Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Town Ave. Coffee & Tea - Uber Casual Bistro Dining

The New Town Coffee & Tea eatery is located in the back of Parlett's Card Shop - a longtime Williamsburg purveyor supplying birthday cards and fancy cocktail napkins the genteel host or hostess. At first glance, you could easily dismissed the counter displays of pastries and chocolates as just another coffee bar but there is a breakfast-lunch-dinner menu that one could easily find in the upper 80s and 90s of Madison Avenue in Manhattan. In fact, the name of this place is soooo understated, that I had no idea that a first rate bistro menu was even available (although you place your order at the counter and then find a seat at the rudimentary tables). And so we have a situation. I love the fact that this place is a hidden gem but perhaps a more enticing name would bring the crowds they so deservingly deserve. Borrowing from my very favorite Lexington Avenue diner...how about "Eat Here Now!"

I don't know the full story of the chef/owner who decided to take up residence in a upscale card shop in the horrible Truman Show-esque, perfectly planned community of "New Town", but I'm glad they are here. For breakfast, one could have a number of egg dishes from a hole in one French toast to an oat meal souffle.

I have had lunch here several times now and the soup is a must which changes every so often-soup du le saison. The current offering is a creamy Tequila roasted chicken with corn. I have enjoyed the lamb chop salad and the grilled mozzarella sandwich. My friend Hank has sampled the decandent duck confit sandwich and exclaimed that it was "frickin good". I thought the avocado and grapefruit salad was going to be a sublime experience but it turned out to be disappointing as it was drenched in an Italian dressing that tasted like it came straight from the bottle. A lighter treatment is warranted in my opinion.

The dinner menu is tastefully written and as their website proclaims, it "speaks for itself."  I would suggest that it actually shouts: "Lamb Chop Provencal Merlot Reduction", and "Grilled Rockfish Salad" and "Wild Mushroom Studel with Whipped Brie."  A selection of wine is also offered.

If I had more civility (and companions of a similar ilk) I would definitely check out the "light afternoon tea" - note Reservations Required!

New Town Ave Coffee and Tea is gradually being discovered by the more food astute Willliamsburg resident but we need to spread the word! Word of mouth is important--as my friends Luke and Peggy told me after being told by another friend.  The food at this place is terrific and you get acclimated to the lack of atmosphere-like living in Orlando I guess. The prices are right. And its a perfect place to write your thank you notes on the cards you can purchase at Parlett's. I should write the owners of the New Town Ave Coffee and Tea a big thank you while I'm at it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Charly's at the Airport - Where the Boys Are

Many people will find it hard to believe that Williamburg has an actual airport much less a wonderful little lunch spot. If you need some proof before visiting, check out the book by John F. Purner, The $100 Hamburger: A Guide to Pilot's Favorite Fly-In Restaurants. Apparently Charly's is rated quite high (#5 I think). Unfortunately, they don't seem to have a hamburger on the menu though. If you can't locate this book, just jump into your vintage Cessna 150E and navigate to the small landing strip adjacent to James River. If you are stuck on the ground, the Williamsburg Jamestown Airport is off of Lake Powell Road just south of Route 199 and on your way to the Williamsburg Winery.

Charly's is basically a lunch counter with a soup, sandwich, and salad menu open during the week from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and a little longer on the weekend. It is a small place with a dozen tables virtually on the runway. You can even get closer to the action if you can snag one of the outdoor tables in nice weather. The sandwich bread is baked daily and you must order the dark brown Bavarian wheat. It's like eating chocolate cake and its goes fast so show up early otherwise you will end up with white or regular wheat.

On our visit we chose a sandwich-The Chandler-off the menu and the "special" ribeye on the Bavarian wheat. The Chandler turn out to be ok-nothing special-but the "special" was especially good. The lesson here is to be adventurous in ordering the daily special. The homemade sides and soups are also excellent choices.

Given its exotic location, you could ask who goes to Charly's? Well, a bunch of old guys seem to hang out there-those 70s year olds who love their planes. In addition, you see the Williamsburg power brokers: developers and chamber of commerce types. I have seen Navy pilots flying vintage World War II planes stop in as well as the "my other plane is a Ferrari" types with their latest girlfriend in tow.

