Review from the Road: Sahara

Michigan City, IN has a fairly limited amount of non-chain dining options, but a distinct exception is Sahara, which opened just as I was moving away from Northwest Indiana.  I’ve always wanted to try it, so when I saw a Groupon for the Lebanese restaurant, I snapped it up to use on my next visit.  As I’ve said before, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine isn’t always my favorite, but I had a completely wonderful meal here.

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My sister and I visited on a warm Tuesday night and I was pleasantly surprised to see the dining room about half full early in the evening.  Sahara has a large dining room that opens up into an indoor-outdoor setting by opening a garage-style rolling door in the nice weather.      Since it was sprinkling, we opted to sit inside rather than on the patio, and I absolutely loved the interior of the restaurant.  Low benches span the perimeter of the dining room, which is a bold mix of sandblasted brick, punched tin ceilings and vivid orange plaster.  Just enough bold geometric wall art paired with abundant natural light absolutely hits the mark for fun but not gaudy Mediterranean feel.

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As usual, I wanted to try everything, so we ordered from across the menu.  For dinner was a chicken tawook (kebab) from the Entree menu and spanakopita from the mezza hot menu.  The chicken tawook included two skewers of charred chicken and one skewer of grilled vegetables on a bed of rice, fairly standard Mediterranean fare.

Lately, when eating this kind of food, I’ve been struck by the consistency of chicken in flavor from place to place, but by the drastic variation in the rice.  The rice under this particular kebab was completely wonderful-well seasoned but not too salty.  Within the first minute of the dish arriving, the table looked like I had been eating the rice with both hands after a starvation diet.  The chicken itself was just a tiny bit on the bland side for me, but application of the tzatziki served alongside made it just perfect.

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I think my sister and both agreed that the spanakopita was the unexpected showstopper of the meal.  We ordered it mostly to provide some semblance of vegetable to the meal, but wound up fighting over each bite.  The phyllo was thick but crisp and the spinach filling was perfectly subtle, but what made it so perfect was the tomato cream ladled over the top.  I just could not stop eating this dish.  Normally, when two women share a dish, we fall all over ourselves insisting that the other finish the last bite.  Not this time- in fact there was a palpable race for each bite.  If you visit Sahara, you have to order this dish-even if it’s for dessert!

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To finish the meal, we split a plate of “Sahara’s Famous Dates.”  I’m a huge fan of candied dates but I was unsure whether these, stuffed with feta and served atop a pomegranate sauce, would be overly fussy.  The pomegranate sauce tasted more like a very tart balasamic reduction with just a hint of sweet fruit flavor, which married perfectly with the slight savory character of feta.  These dates were on the menu as mezza cold (sort of a small plate appetizer), but I thought they finished the meal more perfectly than would a piece of chocolate cake or something more obvious.

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The meal, with soft drinks, cost just $30 and we were both happily full at the conclusion.  An option I’d love to try is the Mezza sampler- 4 hot and 4 cold mezzas, which are like small tapas-style dishes, for $20 per person.  As our two favorite dishes we tried (dates and spanakopita) were from the mezza menu and were quite generously sized, I think this would be a great option for adventurous eaters.

I was completely thrilled to finally try Sahara and find it to be so far above my expectations.  I would return in a heartbeat but it will be a challenge to force myself to explore the menu, as my meal on my first visit was so perfectly sublime.

http://Sahara Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles

I’ve lived in Indianapolis for more than 6 years now, and in that time, I have eaten every single day.  I have been to The Cheesecake Factory probably a dozen times, Taco Bell probably twenty times, and have definitely eaten my fair share of cheap pizza.  It would be reasonable to assume, then, that I’ve also been everywhere actually worth eating.  Yet my list of places to try still has 6 year old entries!  One of these entries is Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles.

