Restaurant Review

Restaurant Review – Dooney’s Irish Pub in Delran, NJ

Readers of my restaurant reviews have asked me where I like to go for a good meal. After years of dining at various establishments throughout the Northeast, South and Midwest, I can write that I found an exceptional location where I’ve never been disappointed with a dish. That distinction goes to Dooney’s Irish Pub in Delran, New Jersey.

Dooney’s offers the best sandwiches and wraps I’ve had the pleasure of sampling. I’d challenge anyone to find a better Reuben on the market today; ($11) and it’s always my top choice for lunch. It takes a very special menu—at a pub, especially–to get me to order something other than a Reuben during the afternoon hours.

Somehow, Dooney’s inspired me to expand my culinary horizons. That’s an achievement in itself. After perusing the menu one day, I opted to try something a little more upscale that corned beef. I’m glad I did. The Prime Rib Sandwich tasted just like genuine prime rib. ($13.25) That well exceeded my expectations for a “sandwich.”

They recently added another called the Cuban ($12) to their repertoire. This one contains smoked ham, house roasted pork, swiss cheese, pickles and Dijon mustard on a grilled long roll. I first tried it when they offered it as a “special” one day. Many patrons must’ve agreed with me that it’s an outstanding dish. It’s now a part of the regular menu.

As an Irish-American, I really appreciate that Dooney’s understands Irish means more than beer. They started serving a sandwich called the Irish Grilled Ham Cheddar and Chutney. Smoked ham, Irish cheddar and mango cherry served on a toasted pretzel roll make up this one. It’s well worth the $10 price.

In keeping with the Irish theme they also feature the Blarney Burger. The menu describes it as a “house burger topped with corned beef, bacon, horseradish cheddar, cole slaw and spicy mustard on a pretzel roll.” It’s both delicious and filling which justifies the $13 cost.

For those who don’t care for meat, Dooney’s offers several vegetarian sandwiches. The Three Grain Veggie Burger has always been a favorite of mine. ($10) I really enjoy the new Grilled Veggie Sandwich. It delivers exactly what it promises and is well worth the $10 price tag. The dish includes yellow squash, zucchini, tomato red onion and basil with a roasted red pepper hummus spread on whole grain ciabatta. The spread gives this dish just the right tangy taste.

Dooney’s also features great salads, flatbread pizzas, and host of grilled chicken sandwiches. Regarding the latter, I’m partial to the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich ($11) and the Tuscan Chicken ($10.5)

Within the last few weeks, the establishment expanded the variety of entrees it serves. They offer phenomenal Fish and Chips. ($14) While I’ve always liked their Fish Tacos, when I’m in the mood for seafood, I have to splurge on this one.

No place earns the right to call itself “Irish” without properly preparing potatoes. Dooney’s makes its own potato chips. They’re the best I’ve ever tried and I know something about spuds. My stepmother’s a genius when it comes to making anything with potatoes. Even she loves Dooney’s potato chips. It’s quite an achievement when a potato aficionado likes what someone else does with potatoes.

In addition to the food, Dooney’s provides a great atmosphere. Whether sitting at the bar or in the main dining area, patrons are guaranteed a clear view of one of the large screen televisions throughout the building. For those who don’t care to suffer through Philadelphia sports woes while dining, Dooney’s offers an escape through patio seating during the warmer months.

Every weekend I get my Irish on. Diners in the South Jersey area should do the same. While St. Patrick’s Day only comes once a year, it’s always a celebration of good food at Dooney’s. Slainte!

 

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Restaurant Review – Greenplate in Cinnaminson, NJ

According to their mission statement Greenplate offers a host of “healthy, great tasting” foods. That intrigued me as I’d never before read those words written in that combination. Their tagline of “eat good, feel good, live good” sounded like a dare with the Holiday Season coming up. I opted to stop in for lunch this November 25th to determine whether or not they could meet their own hype.

For a space located in the Pep Boys Plaza off Route 130, the ambiance well exceeded my expectations. The fusion of light and dark gray colors on the floor made it appear like marble. The bright green and white colors on the wall gave the establishment an inviting feel.