Charly's would be a great treat for dads and their sons or daughters interested in dining with airplanes close up and personal. It was a treat for me to see my friend Hank get into the experience and share his knowledge of small plane aviation. Did you know that you can track any aircraft by their tail numbers on this website: http://flightaware.com/live/? Next time, I'm going to find out how far the pilots have flown for their lunch. Charly's is a perfect place to impress your friends and neighbors with your inside knowledge of the Williamsburg scene.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sweet Home Philadelphia-The Oyster House

Ok...I hate Williamsburg. Or at the very least, I realized this blog is wishful thinking that Williamsburg will actually have a good place to eat someday.

Tonight, I'm on one of my frequent business trips to Philadelphia. Over the years, I have found a number of really neat low-budget eateries-from Lebanese to Belgian to Italian foods. Within a few hours of checking in today, I read a review in the weekly PM magazine for the Oyster House on Sansom Street and developed an immediate hankering for the highly touted Oyster House Punch--a rum and apricot brandy concoction. In addition, the Oyster House had a promising raw bar menu.

We sat at the marble topped bar in the spacious restaurant that featured a separate raw bar and very nice seating throughout. The young bartender-a native of Detroit-was instrumental in making sure we were well served. We first ordered the special house punch and a draft stout both exceedingly good and potent. There were at least 7 varieties of oysters available from Maine to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. We simply asked the young bartender to select his favorite and we had a mixed dozen-a very sublime experience. The varied seafood menu was incredibly appetizing and we went with the recommended small plates. We had grilled sardines on crostini and a cajun style, whole shrimp in an amazing sauce of fish stock and jalapeno peppers.

A second round of drinks were in order and I placed myself at the mercy of the barkeep who recommended a Dark and Stormy. They make their own ginger beer and I almost wept at the suggestion. I was seriously considering spending the rest of the evening sampling the menu and more rum-based drinks but we pulled away to hit our favorite Monk's cafe--a Belgian beer and mussel joint. Unfortunately Monk's had been closed due to a strange structural problem with the building. We had some mussels and calamari in a nearby Italian bistro instead..which were great but the restaurant was also BYOB and we were SOOL.

On the way home, I decided to end with dessert back at the Oyster House. They were happy to see us back at the bar. We had a light plum rum cake with vanilla ice cream and the most incredible root liqueur...a sassafras tasting distillation made in the Philadelphia area. At this hour, all I can say is wow! I can not think of a single Williamsburg experience that could come close to this evening's outing on the streets of Philadelphia. Oh well, tomorrow we head home, taking some geological samples from White Clay Creek in Newark, DE and picking my prodigal son up from Dulles who has just spent two months in London, Paris, and Berlin. Maybe we will have Mexican food somewhere on our return

Monday, August 31, 2009

Best Hotdog in Williamsburg? The Wiener is...

Although it is not as pertinent as it once was, the all-American hotdog remains a staple of the carnivore's diet. Food networks have devoted entire shows about the regional manifestations of the dog...from Mexican potato-chip toppings to the tomato and pepper vegetation of Chicago. The local Williamsburg hotdog has no specific cultural or geographic affiliation. It is truly a mutt among the more pedigreed types found throughout the country- i.e. the cheese coney of Cincinnati.

For this evaluation my friend Hank joined me for a lunchtime jaunt through five of Williamsburg's hotdog joints in search of the best bite. Hank's qualifications include a healthy appetite and the realization that spending the day eating hotdogs was probably a bad, bad thing to do. But boy did we have fun.