I have no real excuse for never having tried Maxine’s prior to this, except that I have other breakfast places I love.  But I also love fried chicken.  So after an active Sunday morning sitting at the park watching other people play disc golf, I replenished my energy at Maxine’s.  IMAG0220

The first thing I noticed about Maxine’s is that the atmosphere is…well, it’s in an old gas station and that’s what it looks like.   There is a fountain in the middle, but the base holds booster seats rather than water.  That should give you a good feel for the whole place, actually.  Basic.

The menu is large and contains breakfast picks as well as chicken and fish dinner-style entrees.  Think grits, greens, and lots of “smothered” things.  18-1n019-pauladeen-c-300x300

Wanting to try some of everything, we ordered the Chicken & Waffles with a blueberry waffle,  a fried catfish filet, a fried chicken tender, and collard greens.”  Phil got the D&K tea, which is an Arnold Palmer and I stared dumbfounded at the Sunshine (A mixture of lemonade, fruit punch, orange Crush and Mountain Dew.)  Then I ordered a Diet Pepsi, because I just couldn’t quite bring myself to drink fruit punch and Mountain Dew together like some sort of construction-worker-meets-6 year-old-meets-insulin-factory.

You know it’s going to be fun when they bring moist towelettes out with your food.

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The star of the show was supposed to have been the Chicken and Waffles.  The chicken was certainly tasty and juicy and meaty and all of the things fried chicken is supposed to be.  The waffle, on the other hand, was tough.  There’s really no other word for it.  It could not be ripped by hand but needed to be sawed off in chunks with a butter knife.  The plain waffles I saw looked much fluffier and more buttery, but this one was just plain ornery.  They also offered strawberry and sweet potato waffles, which both sounded intriguing, but next time I’ll be getting the plain.

When you order the Chicken and Waffles, you can either order 3 chicken strips or 3 chicken wings.  Not wanting to miss out on either, I ordered a single chicken tender alongside my catfish filet, and I’m glad I did, because the chicken tender tasted totally different that the chicken wings.  The chicken tender had a much crispier coating (Think KFC extra-crispy) and a very salty, peppery, and almost cajun seasoning.  It was absolutely delicious and even better dipped in syrup, but I’m not sure if I’d order 3 because the flavor was so strong.

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The catfish filet was also a winner in my book.  As much as I love fried chicken, I have absolutely no problem grabbing a piece just about anywhere and being happy.  Good fried fish, however, is something I have been craving since I left the Land of the Catholic Polaks and their Friday night fish fries.  Of course this isn’t the same style fish, but the batter was crispy and the fish was moist.  I would be more likely to go back for the fish than for the chicken, actually.

The menu says every meal is served with cornbread and Maxine’s signature peach butter. The sign taped to the  emergency exit, however, says cornbread isn’t served until 12:30 pm on weekends.  We purposefully dragged our meal out to try the cornbread and it was perfectly fine and the peach butter made it a nice dessert.  This peach butter is available for purchase on it’s own and is lauded on the tshirts of the servers, but I was just a tad underwhelmed.  It was certainly good, but butter just is.  The peaches didn’t add too much for me personally.  IMAG0247

An hour later, we wiped the grease off our fingers, took stock of just how much syrup we’d consumed, and waddled out into the sunshine.  While none of the food knocked my socks off, I can certainly understand why Maxine’s is a destination.  Where else can you satisfy your need for waffles and for fried chicken?  In this case, exactly what it sounds like is plenty good enough.

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http://Maxine's Chicken and Waffles on Urbanspoon

Review from the Road: Octave Grill

Considering the smallish size of my Indianapolis circle of friends from The Region, I’ve heard a shocking amount of positive feedback about a new restaurant back home called Octave Grill.  Foodie friend Kristin was the first to tell me about Octave, and when my sister suggested “a place in Chesterton,”  I crossed my fingers they had the same place in mind. This little spot is in the sleepy, quaint main street of Chesterton, IN and can’t possibly seat more than 30 people.  I love where I’m from, but it’s hardly what you’d call a bustling food scene, so I was a little skeptical whether Octave would be good or just relatively good.