The cleanliness impressed me upon entering. I couldn’t locate any dirt or dust in the entire building. They placed bottles of hand sanitizer next to the touch screens. I liked that idea. It saved patrons a trip to the rest room before eating. The staff dutifully put on gloves prior to preparing meals. Diners could see into the kitchen and watch the staff cook. All of this showed me just how seriously Greenplate takes hygiene.

I found the customer service phenomenal. A staff member greeted me when I walked up to the counter. He asked if I’d dined at Greenplate in the past. Since I hadn’t, he explained that patrons order through one of the several touch screens. He offered to assist me, but I discovered the screen very easy to use. In fact, I decided to change one of my choices and did so without difficulty.

Greenplate also accommodates those who may not be as comfortable perusing modern technology. A hard-copy of the menu hung on the storefront window. Two large screen televisions mounted on the wall above the kitchen listed the selections. I appreciated these features. They provided a general understanding of the offerings prior to using the touch screen.

Another big screen television in the dining area showed the Flyers game. The choice of programming surprised me. Those of us in the South Jersey area know that nothing will ruin a person’s appetite like watching Philadelphia’s sports teams play. As the Rangers pulled ahead two to nothing, I thought: Greenplate must have enormous confidence in their food quality to subject diners to this. When I received my meal I understood why they did.

My dining endeavor commenced with the Broccoli Salad. I thought the $4.99 price tag for a “side” slightly high, but the quality justified it. The salad consisted of broccoli, red onions, granny smith apples, raisins and bacon along with the Greenplate light and sweet dressing. The latter tasted tangy and enhanced the overall flavor. I wouldn’t have expected this combination of ingredients to complement each other so well, but they did. The chef deserves credit for devising such a unique and delicious side. While I enjoyed all the products I sampled at Greenplate, I liked this one the most.

For my main meal I ordered the Dragon Ginger Stir Fry. Patrons may order this dish with several options. I chose chicken, wheat noodles, carrots, bell peppers, red onions, cilantro and the dragon ginger sauce. The cook even delivered it to my table when he finished preparing it; an exceptional display of customer service. I remember one time at an Indian restaurant they gave me a meal that smoke continued billowing off of for five minutes after it sat on the table. Fortunately, the staff at Greenplate served this meal at the perfect temperature. It was warm, but not to the point it burned my mouth. I enjoyed the meal and found this stir fry reasonably priced at $9.49.

I should add that Greenplate uses organic chicken in this dish. This delighted me. My dog is a fussy eater and will only eat organic chicken. I have one guiding principle as a food critic: the dog can’t eat better than I do. For the first occasion in some time, an establishment understood that.

For a beverage I tried the Boylan Bottling products lemonade. I thought it very sweet and lacking the harsh, bitter aftertaste of most lemonades. That’s probably because all natural cane sugar served as the sweetener. All the fountain drinks are sensibly priced at $2.25.

I only had one issue with my visit to Greenplate. The menu touted their “world famous” Butternut Squash Soup. That got my attention. The cool weather put me in the mood for some soup. I looked forward to feasting on this legendary fare. It didn’t appear on the touch screen when I went to place my order, although another soup did. This disappointed me. If an establishment raves about one of their offerings, people will want to try it. The quality of the other items I tried compensated for the letdown, however. I didn’t leave feeling slighted.

Since I ate a healthy lunch containing many greens, I figured I’d earned a treat afterwards. As I’ve been suffering from pumpkin pie withdraw since yesterday afternoon, I ordered the Pumpkin Pie Smoothie. (Once again, Greenplate exposed me to words I’m familiar with presented in an unfamiliar combination.) This beverage contained pumpkin, almond milk, banana, honey, and pumpkin pie spice. It tasted delicious, but at first I thought the price high at $5.95. Since the menu calls it a “fall season specialty item”, I later re-evaluated and figured the cost acceptable.

Greenplate proved it possible to prepare “healthy, great tasting foods.” I’m glad I discovered them when I did. With the New Year fast approaching, many will no doubt make resolutions to eat better in 2017. With the outstanding meals this establishment offers, those of us in South Jersey won’t have to wait until after the Holiday Season for the motivation to improve our diets.

