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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Restaurant Review: Goulash Place, Danbury, CT


This past week, my son, Ian, my "meta-daughter", Devin, and I went out to Goulash Place, at 42 Highland Avenue in Danbury, for lunch after church.  This restaurant, opened in1977 by John Aczel and his late wife Magda, is perhaps the only Hungarian restaurant in Connecticut and has some very good (though not universally so) reviews online.  We arrived promptly at noon, parking in the small lot behind the restaurant, and were greeted by the restaurant's owner, John Aczel, coming out of his back door and informing us that the restaurant wouldn't be open until 1:00, so the three of us piled back in the car and went off to kill some time.

Upon our return, we parked and walked around to the front of the building, where we entered from the left-side door, set back from the street.  I was surprised by how small the dining room is, with only room for a bar in one corner, a small salad bar, and a half dozen or so tables.  Hungarian tchotchkes covered the walls.  John invited us to sit wherever we liked and gave us a couple minutes to look over the menu.

Having read several reviews of the restaurant, I already knew that I wanted to try the Transylvanian goulash but, as Ian ordered that, I selected the combination plate, featuring beef, pork, and veal.  Devin, since she's a vegetarian, had fewer options and ordered pea soup and palascinta (Hungarian crepe) with mushrooms.  I also ordered stuffed cabbage as an appetizer.  The youthful members of the party got rootbeer and I ordered a dark Czech beer, then John directed us toward the very small salad bar, featuring iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumbers, pickled beets, and just a few other items.

Stuffed Cabbage
When the drinks and the stuffed cabbage arrived, I poured the .5 liter beer, pausing to photograph it, as I knew that I'd never remember the name of the beer, which featured all sorts of accents, tildes, umlauts, and other diacritical marks that I didn't even recognize.  (Unfortunately, my cell phone was stolen the next day, before I could download the pictures from it, which also serves as explanation for why all of the photographs in this blog post are ripped off from other locations on the internet.)  The beer was quite good, dark brown like a stout, but with a lighter body and a bit more nuttiness.  The cabbage was astonishingly good, made with ground pork on the inside, but with bits of briskety beef in the sauce that covered it, and a nice dollop of sour cream to give it some tartness.

The Sampler Plate
When the entrees arrived, Devin asked me to taste test her mushroom palascinta to make sure there was no meat in it.  There wasn't, and the mushrooms were fantastic, particularly with a bit of cheese melted over the top of the crepe, and her soup was quite nice.  Ian and I traded bites of food, with him falling in love with with the wiener schnitzel (Hungarian: Bécsi szelet) and me deciding that he had gotten the better deal with his plate full of pork goulash and dumplings (essentially spaetzle).  My roast pork and beef were good enough, but were a bit overdone and, rather than being just "tender" had moved on towards "soggy.".  The dumplings were very good, especially with the meat juices.  The red cabbage added a lot to the flavor palette, but the green beans were canned and soggy and the carrots were indifferent.

John Aczel with his kolbasz.
I had noticed a sign over the bar advertising homemade sausages for $7.99/lb and, before leaving, I asked John for one.  Later in the evening, when I sampled some, I found that the smoked sausage was semi-dry, garlicky with just a bit of sweetness.  While I don't know anything about Hungarian sausage styles, I do know that I like what John made.

As Ian, Devin and I drove back to church after lunch, we discussed the restaurant and how we might review it.  Ian and Devin were both very happy with their food, but I was less so.  The salad bar was minimal, feeling like a throwback to the 1970s, back when "lettuce" meant "iceberg" and the beans and carrots were better forgotten.  We all agreed that the service was a bit on the slow side, but that it was very friendly.  The small dining room meant that the smoky-smelling drinkers at the bar were a pungent presence as we ate.  Would we go back?  Probably, but I'd definitely stick with the goulash rather than the sampler plate.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Restaurant Review: Royal Guard Fish N' Chips, Danbury, CT


As part of our mission of eating at a different restaurant each week that I'm preaching in Bethel, my son and I decided to try Royal Guard Fish N' Chips/Royal Curry Corner this past Sunday.  Ian had noticed a listing for the restaurant on Yelp! and we decided to give it a try, knowing as we drove there that we'd both be eating from the Pakistani lunch buffet, yet also wanting to try their fish and chips, which gets good reviews across the interwebs.