We started with Gus's Hotdogs out on Richmond Road which occupies a modest building (once a Dairy Queen) on the tourist strip. The Williamsburg restaurant is part of a Greek-owned "chain" in nearby Newport News and has a loyal local following. The modest (and extremely affordable) menu is very direct with grilled hotdogs on squishy white-bread buns and the regular assortment of toppings. Cheese and chili covered fries are a speciality item. The general complaint about the Gus hotdog is its slim size. The girth challenged dog is something that champion hotdog eaters could fantasize about. The experience set the stage for implementing Hank's "bun to meat ratio" for the rest of the day's evaluation. If you have a carful of small, hungry kids...Gus's is your place! A grown-up could easily eat 2, 3, or more hotdogs here. Since we were on a mission, we stopped at one apiece. As a bonus, the hotdog sculpture seen in the above photograph is probably the best contemporary folk art in town.

The next stop was the Williamsburg General Store on Richmond Road. This store wins hands down for the amount and variety of tourist trinkets for sale under one roof. They also have a huge road sign advertising Nathan's Hotdogs-the New York standard. We were really looking forward to this but apparently the inside restaurant has not opened all summer...a disappointing non-starter here. (PS...take the darn sign down!!!)

We next ventured down to Retro's Good Eats on Prince George Street adjacent to the Historic Area. Retro's has long advertised "Williamsburg's Best Hotdog". The gimmick that draws you into believing this is the huge selection of toppings that are offered: from blue cheese cole slaw to bacon to jalapenos. Retro's is not for the indecisive. We found our hotdogs overpowered by the toppings and the large, yellowish bun. It was hard to actually enjoy the meat (I know that's an arbitrary hotdog term) and we left feeling the most queasy of all the stops. The fresh cut fries and limeades are definitely worth the visit though. You could spend some money here if you are not careful. I would probably visit more often except for the blaring canned doo-wop music which creates an old-timey, soda fountain experience.

I was looking forward to our next hotdog destination - The Golden Horseshoe Grill overlooking the 18th hole of the famed Green Course at Colonial Williamsburg. In years past, lunchtime dining in this beautiful spot generated fond memories both from the ambience and one of the largest hotdogs available to the general public (outside of a Love Shop catalog). The hotdog was particular well served by a wonderful sweet red-pepper relish.

But like memories, expectations often pale in light of current economic realities. When we arrived today, not a soul was seated in the lovely dinning room or outdoor veranda. A lone barkeep/server suggested the grill was still in operation but offered only a limited menu of pre-packaged sandwiches and -thank God-hotdogs. So we sat and wondered how things had changed. We heard the microwave "grilling" our dogs which arrived as plump as ever accompanied with the beloved red pepper goop and a handful of potato chips. The mustard came in little plastic packages (how far the mighty CW dining experience has fallen). This used to be a contender for Williamsburg's best hotdog experience but I guess all good things come to an end.

By now the romantic notion of eating our way through Williamsburg's hotdog genre was beginning to wear off. But I had one more place to try - The Queen Anne Dairy Snak located on the eastside of town on Route 143. The Queen Anne Dairy Snak is one of those picturesque, circa 1950s, slices of roadside Americana. Its staff and clientele clearly represent a cross-section of the demographic spectrum--all good things.

Here you order at the window and take a number. I have long frequented the QADS for their soft-serve ice cream and had studied the menu of fried seafood, subs, burgers, etc. religiously but always have been too chicken to order anything but ice cream. Boy my reticence was clearly a mistake. For $5.70 we got two hotdogs all the way and two medium cokes which by far turned out to be the best, authentic experience of the day. Grilled to perfection and topped with fresh chili, mustard, and onions, these dogs were clearly made with love and attention. They even came cased in these colorful wrappers that vividly proclaimed "HotDog" on the inside. We sat at the rickety picnic table on the "veranda" beneath the large air-handling unit and congratulated ourselves about finding the best hotdog in Williamsburg at the The Queen Anne Dairy Snak.

South of the Border - No Burma Shave Here

This Mexican restaurant's name may evoke memories of those family trips down I-95 to Florida and the fantastically tacky tourist trap just on the North Carolina/South Carolina state line but you won't find Pedro in this place. Like many towns across the nation, Williamsburg now has a plethora of the typical chip and salsa"Mexican" eateries. Without question, South of the Border on 2nd Street is the best of this genre in the local area. It is a family run establishment and great care seems to go in making every meal fresh and consistent. The tortila chips and salsa greet you as you are seated but I guarantee they are better than most. In addition, a small bowl of bean con queso broadens the dipping experience.