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The interior is just right for what Octave is.  One wall of exposed brick, apple green plaster, plank floors with more personality than a lot of people I’ve met.  There is definitely a cute factor-specials written in chalk, kitschy salt and pepper sets-but it’s not cutesy. If you’re planning on coming in with any more than 4 people, I would 100% recommend making a reservation because there are only about 4 fourtops in the building.

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Octave (and everyone else) makes a big deal about being a burger place, although it’s not at all your average beer and burger joint.  They have about ten burgers on the menu plus a monthly special, which this month was “Tallgrass beef stuffed with mushrooms duxelle, aged white cheddar, greens, tomato and onion with a Wiconsin cream sauce on an onion roll.”  If that seems like a mindful, take a read through Octave’s menu before you go, because every burger description is like that.  Every burger is also made from Tallgrass Beef, which I had never heard of prior to this and would have been a massive eye roll had it not been so damned tasty.

I opted for the chanute, which featured grilled cremini mushrooms, bacon, Fair Oaks Farms Habanero Havarti cheese, and a bleu cheese sauce on a brioche bun.  The burger arrived perfectly medium rare and with just enough of each cheese and bacon to not overpower that delectable beef.  Fair Oaks’ Habanero Havarti is a frequent flier in my fridge at home, so I was glad to taste its spicy bite through the pungence of the bleu cheese sauce.

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I also got tater tots on the side instead of fries, which kind of set me over the edge of happiness.

We also ordered the diana, a salad of dried cranberries, bleu cheese, mixed greens, cucumber, tomato, and candied walnuts in a citrus vinaigrette.  Those who know me will know how reluctant I am to even consider a salad, let alone enjoy it.  Those who don’t will have to imagine the gravitas of this approval.  I’m not at all a fan of…leaves, and I don’t really care for bleu cheese mixed with sweet things, but I liked this salad as much as I have ever liked a salad.  Including the ones drenched in really awful-for-you creamy dressings. Photo May 22, 4 46 40 PM

I’m a person who has a very hard time making dessert decisions, but this one was easy.  Our peanut butter chip brownie with cookies and cream ice cream more or less ordered itself.  Photo May 22, 5 05 45 PM

Sadly, it was not to be a beer-drinking day, but Octave has a nice compact set of interesting taps and cocktails.  More and more I’m appreciating a dining experience that doesn’t involve listening to a server list 800 available brews.  A little bit of executive decision making on the part of the house steers diners in a good direction and keeps the focus on execution and quality rather than stocking a million ingredients and beverages.   Photo May 22, 4 33 27 PM

If you are ever in the region and need a wonderful and interesting lunch or dinner, I’d recommend stopping by Octave Grill.  The niche for independent eateries is markedly unoccupied up here, but Octave could absolutely hold its own against the stiffest of competition.  But don’t take my word for it, ask the help…

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http://Octave Grill on Urbanspoon

Anna Cooks: Orange Cheesecake Bars

Photo May 14, 4 35 58 PMMy parents stopped by briefly on their way through town this week.  Maybe this is a girl thing, but I always try to have my digs spotless when the parents roll through so they won’t think I’m living in squalor and make me take on a housekeeper.  The end result of this compulsion is me cleaning for hours, then not wanting to leave the house for snack items and throwing together something with what I have in the fridge.  This recipe is quick, summery, and made from things you probably already have on hand.  I adapted it a touch from a recipe in a recent Better Homes and Gardens, which I subscribe to despite having neither a home nor a garden.