The restaurant, at 389 Main Street in Danbury, is directly across the street from the Danbury Masjid and has a neon sign in the front window announcing "Halal Food."  When Ian and I walked in, we noticed that the restaurant was rather spartan, with a counter for placing orders in one corner and a buffet along the back wall.  The tables were bare, with yellowed newspaper designs on them, befitting a chips shop.  The other customers were largely Pakistani and wearing traditional clothing, which I took as a positive sign for the quality of the buffet.

Ian and I made our way to the buffet, lifting the lids off of the steam trays and helping ourselves to the wide variety of food.  The chicken biryani was very flavorful,.  I was reminded that this was Pakistani (Muslim) and not Indian (Hindu) as I helped myself to some well-seasoned beef curry.  Ian really enjoyed the pakoras, though I didn't sample any.  Tandoori chicken always makes me happy and Royal's tandoori chicken was better than most, moist and flavorful and fall-off-the-bone tender.  The palak paneer (spinach with fresh cheese) was quite good, as was the chana masala (curried chickpeas).

Poori, as God intended them to be but not, unfortunately,
as they appear on the buffet at Royal Fish N' Chips.
The only real disappointment of the meal was the poori (deep fried whole-wheat flatbread), which is usually a real treat.  Poori, however, doesn't belong on a buffet.  It needs to be served hot and fresh.  Unfortunately, on the steam table, the poori, which was puffed up when it comes out of the oil, collapsed into depressing soggy flatness and lost all of its light and airy goodness.   The naan (tandoori bread) was delicious, though, with a nice, nutty flavor from the sesame seeds that covered the top of the bread.

Despite the tragic poori, the meal was quite good and was also quite affordable.  Next time I go back, I'll have to make the difficult decision about whether to get more of the Pakistani fare or to get the fish and chips for which the restaurant is named.  It'll be a tough call.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Restaurant Review: Sycamore Drive-In, Bethel, CT


Since Ian and I have been going to Bethel every Sunday while I'm the supply preacher at the First Congregational Church there, we've taken the opportunity to eat at a different restaurant for lunch each week.  Our fist week, we revisited an old favorite, Pho Vietnam, but each week since, we've ventured to new and different restaurants.  On February 12, we visited the Sycamore Drive-In at 282 Greenwood Ave. in Bethel CT, which Kimberly had recommended to us, as she had once eaten there after a Master Gardener event.

A view of the interior of the Sycamore, along with my
most excellent church videographer and dining companion.
The Sycamore has been around since 1948 and has the vintage feeling of Arnold's Drive-In from Happy Days, with a black and white checkerboard floor, chrome and vinyl stools at a long counter, formica tables, and plenty of mid-20th-Century memorabilia.  Beyond the nostalgia factor, the Sycamore offers two unique features: fresh ground top-round hamburgers and homemade rootbeer, both of which are made from recipes that have been in use at the restaurant for decades.

When Ian and I arrived, we both already knew that we wanted the rootbeer and one of the members of the Bethel church had recommended that we order the fries "well done."  Kimberly had mentioned that the burgers were rather small and that we'd do well to order double burgers, so Ian and I both decided on the "Dagwood Burger," consisting of two patties, along with american cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, ketchup, and mayo.

Dagwood Burgers, large fries and homemade rootbeer!
Our meals arrived quickly, with the rich, vanilla-heavy rootbeer in frosted mugs.  Large orders of fries, it turns out, are really too large for one person, but "well done" is definitely the way to go for these fries, which are crispy on the outside and pleasantly mealy on the inside.  I don't usually like ketchup on my fries, but these ones cried out for it, taking me back to childhood.  The burgers were served wrapped in paper, which Ian made a tactical error in removing, as his condiment laden burgers leaked and had the pieces slide apart.  They definitely wrap them for a reason and my burger held together just fine and remained mess-free in its wrapper.