Based on my observations, the standard burrito, taco, and enchiladas plates seem to carry the day with most of the local patrons. Big crowds of CW employees can be found during the lunch rush. I would recommend however, the carne asada, or the carne asade tacos, and my favorite, camarones diablo-the devil shrimp. The latter are large shrimps in a spicy tomato sauce. When this dish was first introduced, I would end up drenched from head to toe from the heat. Unfortunately, some namby pamby customers complained about the spice level and the cooks have toned it down considerably. But you can insist on it extra hot. Always ask for a bowl of the hot salsa regardless to drench any of the menu items.

I eat here a lot but the best recommendation is the crowded tables of the local latino community enjoying the food and the wide-screen Mexican soccer channel. There is a cool bar with a good selection of Mexican beer--some on draft--and good margaritas. I need to remember to order the tamales more often. Or as that famous billboard on I-95 points out: Chili today, hot tamale! Try South of the Border and tell them Pedro sent you.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Capitol Pancake House - Where the Local Constabulary Eats

There are plenty of caricatures about the eating habits of our men and women in blue but you know it is a good sign when you see the police cars congregated in a restaurant's parking lot without a misdemeanor in sight. Such is the case (no pun intended here) with the weekday breakfast scene at the Capitol Pancake House--one of many of the town's Greek owned syrup and batter places. What's sets the Capitol PH apart is the local following of both LE and civilians of many sizes and shapes. (Warning: eating daily at any pancake house tends to push the shapes towards the rotund side of the spectrum.)

The Capitol is conveniently and coincidentally located on Capitol Landing Road near the Historic Area. The large restaurant is staffed with a core group of long-time waitresses who will remember your preferences after you become a regular. Besides the competent but standard breakfast food, the locals are tempted by a discount card that the Capitol offers to its regular patrons. And the tenth meal is free! It's a shame they don't offer a discount for a local gym though.

The Capitol also offer a nice lunch selection but you won't find any health food among the burgers, sandwiches, and pasta dishes. The close proximity of the restaurant to Colonial Williamsburg entices many of the hard working employees for lunch...you can expect to see someone in colonial garb at every lunch hour without having to buy a ticket.

I would recommend the Capitol to all locals looking for a decent breakfast spot. If you are a tourist, it is great as well. I can't imagine how a visitor goes about choosing a pancake house given the wide variety of names and locations. If you are indecisive, come here!

Now let's see...if I eat breakfast and lunch here on Monday and Tuesday (Tuesday is double stamp day on your discount card) only three more meals until my free one! Or is it four? No matter how you do the math, I hope to see you there. Just don't have any outstanding warrants.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hog Wild Smokehouse - Perhaps Hog Mild is More Appropriate

I was looking forward to trying this restaurant for several reasons.  I have driven by the ramshackle looking frame building way out on Route 60 past Toanao several times in the recent past noticing the overflowing parking lot and wood smoke belching from the cooker-both good signs.  I had also read several positive reviews on the internet.  I also love barbeque. And finally, it was my birthday celebration dinner with my sweetie.

Maybe because we had sat through the new Julie & Julia movie and were sated by digitally mastered French dishes.  Or that maybe we had a little too much popcorn.  But I wanted desperately to like this restaurant.  I was even mentally planning to bring my British friends for an American-style pig out. But as you may predict by now, I did not have a great experience.

The restaurant bills its fare as: "Traditional smokehouse barbeque and authentic Creole cuisine."  We tried the barbequed chicken, pulled pork, and brisket and ended up asking for a to-go box but not because the portions were too large.  We left the seasoned plank fries behind. 

Several Cajun/New Orleans specialities are featured on the menu and perhaps we may try them at some point.  Fortunately for me, my son spent a year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette-so I know something about Cajun food. But based  on this one dinner, I would say the food was OK but the dim interior was oppressively uncomfortable.  Service however, was both earnest and pleasant.

The best part of the meal was coming home to a Craig Claiborne recipe cheesecake made by my special birthday chef.