 

Restaurant Review Dredge Harbor Café, Delran, NJ

Of the many adjectives that come to mind when describing fine dining, the word dredge doesn’t make the top hundred.  I found the seating even less appealing. The white plastic chairs and long rectangular tables reminded me of a high school cafeteria. The building resembled a trailer one would see at a construction site. To express this as politely as possible, upon entering, the tide in the harbor reached higher than my expectations for a good meal. For that matter, I wondered if some of the ducks floating in the water were part of the menu.

I’ve never been so surprised. The Dredge Harbor Café treated me to the best dinner I can recall in recent memory.

I ordered the flounder. (I don’t have a copy of the menu, so I don’t know the precise cost.) It came with a choice of soup or salad. While I normally select the salad, I read “Ham and Cabbage” soup on the list. What an unusual offering. I never do enough to commemorate my Irish ancestry, so I opted for that.

The café served me the best soup I’ve ever had. It tasted very flavorful; that’s an accomplishment with cabbage. I could clearly discern both ingredients in the broth. They loaded an abundance of both them into the cup, as well. A bowl would’ve been adequate for a meal in itself.

Our server mistakenly brought over an extra salad for our group. Nonetheless, she placed it on the table and said we would keep it. Since no one else shared my passion for greens, I decided to treat myself. The quality of the lettuce and tomatoes impressed me. I eat a lot of salad, but it’s rare I have one as savory as this. I give the Dredge Harbor Café a lot of credit: the food they served in preparation for the main dish would’ve made for a quality dining experience in itself.

Then dinner came. I figured the main course would be a bit of a let-down after the soup and salad. Again, the Dredge Harbor Café astonished me. The flounder’s texture allowed me to cut it with a fork. It tasted delicious. The baked potato and broccoli I had with it were excellent as well. The skin on the potato had the same texture as the French fries. I sampled one of the latter from one of my dining companions. They tasted more like potatoes than any other French fry I’ve ever tried. I’ve eaten at several places that make their own. I give the kitchen staff credit for outstanding food preparation.

I also liked the deceptively large portions. When I received my plate I thought it smaller than those used by comparable eateries. Again, the café shocked me. I couldn’t complete the entire meal. Thanks to the people in my party, we had plenty of leftovers for my dog, Cinnamon. Now I need to put her on a diet.

I criticized the décor earlier. To be fair, the establishment treats patrons sitting outside to a view of the harbor. One gets to watch the boats leaving and returning with the waning light of the summer sun in the background; at least during the evening.

Everyone’s familiar with the business axiom, “location, location, location.” The Dredger Harbor Café is easy to miss for first time diners. One has to take a long, meandering road off of River Road in Delran to get to the building. As I wrote above, the facility’s appearance isn’t, well, eye catching.

Another unusual feature of the restaurant is its restrooms. One has to get a key from inside and then walk across the street to the facilities. Needing a “pass” for the washroom made me feel like I was still in high school. At my age, that might not be a bad thing, though.

I remember as a kid going to Dredge Harbor for ice cream. I’d eat it while watching the boats along the water. I’ve grown up and so has the Dredge Harbor Café. They treated me to a phenomenal fine dining experience. Even though duck didn’t appear on the menu, I’d strongly recommend to fellow gastronomes.

Restaurant Review – The Pub in Pennsauken, NJ (Redux)

This past weekend my Dad celebrated his 39th birthday. Yes, the man fathered and raised me and yet he’s younger than I am…so he claims. Maybe he’s got some Benjamin Button thing going on. At any rate, he invited me along with a group of friends to celebrate at The Pub in Pennsauken. I’ve had numerous great dining experiences there. How could I possibly resist? Oh, and it was his birthday.

Diners received unlimited access to the salad bar with dinner, in addition to complimentary bread. For those into salad bars: The Pub set the gold standard. In addition to a delicious Caesar Salad, I added some cottage cheese and carrots to my plate. They prepared the later with raisins. I never would’ve thought to combine a fruit and a vegetable in this way. It tasted outstanding. I would’ve returned for more, but we also ordered appetizers.

Since our party consisted of six people, we ordered two of them. We got the French Fried Zucchini and the Fried Fresh Mushrooms. (The both cost $5.50 respectively.) They could’ve served as meals in themselves. I’ve had Fried Mushrooms at various pizza places over the years. I’d rank The Pub’s as the best. The mushrooms tasted unexpectedly fresh. I even ate them without the sauce and found them savory. I give the chef a lot of credit: he made something as bland as mushrooms flavorful. I had seconds on the zucchini. My dining companions raved about their quality, also.

