South Jersey Edition: Luciano’s FreshMarket

Growing up in South Jersey, I pretty much took the whole eating local thing for granted. I mean, we had an embarrassment of riches to choose from: excellent milk from a the local dairy, garden fresh produce from my grandpop’s back yard or local roadside farm markets, fresh seafood from the Delaware Bay or the ocean. The Jersey Fresh motto encompasses everything that growing up in Cumberland County meant. The city I was born (Vineland) was named that by its founder because of how well grapes grew in our soil and climate. One of our claims to fame is that Thomas Welch himself started making grape juice a block or so away from our main drag. We have some of the best pasta ever (Conte’s is a favorite of mine), wineries, and more. The point is, growing up in South Jersey during the time I did meant Jersey tomatoes, blue crabs from the Bay, ethnic influence from Italy and Puerto Rico, and the cuisine of the area reflected that. That’s why on my last visit back, I was pleasantly surprised to find someone putting out awesome food in a small kitchen tucked away in the back corner of a newly opened public market.

Luciano's Fresh Market (at Landis Marketplace)

The chef in charge of the operation, Lurie Luciano, had similar experiences growing up – we’re fairly close in age, both have many of the same childhood food memories, both let ourselves go out into the world to explore and learn new things (in her case, to New Orleans, where she fine-tuned her culinary skills – in mine, to Columbus, where I started getting adventurous in my eating and taught myself how to cook). We both share similar food philosophies now, and both of us find ourselves drawn to the city where it all began.

To her, returning to South Jersey meant being the first person on board to occupy the new public market (more on that in a separate post – let’s just say for the moment that Luciano’s FreshMarket is the shining star of the place, by far). It means crafting a new menu each week based on what’s seasonal, what’s fresh, what inspires her. She, for the most part, keeps the preparation simple. When you’re working with the best quality of everything, it doesn’t take much to let the ingredients shine. She’s extremely skilled at coaxing out the inherent flavors of the dish, preferring to not drown it out in sauces, heavy seasonings that overwhelm the senses, or the like (which I find is done way too often in Cajun and Creole influenced cuisine). She releases a new menu weekly – here’s the menu from the week I visited in March:

Weekly Menu

Still, even with the printed menu, be sure to check the menu board, where you can sometimes find additional specials. Prices are quite reasonable for the quantity and quality of the food.

Menu Board

We went over the course of two days. I was so impressed the first day that I grabbed my dad and took him with me on the second. Even though he lives in Jersey, he wasn’t aware of its existence. I was lucky to stumble across it at all – I wish it were more visible from the street so that more people would try it out. Once you taste her food, you can’t help but be a convert.

The salmon cakes were solid – reminds me of something I would whip up myself when in the need for comfort food. The sweet potato fries were out of this world, especially when dipped in her remoulade. Together they made my mouth a very happy place. The slaw didn’t stand out to me, but then again I’m not much of a slaw person, so it’s a matter of personal preference.

Salmon Cakes with Sweet Potato Fries & Slaw

The gumbo was full of flavor, built on obvious care in making the roux. I was expecting it to be spicy hot, but it wasn’t – the flavor was quite nuanced with obvious infusion of the trinity. With shreds of chicken throughout, and on top of rice, it was a hearty meal unto itself. Considering it was still quite cold and late winter, it was the kind of stick-to-your-ribs warmth needed to give you the push to face the mad dash to the car in the cold. With the weather tending toward cold again with fall setting in, it’s a perfect choice whenever you see it on the menu.

Gumbo

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Catfish Po-Boys – hers is a little different than those I have had locally here in Ohio, being topped with a nice crunchy slaw rather than lettuce and tomatoes. The catfish was fried to perfection – flaky and tender and not even a little bit greasy. The remoulade, slathered thickly on the uber-fresh bread, tied the whole sandwich together. The portion was quite generous, with the catfish literally spilling out of the confines of the roll. One of the best examples of the sandwich that I’ve ever had. I still crave this regularly, even 6 months later.

Fried Catfish Po Boy

My dad got the Fried Shrimp Po-Boy, which is a similar take on the sandwich but with shrimp rather than catfish. My dad gave me a taste, and it too was cooked to perfection. Shrimp is very easy to overcook, especially when fried, but her expert hand at cooking seafood means that she nailed this one as well.