You will need:

  • A food processor or a great imagination
  • 1/2 cup coconut  (The original recipe calls for “raw chip” but I use the regular old shredded sweetened kind)
  • 3/4 c graham cracker crumbs (If you’re making them yourself, this is about 7 cracker sheets)
  • 2T sugar
  • 1 t finely shredded orange peel
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1 (8oz) package cream cheese, about room temp
  • 1/3 c sugar
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 1/4 cup orange juice (I obviously squeezed this fresh but I guess you could use Florida’s Natural and that would be ok.  Not that I did.  I didn’t.)
  • 1 egg

Note:  I don’t always have fresh oranges around, shockingly.  My friend Annie gifted me this awesome dehydrated orange peel from Penzey Spices and I reconstitute them all the time for bread and cake and cheesecake. Highly recommended.Photo May 14, 2 04 59 PM

Make the crust:

1. Preheat the oven to 350.  Spread coconut in a 8×8 pan and bake 4 or 5 minutes, stirring once, until coconut is golden brown.

Photo May 14, 1 41 53 PMNo, that’s way too dark.  Rule #1 of nut and coconut toasting:  Never Walk Away!  Rule #2:  Everyone Knows That and Walks Away Anyway.  Just keep extra coconut on hand.Photo May 14, 1 48 00 PMThat’s more like it.  Now let that coconut cool.

2. Put 2T of the toasted coconut in the bowl of a food processor and pulse.

3.  Add the graham cracker crumbs (or whole graham crackers), the 2 T sugar, and the orange peel to the bowl of the food processor and pulse until blended and/or pulverized.

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4.  Pour the melted butter into the running food processor slowly until the crumbs begin to come together and look like this.

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5.  Press the crumbs into the 8×8 pan and bake 10 minutes, then cool about 15 minutes.  Photo May 14, 1 57 21 PM

Meanwhile, Make the Filling:Photo May 14, 2 02 22 PM

Note: I like to just wipe out the bowl of the food processor and use it again to save dishwashing later.  I like to think that simply wiping the crumbs out of the bowl rather than washing ties together the flavors of the crust and filling.  That could be true, right?  This method will yield a few air bubbles in your mixture, so if you like perfect looking cheesecake, use a mixer…or pop the bubbles with a toothpick prior to baking.

1.  Beat the cream cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, and vanilla.

2.  Add the orange juice to the mixture, blend, then add the egg.  If using a food processor, be sure to scrape the sides of the bowl occasionally during this process to avoid lumps.  The mixture will be fairly runny.Photo May 14, 2 27 47 PM

3.  Pour the filling mixture onto the warm crust and bake about 15 minutes or just until set. Note: I use the rule of thumb that the center of the cheesecake should look wet but not wobble when you tap the pan.  It always looks undercooked but if you wait for a cheesecake to look nice and golden, it will be way too dry.  This is especially helpful when making larger “real” cheesecakes or even custards.Photo May 14, 2 45 13 PM

See?  Doesn’t look done, but I promise it is as soon as the middle stops being wobbly!

4.  Cool the bars completely and refrigerate about 2 hours.  Serve with toasted coconut on top and if you have it, fresh fruit.

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This allegedly makes 16 bars but….8×8 inch pan, you do that math.  I’d say 9 happy people or 16 cranky ones.  Next time I make these, I personally will be doubling the filling because, well, then there will be twice as much cream cheese.  

Foundry Provisions

I have been hearing a lot of hype about Foundry Provisions-well, to be honest, I’ve been hearing hype about there being hype about Foundry Provisions-and decided to stop in for a quick lunch at 4 on a weekday afternoon.  This place opened in March of this year in the just-starting-to-be-gentrified Herron-Morton neighborhood off 16th and Meridian and describes its offerings as “coffee, breakfast, and lunch offerings in the little red building on the corner.”Photo May 13, 4 17 32 PMPhoto May 13, 4 17 46 PM

In all honesty, I don’t really need a new place to buy a tasty sandwich on artisanal bread, so I may be judging too harshly.  A lot of the charcuterie offered here is actually sourced from Goose,  which caused some head-scratching on my part since this sandwich shop is literally 20 blocks from Goose.  In my mind, when you open a shop that sells the same type of food in basically the same neighborhood, you set yourself up for comparison.  Overall, while my meal here was good, I just don’t know that it would be a lunch destination for me.