Then our server brought out our dinners. All the food on the table reminded me of the Feast of Trimalchio scene in Fellini’s Satyricon.  Several in my group ordered the Prime Rib. While it came in at a hefty $29.99, both the portion and quality justified the price. When placed on the table it reminded me of the Ol’ 96er in the John Candy/Dan Aykroyd film The Great Outdoors. Unlike Candy’s character, no one finished this hunk of meat. For the record, my dog did finish off the leftovers. She’s a fussy eater, too.

There’s an old saw that whenever you dine at a steakhouse, someone always orders seafood. That person is usually me. So why buck tradition? I ordered the Hot Seafood Platter. The menu described it as, “Golden brown fried gulf shrimp, seafood salad, broiled fish of the day, deviled clam, tender bay scallops and shrimp stuffed with crabmeat.” It also come with a steep price tag at $29.99. Still, the only word that adequately described this meal was awesome.  When looking at the plate I worried that the population of the world’s oceans must have dipped a few per cent since I ordered it. The portions and quality, again, were phenomenal. I thought the seafood salad a nice addition. I’ve never had a seafood combo that included one. I give The Pub kudos for creativity on this one, also.

I’ve often written that I like it when customers can view the kitchen. The Pub took this to another level. They kept the lights low in the dining area. As one would expect, they illuminated the kitchen is more brightly. In spite of the main dining room’s size, one’s eyes became drawn to the kitchen. The management wanted customers to watch their food prepared. I thought that a very nice touch.

The Pub’s website reads, “Everything extravagant except the prices.” While I do find their prices higher than most, the quality and the portions justify them. Thanks to the quantities even my dog got to share in the quality fare: and she’s a tougher critic than I am. After my latest experience at The Pub, I can’t wait until my Dad’s 40th birthday party.

Restaurant Review – Firebirds Wood Fired Grill in Moorestown, NJ

I thought very hard about how to spend my birthday this past April 19th. After much contemplation I decided to commemorate it the same way I pass most evenings these days. I opted for dinner at a fine dining establishment. Afterwards, I’d conclude my evening by blogging about how the restaurant failed to meet my expectations. (Before anyone asks: the answer is no. John Belushi did not pattern his ‘party animal’ character in the movie Animal House after me. I understand that is a common misconception.) On this occasion I learned the meaning of irony. I was disappointed by not being disappointed.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill delivered an outstanding dining experience. The place made a great first impression. The ambiance impressed me. They arranged the glasses in the racks behind the bar by color. The bartender placed the reds together, the blues in the same spot, then the golden ones, and so on. While I’m color blind, I still enjoyed the visual effect.

The hostess seated my party between the bar and the kitchen. Talk about the perfect location! I always applaud a restaurant that allows patrons a clear view into the kitchen. A recent issue of Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs focused on global food security. It’s a clear indication the staff earned the management’s confidence to let the public watch them prepare meals. That’s a good thing.

My dining companions and I commenced our dining experience with an appetizer. We ordered the Lobster Spinach Queso. The menu described it as, “lobster, baby spinach, tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, tortilla chips. For $12.25 all three of the people in my party ate good portions of it. We all found the dip and the chips savory. The latter came in three varieties: a red one, a black one and a traditional style. There are only so many ways to flavor tortilla chips, but I did detect subtle differences in the variety.

Then came the main course. As this evening marked my reaching the quarter century mark (again), I thought about my mortality. What better time to leave my comfort zone and try something I’d never had before? While not exactly on my ‘bucket list’ I opted for the Braised Tenderloin Pasta. The menu described it as, “cavatappi, fresh spinach, red peppers, and sic green chile cheese sauce.” The menu also included a “limited availability” disclaimer next to the name. On the evening I dined at Firebirds, they had it.

I’m not a big meat eater, but I really liked this dish. The combination of the steak and the pasta created a very distinct taste. I’ve never feasted on anything like it before. While pricey at $17.95, I received a great portion. I even took some home with me. I can’t remember dining out and not finishing a meal in recent months. I give Firebirds a lot of credit: they give customers their money’s worth.