Fried Shrimp Po Boy

I was too stuffed to eat the Crab Cake Po-Boy while I was still there, and ate it later in my hotel room. Even cold, it was pretty darn good. I tend to prefer my crab cakes sautéed rather than breaded and deep fried, but even with that in mind I still enjoyed this one immensely.

Crab Cake Po Boy

Along with some more sweet potato fries, we got a crawfish pie – it was a nice small bite, with a bit of heat – an afterthought, really. Thought at the time it would make a great mid-afternoon snack.

Crawfish Pie and Sweet Potato Fries

I also enjoyed the Ahi Tuna Melt, which was seared earlier, and then sliced and topped with cheese that was then melted on top – technically, this ends up cooking the tuna through – but not the kind of through that dries it out and makes it difficult to eat. The texture was still spot on, as was the flavor. Since it used a bun rather than the rolls that are used with the Po-Boy’s, the balance of bread to fish was just right.

Ahi Tuna Melt

I really wish my visit to Jersey had been longer, or that I had discovered it earlier in my trip. If I still lived in Jersey, I’d have likely turned into a regular. I’m on her mailing list, where she sends out the weekly menus, and torture myself regularly reading about delicious stuff that I’d have to drive 10 hours each way to get. But alas, it’s not to be.

There was an article earlier this week in my hometown newspaper, about how she’s not renewing her lease with the market when it expires at the end of the year. Given the circumstances (more about that in the post about the Marketplace – way too complex an issue to get into right this second), I would probably do the same thing, but I’m still sad to see her go. I have no doubt she’ll land squarely on her feet and will be off and running once she finds the right location, but you still have a couple of months left to give this place a try while it’s the same concept in the same location. Trust me when I say it’s worth the trip even if that’s your sole purpose for going there. It’s a bit of bright light in a corner of Vineland that people unfortunately write off because of preconceived notions. Once you try it, if you like it, let Lurie know. You can’t miss her – she’s the redhead at the counter with infectious smile and passion for all things local. Personally, I’d love to see her do a food truck of some sort in the interim – I think it would be a great match with the nature of the food she puts out. And be sure to keep an eye on her website – she posts regular menu updates and gives other pertinent info about hours and special events. I hear the lobster pot pies this week are to die for.

If you’d like to go: Luciano’s FreshMarket/New Orleans Seafood Kitchen (inside the Landis MarketPlace), 631 E. Landis Ave., Vineland, NJ 08360. 609-970-7653. Also on Twitter.

Abyssinia Cafe: Customer Service FAIL

Abyssinia Restaurant

One of the reasons we’ve been able to afford eating out since Paul has been unemployed is because of WTTE’s Dining Out Deals, where area restaurants offer discounted gift certificates in return for advertising on the news – because of that program, we’ve had quite a few great meals (at places like Barrio, Gallo’s Tap Room, etc). We saw the advertising for the one at Abyssinia Cafe on the news, and knowing that we had those gift certificates, we decided to pick up my mother yesterday to treat her to a belated birthday lunch.

We arrived early yesterday afternoon to a completely empty restaurant, and were directed to seat ourselves – upon sitting down, we noticed a sign saying that they weren’t accepting gift certificates. Seeking to get clarification, we showed the woman at the restaurant our certificates (which are supposed to be valid, having not yet reached the expiration date), to which she responded that she would not honor them. I explained to her that we had spent $25 for them (for $50 face value in certificates), and at the very least we expected reimbursement (in the form of food would have been fine) for the money we were out. She said no, it’s not her problem, that they couldn’t afford to honor any certificates after 3 people came in with them in the first couple of days, and that they did not authorize WTTE to give out any gift certificates – they had not accepted them after the 3rd day they were issued. Not wanting to argue with the woman, I basically said, “it’s sad that you’re willing to lose my business over $25-$50 – I won’t be surprised if you’re out of business in a few months if this is the way you operate” and got up to leave – she started yelling at me, told me that God was on her side and I was the devil, with me yelling back that she was a liar for saying that she wasn’t aware of the certificates since I had seen her on the news pimping them, and that she was getting the benefit of the advertising while anyone who shelled out good money for the certificates (100 people, in total) got screwed. It got ugly, folks. And now I’m out $25. Lovely. What a ripoff. When I twittered about it, I got a response from someone holding one of their GC’s wondering if they would get the same reception at the restaurant? So consider this a warning – both of the poor customer service at Abyssinia Cafe – who were happy to take WTTE’s advertising without honoring what they were contractually bound with WTTE to provide, and for those of you who have also bought the gift certificates, which are absolutely worthless. I’ll be contacting WTTE tomorrow to see how they’re willing to resolve this, and will update accordingly.