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The whole cafe is very hip and modern, with its scarlet exterior and painted brick industrial-art interior.  I will say that there is nowhere else (that I know of) within walking distance where hip young wealthy people would feel comfortable getting breakfast or lunch.  This hunch was supported by the four o’clock influx of students from the arts-themed charter Herron High School down the block in their plaid skirts and angsty nose rings.  The whole place sort of oozes a fair-trade, non-profit, artsy-fartsy vibe which is a little tired in my book, but undeniably nice to look at.

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Basically the menu consists of coffee and an array of coffee drinks, pastries, oatmeal/granola and sandwiches of the breakfast and lunch varieties.  We ordered the Tarkington:  smoked turkey, whole grain mustard, provolone, tomato and romaine on some nice rustic bread.  In retrospect, I should have substituted mayonnaise, but the sandwich was tasty and just the right size.  Photo May 13, 4 27 48 PM

We also got a cup of soup, Spicy Chicken Rice, which had just the right amount of heat for my taste and reminded me of my mother’s turkey barley soup. The soup was served with two small pieces of bread, which was great for dipping. Photo May 13, 4 32 54 PM

To drink, we tried an iced coffee, which I found to be a little dark for my taste but perfectly fine, and a San Pelligrino Limonata, which is a personal favorite of mine.  The whole thing was about $16, which actually makes this kind of a pricey lunch spot for just a bite with friends.

Basically this is a glorified grocery store that goes to all the places you’d go to make a great lunch-Goose for meat, Circle City Sweets for cookies, Amelia’s for bread, etc- then puts it all together and provides nice natural lighting and seats.  As I type that, it sounds like such a great idea, but somehow having everything together in one place, I don’t know…it took the romance out of it.  When I go to Goose, I want to grab a crusty baguette and some nice fatty soppressata and eat them with a bottle of something bubbly in the grass somewhere.  When I go to Circle City Sweets, I want to salivate over the displays of candy and cookies and cakes, then pick one out and walk around City Market, munching an eclair (I always pick an eclair) and gossiping with a girlfriend.  These places are all selling really good food, but they are also selling a feeling, and I just didn’t get that from Foundry Provisions.

That said, if I went to Herron High School, I’d totally be saving my lunch money for Limonata and a good book in this little corner. Photo May 13, 4 42 12 PM

http://Foundry Provisions on Urbanspoon

Vroom, Vroom, Coffee

Today is a beautiful day.  Sunny, breezy, all the trees springing into bloom.  But I really need to be studying and I really need to be drinking coffee.  Days like today are Lino’s days.Photo May 07, 2 02 14 PMPhoto May 07, 2 02 11 PM

 Lino’s Coffee is unlike any coffee shop I have ever been in.  It is housed in the Dallara factory, an Indycar chassis manufacturer on Speedway’s Main Street.  The company is based in Italy and, from what I understand, thought their Indianapolis plant deserved fine Italian coffee.  In fact, this is the first Lino’s location to be opened in the United States.  It has been in business almost exactly a year and I love love love it.

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Even if the coffee were just ok, I would love being inside Lino’s.  The café part of the factory boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and has a clean, modern industrial feel.  On days where I have to be inside but really would rather be sitting in the sunshine, this is my place.  Plus, the whole place smells a little like rascar, which in my book is basically an aphrodisiac.

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Happily, the coffee is considerably more than ok.  It is spectacular.  It is unlike anything I have ever had in the US.  Beans are imported from Brazil, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Guatemala, Jamaica, Santa Domingo, Hawai and roasted in Parma, then shipped to Indianapolis where they are brewed into an extensive and seductive array of drinkable magic.

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My favorite, the Marocco, has layers of chocolate syrup, espresso, and steamed milk.

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My other favorite, the Ciocchino (which I order in a hazelnut variety but can be made with many flavors) has layers of hazelnut cream, espresso, foamed milk, whipped cream, and hazelnut syrup.  The cappuccino and straight espresso are divine as well.