On this dining excursion I did something else I don’t usually do. I ordered desert. As I’m health conscious–not because I’m getting old, mind you—I settled on the Flourless Chocolate Cake. I’ve had flourless pastries before and liked them. This cake was no exception. It didn’t taste as sweet as traditional fare, but it suits my tastes. I thought it a bit pricey at $7.75, but since it was my birthday, they gave it to me for free. I liked the personal customer service touch.  I’ll have to find out when my next birthday is so I can get more free stuff.

I didn’t like the lack of complimentary bread with dinner. I’ve noticed this at other places I’ve dined recently, also. I understand that to conserve water, servers only provide it upon request. Is there some kind of wheat crisis I’m unaware of? It seems odd to me that suddenly few places give customers bread with dinner.

I’d also point out to readers that Firebirds meals are rather pricey. I’d recommend reviewing the menu on-line prior to dining there. As I wrote above, I felt the quality and the portions I received justified the cost. In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that my Dad and stepmom treated me for my birthday. If I had paid out of my own pocket, I’m sure my comments would be the same. I did want to let readers know, though.

My dining experience at Firebirds made for the best 25th birthday I’ve had in years. I enjoyed their delicious offerings. I’ve attended some infamous dinner outings over the last several months. I’m very thankful to Firebird’s Wood Fired Grill for providing an excellent one on my birthday. That wish I made when I blew out the candle last year finally came true.

Restaurant Review – The Robin’s Nest in Mount Holly, NJ

Nestled a few blocks away from Mount Holly’s historic district, the Robin’s Nest treats patrons to an outstanding dining experience. In addition to the food, customers have the option of feasting on a breathtaking outdoor view of the creek. This establishment got the complete dining experience right.

While a beautiful spring day, I opted to dine inside. From the cozy layout I suspected the building rather old. I read a historical marker on the edifice next to the main dining area indicating it served as a jail in the early 1900s. I suspected someone constructed the building where I ate at least that long ago. I didn’t count, but there couldn’t have been more than 15 seats at the bar. I did volunteer work in an ‘historic’ home for several years. Due to the age of the various edifices in the area, the compactness didn’t bother me.

After perusing the menu an interesting dish stood out. The Robin’s Nest offered a lasagna entrée made with goat cheese. I’ve had many Italian dishes, but never that. As one only lives once, and with the knowledge of a hospital located a few blocks away, I ordered it. Much to my chagrin my server returned from the kitchen to inform me they didn’t have any more. Readers of this column know: not receiving what I order really strains the limits of my patience.

My love of visiting historical places may have alleviated my temper. I’d been to the county court house in Mount Holly, but never to any of the historic sections. I’d had the pleasure of seeing the oldest fire house in the U. S. on this trip. Taking a sense of pride from my surroundings, I opted for the town’s namesake. This time I ordered the Mount Holly Melt.

Had I not read the other meal on the menu I would’ve requested it, anyway. The menu described it as, “Chicken Salad with Celery, Onion and Mandarin Oranges in a Creamy Dill Mayonnaise Dressing topped with Melted Cheddar Cheese, served on Toasted Fresh Baked Sourdough Bread with a Side Salad.”

What the server delivered surprised me. The salad came with the meal. The preparer placed it on the plate to the left of the sandwich. The latter only had one slice of bread on the bottom. This forced me to cut it with a fork. After my initial misgivings, I tried and enjoyed it. I liked both the leafy salad and the chicken salad sections of the meal. The sizable portion made for an excellent lunch. I didn’t see the bottom of the plate until I finished eating.

I liked the price even more. The on-line menu advertises the Mount Holly Melt as $9.50. They charged me $8.95 for it as a “lunch special.” That’s a very economical cost for the quantity served.

I mentioned before that ambiance defines this establishment’s core competency. Even the rest room impressed me. The series of men’s ties adorning the gilded colored walls gave it the air of an old time washroom. The series of aphorisms that appeared throughout also added to its uniqueness. I’ll quote the most memorable.

“A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.” Sir Francis Bacon

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Ambition is the last refuge of failure.” Oscar Wilde

At first I thought this an odd place for philosophical ruminations. Then I realized: a rest room is one of the few places in today’s world where a person is alone to think. I guess the management strives to expand consumers’ intellectual horizons as well as their waist lines.