Whether neatly contained or not, the burgers were quite good, though the patties, at just 2.5oz each, were surprisingly thin.  They had a good, honest, cooked-on-a-griddle umami flavor.  If I had ordered the burgers elsewhere, I might have been disappointed with the iceberg lettuce, but the crispy flavorlessness of iceberg definitely fit with the overall 1950s theme of the restaurant and was good in its own way.

With the burgers finished, Ian and I turned our attention to the second plate of fries and our waiter brought us a second round of rootbeers, on the house.  I'm not sure whether this was because I was wearing clergy blacks or because I had been photographing my food, but I wasn't about to overanalyze things.  Perhaps, if you go to the Sycamore Drive-In, you might even find out that everyone gets free refills on their rootbeer.  Just be sure to take cash, because the good folks at Sycamore don't take plastic or checks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Preaching at FCC, Bethel

First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Bethel, Connecticut
For the last few weeks, I've been preaching at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Bethel, CT.  Their pastor of thirteen years, Dr. Sheldon Smith recently retired and their interim minister, Rev. Laura Westby, won't start until March 5, so I've been filling the pulpit as something of an "interim interim minister."  I've been sharing the pulpit with the congregation's Licensed Parish Associate, Jane Ellingwood, and have been enjoying myself immensely as I lead both the 10:00am and 6:00pm worship services, which are distinctly different in style.  The 10:00am service is a "traditional" service, with three hymns, choir, organ, and full liturgy.  At 6:00, the service is more intimate and relaxed, with a guitarist playing for the songs, only one scripture reading, and is concluded with a potluck supper in the church hall.

I've been impressed by this friendly congregation.  They've welcomed me into their family and have been receptive to the small changes that I've suggested.  Most notably, they've been enthusiastic about the modification that I've made to the traditional "Please turn off your cell phones" announcement at the beginning of the service.  Now, the announcement goes something like, "Please take out your phones and check in on Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social media.  Silence your devices, but please use them to let your friends who are not here know what they're missing."  There's also been a lot of interest in the way that I have Ian videorecord all of my sermon and then post them to youtube (www.youtube.com/revpaulucc) so that those who miss the service can still be able to experience worship.

Just this morning, I received a call from one of FCC Bethel's deacon co-chairs, asking if I would be willing to add an extra Sunday to my time with them, so I've agreed to preach there on March 4, which will have me celebrating communion with them on my last Sunday there.  Already, though, I'm looking forward to the possibility of returning as a guest preacher when Laura takes her vacation or for a special program on the story of the Amistad.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Restaurant Review: Pontos Taverna, Norwalk CT

Valentine's Day was a bust, what with my working at the hospital all day and then having (cough) getting to go to the Winter Concert at Brien McMahon High School, where Ian performed in both the Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble.  Actually, the concert was really quite good, even if I am left wondering what kind of person schedules a school concert for Valentine's Night.

Sweethearts out for a romantic
post-Valentine's Day lunch.
Wednesday, though, was a Different Story.  Kimberly declared that, in celebration of Valentine's Week, we would go and have lunch at Pontos Taverna, the relatively new Greek restaurant that had caught her attention a while back.  She had made a reconnaissance of the place a couple weeks prior and came away with the notion that it would be well worth a repeat visit, with me in tow.  Since the car was in the shop, we walked down to 7 Isaac Street for lunch, arriving just a smidge after the lunch rush was past.

Dolmades!
After being seated and given menus, it quickly became obvious that Kimberly knew just what she was going to order: a pork souvlaki sandwich.  For the sake of having different things to taste, I settled on the gyro (please pronounce that "gyeer-oh", with a very soft G, not "jie-roe") sandwich, which I ordered with french fries and xtipiti, a spicy feta cheese spread for a dollar extra.  Our server went out of her way to be informative and helpful, explaining that the french fries were served inside the sandwich and recommended that Kimberly and I also get a separate order of fries to share. Of course, we also had to get an order of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves).

