounds like love and passion and community to me, si? Good eats.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

And note there were no flies in our food. (:

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Phat in Philly

Last weekend I attended a weekend conference in Philadelphia. Meetings. Eating out. Eating out. Eating out. Oh, and eating out again. It was good. Zena got Phat in Philly. My cape is almost as snug as my tights. Good thing they only weigh my luggage when I fly using an airplane.

When I travel to a city I don't visit very often I love to explore restaurant offerings online - Zagats, Fodor's, Yelp, local papers for "Best Of" listings, area food blogs, and even Food Network episodes to see what's out there before I go. I always make reservations in advance, especially since the conference was held during City Center Restaurant Week. I LOVE booking my reservation with Open Table and they have also have reviews from diners who book for though their free service, but not the ones I posted. Maybe they sucked.

Anyway, here's a summary of my foodie adventures:

Night (1): 104 pounds. Pennsylvania 6. I arrived a bit early and ordered a Gentleman Jack on the rocks. Or should I say rock. One large 2" cube in my highball glass. Lovely because the ice didn't melt as fast as with smaller cubes. We were seated by 7 o'clock and our waitress kindly offered to let us order wine specials for happy hour, ending in just minutes, which was very sweet of her. She also let me order from the raw bar with the happy hour special of $1.00/oyster, so I enjoyed six Malpeque oysters from Prince Edward Island, where, I might add, my dining company own a beautiful summer home. The best part was the cocktail sauce topped with freshly grated horseradish. OOOH right up the nose. At the table were the Lancaster Chicken, and the Spice Crusted Monkfish. Feeling especially bouncy I decided to try the Rabbit Bolognese. It was interesting, not too spicy, served with bucatini noodles. The meat was tender but stringy, which sort of clumped up in the dish, but it was good. Maybe a tad bit weird, but I ate every bite.


Night (2): 105 pounds. White Dog Cafe. This thirty-year old landmark restaurant boasts environmentally sustainable ingredients, which I value, along with quality tights and a good warm cape on a cold winter night. Our waiter told us it started as take-out muffin joint that blossomed over the years to one of the most popular bar and restaurants in the area (see this nice review - It is still a cornerstone of the local food movement in Philadelphia.The bar was jammed when we arrived, probably due to its proximity to the University of Pennsylvania. The restaurant in the back, however, was quiet at 6:30 on a Friday night. That didn't last long because we were noisy.  Don't think for a second that librarians (I am a librarian by day) are a quiet bunch by ANY means. Especially because happy hour didn't apply to the dining room. Gotta hate that.

I enjoyed the Kennett Square Mushroom Soup as an appetizer, with the Lamb Sliders and Brussels Sprouts with bacon on the side (why is "brussels" plural???) Anyway, also at our table of four were the Green Meadow Double Cheddar Burger, the Tortellini with house made pancetta, and a red snapper special. Everything was amazing. I ate everything, including sharing a pair of desserts - the Chocolate Tart and the White Chocolate and Peppermint Custard.

Dinner was a bit pricey, as was Penn6, but worth every penny. The only down side of our evening was it was literally zero degrees out and the bus never came, but we finally flagged down a taxi to get us back to City Center. I'd definitely return to the White Dog Cafe. Everything was excellent!

Night (3): 106 pounds. Del Freso's Double Eagle Steak House. The interior of this huge old building (once the First Philadelphia Bank) has big phat pillars soaring three stories above you. The place drips class, but I guess people with money don't have to look the part, because it had its share of guys in sweats, sneakers and ball caps. Excellent service from the skinniest waitress that ever recommended you eat anything on the menu, but she didn't steer us wrong.

This image is from their web site. Mine wasn't as pretty.
I shared a wedge salad with several of my friends (the serving was huge! and very rich), four of us ordered a steak, one had a salmon dish, and we enjoyed several potato sides that were served "family style". I ate everything in sight, but especially enjoyed my prime steak - a perfectly cooked 8 oz filet mignon. We had a lot of fun but I was sorry to skip dessert. Everyone ELSE was too full. The weirdest part was the Ladies Room. Women hanging out, the sink counters loaded with candy and perfumes and hairclips and you name it. I went looking for soap and a lady squirted some in my hands for me. I rinsed. She handed me a cloth towel to dry my hands. She expected a tip. I didn't have my wallet. I smiled and wanted to give her a TIP but I digress. This was a great place to eat but I suggest you go with your favorite vendor and his AmEx.....

Night (4). 107 pounds. Maggiano's Little Italy. Silly in Philly. We arrived on a Sunday night at 6:00 pm and the holding pen/bar was jammed. They gave us one of those buzzy lighty things while we waited for our table. There was nothing much worth taking pictures of, besides I'm short and I couldn't see over the sea of coats and bellies, and I needed a drink, or two, or was it two bottles to the table? So I played it cool and we talked shop for hours, leaving my mobile phone camera tucked away for a change. The way to enjoy Maggiano's is to order from their Family Style menu. There were five of us, and the "light" option included three appetizers or salads, two pastas, and a dessert of lemon cookies. We enjoyed the calamari - a classic, with a side of marinara, an Italian tossed salad, and the Spinach and Artichoke al forno (the latter being extremely rich and decadent). Then a platter of their Mom's Lasagna and the Lobster Carbonara (there was an up-charge on the lobster dish but again, dinner with your other favorite vendor is highly recommended when you eat out in classy joints). Get this: if you want more of anything just ask and they'll bring you another platter! What is "LIGHT" about that??? We ordered more cookies. The food was good, not fab, but very good. The dining room was tight and noisy but still friendly.

Kris, Becky, Jeannie and Janice are all smiles after dinner

Night (5). 108 pounds. Tommy Dinic's. I actually was home on Night 5, but not before I raced over to the Reading Terminal Market to share a pulled pork sub with provolone and sauteed broccoli rabe for lunch before heading to the airport. We actually got to order without waiting on line, which, two minutes later would not have been the case. A couple of fat guys on the Food Network gave Dinic's First Prize in their program "Best Sandwich in America". The photo below is from the web site on the prize. Ours, however, wasn't pretty, all sloppy and rolled in newsprint with liquid everywhere, along with about 20 napkins, but it was tender and greasy and absolutely phat heaven. I burped garlic for the rest of the day.

I've been trying to work off those phive all week phighting the phorces of evil by night, and chasing my own butt on a treadmill at the Y every morning. The effort is worth every morsel.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Break out the sweatpants! At least they still fit.