The sign over the commode made for the most striking feature, though. It read, “Please be seated. Waitress will serve you.” I normally don’t applaud ‘bathroom humor’ at a fine dining establishment, but I did chuckle while reading it.

It’s rare to see a unique combination of good food, great scenery and wit. There’s a lot of history in the Mount Holly area. I hope that the Robin’s Nest remains part of its present for a long time to come.

Restaurant Review – Catelli Duo in Voorhees, NJ

For the first time in months I sampled “fine dining” fare not seasoned by my tears. While feeling adventurous this past weekend I took a trip to Voorhees and dined at Catelli Duo. Their website reads that they “do Italian differently.” I feasted on a quality meal in an elegant setting. When compared to my other dining experiences over the last few months that alone made it “different”.

Upon entering the building a sophisticated interior greeted me. Wine racks adorned the dining area. Lights located underneath the bar top added to the elegance. The bar also featured cushioned seats that maximized patrons’ comfort. An opening to the kitchen allowed diners to watch the chefs working. That feature always impresses me. It shows that the people preparing food don’t have anything to hide. The restroom featured hands-free faucets that emptied into large transparent bowls. Of course, all this luxury came at a price.

I began my meal with a Lobster Bisque soup. The menu described it as including “jumbo lump crabmeat.” At first I thought it a bit watery, but after stirring, the broth thickened and became rather tasty. I thought the price a bit high at $6.00, but for the portion and the quality of the meal, it didn’t bother me.

As I enjoy both seafood and Italian, one choice really caught my attention. Catelli Duo billed the Seafood Ravioli as “house-made seafood ravioli stuffed with shrimp, crab, lobster cream”. When I read that, I knew exactly what to have for lunch. The chef prepared the dish in a creamy white wine sauce.  Once again I had to stir it to get the flavor right. After doing so the meal mesmerized me. I’d call the quality of the seafood superlative. The sauce tasted rather sweet. I’m not a big wine drinker, but the libation they used gave the meal the perfect seasoning. While a bit pricey at $16.00, the quality justified it.

Catelli Duo’s website claims, “We’re not just doing Italian differently—we’re reinventing it.” That’s a bold assertion, but the superiority of the food verified it. My trip to Catelli doesn’t need a “do-over”, but I plan on dining there again.

Restaurant Review – The Farm and Fisherman Tavern, Cherry Hill, NJ

The Farm and Fisherman Tavern advertises several seafood dishes on its menu. I ordered the Reuben. I knew an unforgettable evening awaited me. With entrees to choose from I opted for a lunch sandwich. Not that this establishment had an extensive variety of options. Based on all my server’s tattoos, I read more ink on her than on the menu. That’s not good.

Speaking of the service, I observed opportunities for improvement. For one I didn’t receive what I ordered. I requested the Minestrone Soup for an appetizer. As I’m writing this a day later I’m still waiting for it. It made me wonder: do I look fat? Granted, I have put on a few pounds over the winter months. That’s no excuse not to serve a paying customer what he requested.

One of my fans recently asked me to “go easy” with my review of this establishment. Regrettably, this is the kind version of my observations. Since I promised to be more positive, I shall honor my commitment. Let me say that the Farm and Fisherman Tavern saved me $7.00 on soup.

On the subject of appetizers, the ones at this establishment were anything but. I sampled the Calamari. For those who’d like to save themselves a trip to Cherry Hill I’ll describe it. It reminded me of drinking Tequilla. I felt like I chugged a mouthful of vinegar and then chased it with a few pieces of shrimp.

And then I split an order of the Caramelized Cauliflower with someone. To be fair, I eat cauliflower from time to time. Prior to trying this appetizer I knew their flavor doesn’t explode in one’s mouth. They’re the leafy equivalent of mushrooms. I get that. I figured that the special sauce would enhance and add more zest. It didn’t. Why not? Upon reviewing the menu more closely, they described the sauce as a “curried mushroom cream.” What a great idea. Take something that has no flavor and douse it in a sauce made from something else that has no flavor.

I’ve brought up the ridiculously high price of vegetables in previous columns. To spare readers another harangue I’ll limit my observations to this. The $8.00s the management gouges customers for this is almost as tasteless as the appetizer.