Update: Alls well that ends well. WTTE/IncentRev was great about the situation, and let me exchange the worthless GC’s for gift certificates of equal value from an open Dining Deals offer. I encourage any of you who are also in this situation to contact WTTE/IncentRev directly.

RIP: The Dog Joint

I read today in ThisWeek News that The Dog Joint in Westerville closed last month. I visited it once, last summer, and found it to be fair to middlin’. Not bad enough to slaughter them in a review, but not good enough to recommend. I had wanted to go back and give it another try before writing a review (which I like to do, if I can afford it), but it looks like I’ll never get the chance.

So this post is for people who were fans.

Their Windy City dog was pretty great….as good as many other Chicago dogs I’ve had in town.

Windy City Hot Dog

Didn’t like the Southern Belle at all, because the cole slaw was pretty flavorless.

Southern Belle Hot Dog

The Chili Cheese Fries were pretty good – between me and my dining companion, we polished them off in no time flat.

Chili Cheese Fries

My beef with the South of the Border dog is that if I have cheese on hot dogs, I like it to be melted. Otherwise, a decent offering.

South of the Border Hot Dog

But whose bright idea was a Hawaiian dog? Absolutely disgusting.

Aloha Hot Dog

I’m looking forward to trying the restaurant they put in its place. Did you enjoy this restaurant? Are you sad to see them go?

The bonoPIZZA Pay It Forward Plan

Want to see our favorite pizza joint have another brick and mortar home? One with lots of seating and parking? Here’s how you can help. As seen on Columbus Underground (if you have any detailed questions, ask on the CU thread):

Want To Help bonoPizza Move Into a New Location?

Last weekend bonoPIZZA made their return with an outdoor parking-lot setup in front of the old Cowtown Pizza location. Due to the overwhelming response, Bill & Peggy Yerkes are looking to expedite the process in which they’re going to be moving back into a more permanent indoor venue. Bill notified us earlier today that they’ve found a great spot in the Grandview-Area that features loads of free parking, patio seating, and indoor seating space for 30-40 people. The only catch is that they’ve only got around 80% of the funds ready to get the location secured and opened, and are currently around $5,000 short.

Always the non-traditionalist, Bill has put together a proposal for his loyal customers to help raise the extra cash quickly. He calls it the “bonoPIZZA Pay it Forward Plan”.

Effective immediately, bonoPIZZA will begin selling half-price gift certificates in $100 and $200 increments. The $100 gift certificate will cost $50, and the $200 gift certificate will cost $100, making it a great deal for anyone planning on dining at bono in the future. The goal is to sell approximately 75 of these certificates to cover the cost of raising the additional $5,000.

Once the $5,000 mark is reached, certificates will no longer be sold, so quantities are very limited.

Bill stated that the certificates issued will be individually numbered with each contributor’s name labeled as a “bono savior”. If the $5,000 amount is not reached, all checks and payments will be returned in full, and Bill said that a “WTF, We Tried” certificate will still be issued to all who gave it a shot.

To place an order you can reach Bill via phone at 614-441-2880, or send a check to:

Bill Yerkes
1724 Northwest Blvd
Columbus, Ohio 43212

I know Paul and I are in – $200 in gift certificates will get us through most of the summer, and I can’t think of a single place I’d rather see open again. Who else is in?

BTW, there’s very little time to get this done – the deadline is April 28th. So act fast! :)

Restaurant News 3/6/09

In openings, hot on the heels of the success of places like the new Five Guys Burgers up at Polaris comes Burger Boys, which opened this week at 3650 E. Main Street in Whitehall. The menu offers several variations of interesting burgers, with free fries with the signature burgers being one of the draws.