If you are a coffee lover, or, like myself, a lover of tableware, there is always something a bit disappointing about going to starbucks and guzzling 16 ounces of coffee out of a paper cup through a tiny hole in the plastic lid.  Call me crazy, but it’s just not the same as a nice hefty mug for your café au lait or a dainty perfect demitasse for your espresso.  Lino’s is not just about the coffee, it’s about the experience.

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Did I mention Lino’s also serves food?  Pizza, salads, gelato, just about anything you could want.  I’ve sampled the bruschetta, and it was fine, but not nearly as delicious as the pizza at the next table over smelled.  Photo Apr 25, 2 31 23 PMThey serve beer and wine and an array of breakfast sandwiches.  You can buy prosciutto and baguettes to take home with you.  Someday I’d like to try everything Lino’s offers, but right now I can’t spare any stomach space.  I’m saving it all for that coffee.

http://Lino’s Coffee on Urbanspoon

Tortas mucho excellente

I’m writing this post at the end of a long block of exams, during which I gave myself almost complete carte blanche to eat garbage whenever I felt like it.  That’s not to say some produce didn’t sneak in here or there, but believe me when I tell you that a fair amount pizza and ice cream and Sour Patch kids by the handful snuck in with a much higher frequency

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Like most women I know, when the gloves are off, I head straight for bread.  And one of my favorite ways to eat bread lately is in a torta.  Torta is of course a word derived from the same family as tortilla and also indicates a flat, round piece of bread.  In this particular case, it also indicates that it’s wrapped around meat and cheese and tomato and avocado and mayonnaise.  But how exactly a torta differs from a sub sandwich is one of those things that would seem nuanced and subtle if I described it, when in reality the difference is dramatic and obvious.  Just go try one and save me the hassle of waxing poetic over the unbelievable fluffiness of the bread  and the irony of saying je ne sais pas to describe a Mexican sandwich.

There is a perfectly nice tortas shop in Fountain Square which I’m quite enamored with, Tortas Guicho Dominguez y  el Cubanito.  But on this particular day I was in Speedway, and had been itching to try a little shop catering to the factory lunch crowd called Super Tortas.  Bonus points for the shop being bright yellow and having a fun name.

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Inside, the shop is…well, it isn’t fancy.  I can’t really comment on how clean or not clean it was, because it’s quite dark inside, but it seemed nice enough and the staff was BEYOND friendly.  The specials were incredibly priced and they had strawberry Jarritos, which is my favorite and not usually available, for some reason.

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I should note for any first-timers that at both places I mentioned, the sandwiches are served with tomato, mayonnaise, and avocado unless you ask them to hold it.  They are also served with a little dish of jardiniera, which is probably for your sandwich, but I almost invariably sneak some to munch on, then have to buy another drink when my face starts sweating.

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I opted for the Italiana, which was basically ham and cheese.  This is what I’m talking about when I say I can’t really describe why a torta is delicious-if you go and decide the Italiana isn’t really any better than your mom’s ham and cheese sandwich, I will personally refund your $5.50

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Phil opted for the Super Torta Cubana, which-I’m not kidding-has Smoked Leg, Breaded Steak, Ham, Turkey, Chorizo, Hot Dog (seriously), Egg, Head Cheese, Mozzarella, Feta, and American Cheese. (This one was $7.75, by the way.  And the extra $2 goes toward meat and meat and meat)

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I’m embarassed to admit that we both got half our sandwiches boxed up to go, but pleased to report they reheated beautifully.  I would highly recommend the sandwiches from this little hole in the wall, and if you can overlook the sparse interior, I’d recommend staying to eat them.  If you want shiny floors and a fancy bathroom and locally sourced artisanal meats in everything, take your torta to go and sneak it into where sandwiches aren’t $5.50.  Happy eating!!

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Super Tortas on Urbanspoon