In spite of these set-backs I decided to stick it out and stay for “dinner”. When they served my meal ($12.00), one gentleman in my group observed, “That’s an interesting looking Reuben.” That’s about the only word in the English language that adequately described it. Imagine throwing a salad in the middle of a garden. That’s how my plate appeared. I would’ve taken a picture, but people may have thought I staged it. I saw it in real time and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it. I had the option of French fries or salad as a side dish. I never would’ve thought they’d bury the sandwich in the salad.

And there’s more. I don’t know what process they use to slaughter turkeys for human consumption. The one I had must’ve died from dehydration. I’ve never tasted anything this desiccated. Did I mention the Reuben didn’t come with Russian Dressing? The presentation on the plate confused me so much I accidentally put my salad dressing on the sandwich. You know what? It still tasted really dry.

I’d had enough at this point. I passed on desert. Not that it would’ve mattered, anyway. They billed one of the items as a “Bacon Ice Cream.” (Before people send me e-mails: I know. I’ve never seen those words arranged in that combination, either.) This establishment was just bursting with great ideas. Why not take a breakfast food and turn it into a desert? What’s next? Scrapple Sherbert, anyone?

So far 2015 is turning into a rebuilding year for fine dining. My dog, Cinnamon, shares my displeasure. Whenever my dad and stepmom return from eating out, they give her their leftovers. I’ve seen Cinnamon walk away from “fine cuisine” in favor of her chew stick. My birthday’s coming up in a few weeks. People ask me where I’d like to go out to dinner for it. With some of the places I’ve been to lately, I’ll take one of the dog’s left over chew sticks.

Restaurant Review – Il Villaggio in Cherry Hill, NJ

I felt leery dining at Il Villaggio. As the name included a homonym of the word ill, I didn’t enter the building with high hopes. The again, with the advent of Obamacare in America, I thought I’d give it a try. Who knows? The way things are going maybe I could even get taxpayers to pick-up the bill. Upon looking at the prices, I realized the impossibility of this. As the Federal Budget is a paltry 14 billion dollars, the government wouldn’t be able to afford it. While pricey, Il Villaggio delivered a decent dining experience.

I found the ambiance inviting. Upon entering, the site of an elegant chandelier and spacious gilded dining area greeted me. Then the hostess led my group into a more ‘cozy’ setting. This room had three long tables. They seated my party (of 26) at two of them. Another group came in later and sat at the third. With the frigid January temperatures outside, all the people crammed together did help to warm things up.

I opted to take the vegetarian route once again. As readers of this column will no doubt recall, I did this once before at another restaurant I reviewed. As they will also remember, the results didn’t please me. I’m not one to ever give up on a bad idea, so I went for a vegetarian evening again.

On the occasion I dined at Il Villaggio, they offered Cream of Asparagus as one of the soups of the day. I like soup, I like vegetables and I like asparagus. What could go wrong? What they served didn’t quite meet my definition of soup. Asparagus Gespacho may have been a more fitting appellation for this appetizer. It was rather tepid, even cool. Due to the cramped quarters, the temperature of the room exceeded that of the soup. It’s never good when that happens. I discerned a sweetness to the broth. It also lacked a certain ingredient. Unfortunately, its namesake turned to be the missing element. I found very few stalks in the broth, though. They also tasted very crunchy. I’m not used to crispy vegetables. Maybe it’s an Italian thing.

As I resolved to lose weight for the new year, I ordered another vegetable based dish for my main course. I went for the Zucchini Parmesan. I’ve had Eggplant Parmesan many times, but I’ve never heard of this meal. The menu described it as, “lightly fried layers of zucchini topped with melted mozzarella cheese, over rigatoni pasta marinara sauce.” I liked it, but I can understand it isn’t for everybody. The texture reminded me of a cross somewhere between eggplant and mushrooms; both of which I’m fond. I did enjoy it and thought the portion proportional to the price. The chef got all the spices right to make it a good quality Italian meal. I can’t recollect dining at a place that offered rigatoni as a choice of pasta. It made the meal unique and complimented the main course well.