Jason’s Deli opened March 2nd in Dublin, at 225 W. Bridge Street. This Texas-based chain, new to Ohio, offers sandwiches, soups and more.

Joining the ranks of fine dining establishments embracing the “small plates” and “bistro” concepts, Handke’s Cuisine has reopened the bistro area of the restaurant with the name of “encore”. “encore” offers small plates at a reasonable price in a less formal setting than Handke’s proper. It’s located in the Brewery District at the upstairs of the same building at 520 S. Front Street, and is open from 4pm-2:30am (the kitchen closes at 11pm) Monday through Saturday.

Also offering a new bistro-style menu is Short North fine dining restaurant Rosendale’s, who launched their “Comfort Series” this past week. The menu will be posted by noon daily (it changes from day to day), and will offer 3 courses for $30, 4 courses for $40, with an option to complement your meal with a carafe of wine for an additional $10. This menu is only offered Monday through Thursdays, and you’ll need to call to make reservations once the menu is posted at noon.

In closings, Arlington Pizza and Meatballs has closed as of last Friday, another victim of the economy, according to a neighbor of the business.  This was almost immediately on the heels of the closure of building-mate Dino’s Cappucinos, who closed in late January. A hard to find location may have been a contributing factor.

You all are probably getting sick of hearing me talk about Restaurant Week, and how excited I am about it. So I’m going to bring this issue up in an area that doesn’t talk about Restaurant Week directly, but restaurant news in general, just to get a gauge on how you all feel about this.

There was an article in The Other Paper a couple of days ago about how one Wayne T. Lewis, publisher of UWeekly and (the as of yet to print an actual issue) 614 Magazine, taking umbrage at Dine Originals Columbus’ use of the phrase “Restaurant Week Columbus”.

To just give a little history, there technically has been a Restaurant Week in Columbus before, put on by CORA (Central Ohio Restaurant Association) back in 2002. Current CORA president Liz Lessner was thrilled when Dine Originals Columbus wanted to resurrect the concept – a concept which, by the way, seems to be an industry standard and is done all over the country. So everything is good and everybody wins, right? The restaurants get customers in the seats, the customers get some really good fixed price meals, and everyone is happy.

Not so fast. Apparently the media group Lewis runs decided to up and trademark “Columbus Restaurant Week” back in January, and now is trying to shake down Dine Originals over their use of the name. He says that “614 Magazine’s event plans were ‘on a scale far beyond anything contemplated by your event””, and has basically accused Dine Originals of stealing his idea – an idea that has already been done in this city by the trade group that most of the major restaurateurs belong to.

Now, before I go into rant mode, let me just state the obvious. Dude, you’ve just alienated 42 of the independent restaurants and countless other restaurants that belong to CORA. Who the heck are you going to get to participate in 614′s idea of Restaurant Week? Seriously? I’m almost curious to see how this all plays out to see how much of a joke his event ends up being, especially given the ill-will and animosity he’s generated among the very people whose help he would need to execute it.

As a person who is supportive of both Dine Originals Columbus and CORA, I’m siding with them on this matter. Here’s a media group that is not only trying to profit on an idea that belongs to the restaurant industry at large, but is also trying to cast a rainy cloud over an event that people should be happy about. If anything, this has left an extremely bad taste in my mouth about both Lewis and 614 Magazine and guarantees that I will never buy an issue or attend an event they are affiliated with.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Eating Out on a Recession Budget

If your family is anything like mine, you’ve been hit fairly hard by he recession, and have had to make sacrifices to make ends meet. Rather than giving up dining out entirely, we’ve discovered some really handy resources for stretching your dining dollars in Columbus. These work for us, and may work for your family as well. I’ll also post this as a permanent page (accessible on the sidebar), and update that periodically as I get new information.

If you are aware of a deal/coupon/site/tip that I’ve missed, please comment on this post with the details.

GIFT CERTIFICATES

  • Dine Originals
    A group of local independent restaurant owners, offers (on a quarterly basis), discounted gift certificates to member restaurants. 30-50% savings for many of Columbus’ most popular restaurants. Certificates are good for six months from date of purchase.
  • Sunny 95 Online Outlet
    Which offers discounted (50% off ) gift certificates to many central Ohio restaurants. First come first served, and they are replenished each Friday morning at 9:30AM.
  • Fox 28 Good Day Columbus Dining Out Deals
    Offers discounted ($50 gift certificates for $25 plus S&H, occasionally will have certificates on clearance for $15 + S&H for a $50 gift certificate). Each Friday at 7am, 100 certificates for the restaurant of the week are released. There are always plenty of unsold certificates for previous week’s offers.
  • Restaurant.com

    Offers discounted ($25 gift certificates for $10, $10 gift certificates for $3) gift certificates that you print out on your own computer. Be sure to check the terms of conditions of each individual certificate before purchasing. There’s a special coupon code (which ends today) that allows you go get an additional 80% off the price of a gift certificate. Enter coupon code DINE at check out.

DINING CARDS/BOOKS

  • Prestige Dining Club
    Dining book & card, allows you to get buy one get one free entrees at participating restaurants (list of restaurants can be found here). Current promotion allows you to buy a single membership for $59.95, or 2 memberships for $39.95 each.
  • Save on all the things you love to do!
    Entertainment is a book that has both coupons and a punch-card. Runs the gamut from discounts on fast food to independent restaurants, to goods and services and activities around town. Offers differ with each restaurant – some may offer a free entree with the purchase of one, where others may just offer a discounted dollar amount or percentage off your bill. Their current offer, which expires at the end of March, allows you to purchase the Entertainment book for 50% off it’s normal price.

COUPON SITES

  • State Coupons, which offers discount coupons for several local restaurants
  • 360 Columbus, has a page of coupons for Columbus restaurants
  • Valpak, offers 200+ (including restaurants) coupons for the Columbus metro area

COLUMBUS DINING DEALS

  • The Refectory offers a bistro menu, where you can get 3 courses (with 2 choices for each course) for $23.95, offered Mondays through Thursdays in their lounge. Bistro menus for the current week can be seen here. Temporarily, during the winter, they’re also extending the Bistro menu to early on Friday and Saturday evenings (Friday 5-7pm, Saturday 5-6:30pm).
  • Basi Italia is currently offering a Happy Hour Deal – from 5-6:30 Monday through Thursdays, you can get half off of Basi’s dinner menu. Call 614.294.7383 to make a reservation.
  • From March 9th through 15th of this year, Dine Originals Columbus will be hosting Restaurant Week, where all 42 member restaurants will be offering either a $15 or $30 fixed price menu. A list of participating restaurants and menus can be seen here.
  • Katzinger’s is offering Recession Relief in the month of March – Corned Beef Monday has all sandwiches with corned beef (including the Reuben) discounted to $7.50 for the big one, $8.95 for the huge one; Turkey Tuesday has the same deal for sandwiches with turkey – $7.50 for the big one, $8.95 for the huge one. And make sure to get your free deli pickle with your sandwich. :) Their sandwich menu can be found here.

MISCELLANEOUS HINTS AND TIPS

  • If you tend to dine out at chain restaurants rather than at independents, purchase gift certificates beforehand at Giant Eagle. For each $50 you spend, you get .20 per gallon off a tank of gas at Giant Eagle GetGo stations.

If you are associated with a restaurant who is offering a recession special or coupon or other dining deal, and would like it listed here, please forward the details to columbusfoodieATgmailDOTcom and I’ll update this posting to include your listing.

Restaurant News 2/26/09

So a couple of closings in the past week: one temporary and one permanent. Longtime Bexley-area favorite Sammy’s has bit the dust, at least temporarily. A note on the web site says that it should be returning soon under new management – from what I understand, the new place may not have the kosher standing that Sammy’s previously has, so if you keep kosher, you may have to start looking for a new place to eat. Hopefully the new owners will keep the great customer service that Sammy was famous for. :)

With a not so positive outlook for reopening is Trattoria la Tavola, up in Dublin. While my first experience there was less than stellar, the Slow Food/Wayward Seed Farm dinner last fall made me see the restaurant in a different light. So very sad to see this one go, because when this restaurant was spot on, they rocked. Especially with their filled pastas/ravioli. This is a beautiful location, right on the river, so hopefully this building won’t be empty for long.

And then there’s places like Verdi Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria, who aren’t closed but should be! We had an unbelievably bad experience there yesterday – to explain, I’ll repost my Yelp review verbatim:

EPIC FAIL on customer service!