In spite of liking the entrée, I didn’t think the cost justified, though. As I mentioned before, I went with a group. The organizer informed us how much we owed at the end of the evening. I don’t know what the soup cost, but the entrée came in at $16.00. For comparison’s sake, the Veal Parmesan cost $19.00. They priced the Chicken Parm at $17.00. While the Zucchini Parm was rightly cheaper than the meats, I still thought the price high. After all, the main ingredient was only a vegetable.

I need to go off for a moment. I’ve encountered this before in the form of an $11.00 can of spinach at a restaurant. What’s with the high cost of vegetables these days? Does their cost vary inversely with fuel prices? I’m just wondering. This seems silly to me.

I didn’t partake in desert. While no one in my group complained about the quality, this time I really thought the prices ridiculously high. Everything on the desert menu cost somewhere in the seven dollar range. The gentleman seated next to me ordered a bowl of berries with two scoops of pistachio ice cream. I could’ve gone to Yogurtland and had a larger portion of Pistachio Yogurt with some fruit toppings for less money than that.

The staff conducted themselves extremely well. Our main server did an outstanding job of presenting all the specials. The speed with which they delivered our dinner impressed me. I also applaud their professionalism in serving everyone in our large party at the same time.

Some people say that eating a high quality meal is the purpose of fine dining: not receiving large portions. After all, not every establishment can be The Pub (in Pennsauken) where one receives enough food that obviates the need to grocery shop for a week. I understand and respect their point. I do think that Il Villaggio’s prices a bit out of the norm even for quality dining. For readers okay with that, I think Il Villaggio definitely worth a visit.

Restaurant Review – Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Siloam Springs, AR

Nobody, and I mean nobody, can host a barbecue like a Southerner. They’re so good at it, that anytime one of us Yankees says we’re having one, we debase the term. I was ecstatic when I came across Dickey’s Barbecue Pit during my sojourn to Northwest Arkansas. Their culinary skills did Dixie proud.

My group had been flying all day. Most of us hadn’t eaten anything in at least nine hours. When we rolled into Dickey’s we couldn’t have found a more perfect place at the most opportune time.

The staff took courtesy to a whole new level. We arrived within an hour of closing. However, they were so attentive and friendly that I felt like they genuinely loved their customers. By my estimate, the two team members on shift prepared meals for six people in close to ten minutes.

There’s only one word to describe my meal: outstanding. Dickey’s offered a plethora of sandwiches, platters and salads. They made my choice pretty difficult. Since I felt so hungry I treated myself to the Three Meat Plate. Dickey’s presented eight different options that would appeal to just about any carnivore. The choices included Pulled Pork, Beef Brisket, Barbecue Honey Ham, Spicy Cheddar Sausage, Polish Sausage, Pork Ribs, Turkey Breast, and Chicken. I dined on the Turkey, Pork Ribs and Spicy Cheddar Sausage. I’d never tried anything like the latter before. The chef came up with a unique twist on it. The best part: it tasted fantastic! All of the meats did.

A number of people in my group raved about the brisket. It received the most positive reviews. I had the chance to try it and concurred.

My platter came with two sides. Dickey’s offered twelve different ones, so once again I struggled with the selection. Who would have thought that being a food critic could entail such hard decision making on occasion? After evaluating the menu, I complimented my meal with the Caesar Salad and the Barbecue Beans. Like the sausage, the latter possessed a zesty flavor, but not so hot that I couldn’t enjoy the meal. The preparers deserve great credit for getting the seasoning just right.

And the best part: this dinner cost only $11.50! People who read my column know that I dine out pretty regularly. Dickey’s made my shortlist of establishments offering the best value for the price.

I drank an iced tea with my meal. It came with a “Big Yellow Cup” that customers may keep as a souvenir. That’s a pretty good perk for $2.25.

As much as I enjoyed this dining experience, Dickey’s offered even more. On the evening I ate there, they provided FREE ice cream for consumers. You read that right. In addition to the outstanding value I got for my dinner, they furnished a gratis desert. This place took Southern hospitality to a whole new level!

Whenever I review a restaurant I make every effort to be balanced. With that acknowledgement, I can’t offer Dickey’s any constructive feedback for improvement. On the issues of price, service and quality, they turned in a superlative performance. Even while writing this I could taste the barbecue sauce. Is opening a franchise in the Philadelphia area out of the question?