My husband had been here once in the past, and was really excited about taking me. However, it wasn’t clear based on their web site whether they had a separate lunch menu or one menu for the entire day, so my husband called to clarify. The owner, on the phone, explained to him that he could make anything off the menu. Really excited, and looking forward to a nice order of chicken marsala, we headed to the restaurant, 20 miles to the north.

We arrived at about 12:20 to a totally empty restaurant, save for a pathetic little buffet off to one side of the register. When we got there, my husband explained that he had called earlier. The owner asked if we had a coupon. We stated that we had a Prestige Card, and the owner said we couldn’t use it on the lunch buffet. So we said, “that’s ok, we’re not getting the buffet”, so he basically said that “well, that’s all there is right now”. Huh? What about our conversation with you about a half hour ago, where you said that you’d cook anything on the menu? His response, “well I thought you were someone special”. We were absolutely flabbergasted. This guy was refusing to cook for us, even if we weren’t using the card?

I’m in absolute disbelief that in this economy, especially standing in the middle of an empty restaurant during lunch hour, that any restaurant owner who is sane would not only turn away a paying customer, but would be so rude to them that it would virtually guarantee that said prospective customer would never return. We said as much, and left immediately in disgust. Mind you, all this transpired before he even approached us to seat us.

If it were possible to rate a restaurant with zero stars, Verdi would deserve that distinction. In all of my years of eating out, I have never been treated so poorly. Steer clear at all costs, unless you like a serving of abuse with your meal.

Also closed, although not sure how recent a development this is, is Sedeo Cafe in Powell. Shame, this is one place I always wanted to try but never seemed to get around to.

Smackie’s Smokehouse will be closed temporarily as they move to a new location. They were previously in a stand-alone building in the area of Cleveland Ave/161, but will be moving to a location in the shopping center proper at Columbus Square. They plan on reopening in the new location on March 1st.

In other closings, Nora’s Coffee Corner at 4057 Broadway in Grove City will be closing Saturday February 28th as a victim of the economy.

In opening news, it seems that a really good chain pizza restaurant, Mellow Mushroom, opened at Polaris recently next to also new chain restaurant Five Guys Burgers. Early reports on both are generally positive, with the mention that Mellow Mushroom offers tons of choices for pizza toppings.

Not open yet, but very soon now will be Barrio Tapas downtown at the corner of Spring and High (in the former Wendy’s space). I’m beyond excited about this place opening, and am absolutely drooling after reading their menu. If this restaurant delivers on what sounds like great food, there will be another gem downtown that is worth leaving the suburbs for. Any restaurant that offers migas, ropa vieja, and crab empanadas will at least get me through the door. :)

Also in the “opening soon” department is Dirty Frank’s Hot Dogs, which sources tell me is still on track for a mid-March opening. This will be opening up downtown in the former Queen Bee space. More information as it comes available.

There was also an update on the status of former Short North darlings bonoPizza on Columbus Underground, and things are looking promising in that department for them reopening in a new location in the future. I’m super excited about this, as I’ve been going through withdrawals for months now. Amazing how a shop that was open for a mere five months could inspire such as a following. If you’re wondering what the big deal is, check out my review.

One bit of restaurant news that I’m super-duper excited about is Dine Originals Columbus’s Inaugural Restaurant Week! I’ve seen this concept done in other cities and have always wondered why we weren’t doing something like this in a city with a restaurant/food scene as diverse and vibrant as Columbus’. Basically, the way it works is that all 42 of their member restaurants (all independents, natch) will offer a special fixed-price menu for that week (March 9th to 15th), for either $15 or $30. Since there are all different types of restaurants (from casual to fine dining), there is quite literally something here for everyone, and will give you the opportunity to try out restaurants you normally wouldn’t. The menus are still being loaded on to the site as we speak, so check back at this link often for updates over the next few days as it becomes available.

As the restaurant scene is changing so rapidly in these trying times (with places opening and closing almost daily), I’m looking to make this a weekly feature on the blog. So send any restaurant news (openings, closings, special events, etc) to me via email at columbusfoodieATgmailDOTcom  or comment on this post and I’ll include it in the next week’s post.