Kimberly's souvlaki sandwich.
My gyro sandwich.
French fries to share.
The dolmades, made with meat and rice and served cold, were a great beginning to the meal.  Kimberly was very pleased with her souvlaki sandwich and she allowed me a bite of it, it being Valentine's Week.  As good as it was, I was much more impressed with the gyro.  While I generally like gyros (or doner, if eating Turkish instead of Greek), this one was particularly good.  Instead of the usual ground-meat version, this  gyro was made of sliced meat, stacked on a vertical, rotating spit, with the resulting product being a bits of lovely, browned meat, rather than strips of homogenized beef and lamb.  The xtipiti, which was new to me, was wonderful, adding nice bite to the sandwich, instead of the typical tzatziki sauce, with its yogurt and cucumber flavor.  As to the french fries in the sandwich, they lost their structural integrity and mostly just gave a carbohydrate boost, which definitely wasn't necessary.  The fries that were served on the side were fabulous, though, fresh-cut and served nice and hot with salt and oregano.  The only thing that would have made them better would be a squeeze of lemon juice.

Since it was our Valentine's Day-ish date, Kimberly and I decided to get coffee and dessert.  She got an order of baklava, which looked to be enough to feed a small army, and an American coffee.  I had the tiramisu, similarly large, and a Greek coffee, which was served in a cute, but decidedly right-handed demitasse set.  Somehow, I didn't manage to take any dessert photos; I'll let you guess why.

Other than the strangeness of the right-hand-only coffee, Pontos was fantastic and I expect that Kimberly and I may well make this one of our regular stops when we're looking for somewhere tasty and close to home.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Waffles & Maple Syrup

When I was in the pulpit every Sunday, people would regularly tell me that they wouldn't be in church the following week.  I always appreciated the information, since it kept me from wondering if they were sick or if they had wandered away, disgruntled, because I had said something they didn't like in a sermon.  The point, though, is that most people -- even faithful, church-going people -- play hookey from church from time to time.

I did it this morning.

I didn't have a preaching gig anywhere and I figured that, after twenty years of church work, I had earned the right to blow off church, make some waffles and read the New York Times.  At least once.  Next week, I'll be back preaching at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of Bethel, CT, where I'm filling in between the settled pastor who retired and the interim, who doesn't arrive until March.

So, about the waffles:  Ten years ago, I bought Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which is probably my single favorite cookbook and is now out in a revised tenth anniversary edition.  Bittman's "Overnight Waffles" (recipe at bottom of this post) are yeasty and delicious and are my favorite waffle recipe, though I haven't made sourdough waffles, yet.  This morning, I pulled out all the stops and made the waffles, along with cinnamon bananas (Recipe: slice bananas, add cinnamon, serve on top of waffles.), sausage links and bacon (I had a half package left over from making Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon, so why not?).  I brewed up a pot of coffee, poured some OJ, cursed the fact that our waffle iron only makes two waffles at a time, and ladled in the first batch of batter.

As the waffles cooked, I pulled our quart bottle of maple syrup from the refrigerator and prepared to heat up the syrup.  (Real maple syrup, of course -- not that artificially flavored corn syrup crap marketed as "pancake syrup.") To my chagrin, I found that the bottle had only a dribble left in it.  I looked in the pantry to see if we had a bottle in reserve, but didn't see any.  I was approaching a psychological meltdown when Kimberly, using her super X-ray vision, peered w---a---y into the back of the cabinet and found a bottle that I had missed.

As the Queen of the Universe produced the miraculous bottle of life-giving syrup from the recesses of the cabinet, I thought back to when we had bought it, straight from the woman who had tapped the trees, at a farmers' market in Vermont when we had gone there on vacation a year and half ago .  It was "Grade B" rather than "Grade A" like most grocery stores carry, and I was excited to find it.  Contrary to what most folks would expect, the USDA grading system for maple syrup assigns the highest rating for the syrup that has the least maple flavor and color, a system that dates back to when maple syrup was used as a general purpose sweetener and people didn't want everything they used it in to taste like maple.

"Grade A Light Amber" is at the top of the list, followed by "Grade A Medium Amber" and "Grade A Dark Amber."  It isn't until position number four that "Grade B" designates the darkest and most maple-flavored syrup that is available to consumers.  "Grade C" is substandard for normal use and is only available to industrial producers of maple flavored products like bacon and flavored oatmeal.

This morning, as I bit into my "Grade B" maple syrup covered waffles, I was blown away by the flavor, which was much richer and much more intense than the dribble in the first bottle.  Now, I'm going to have to make sure that I always buy "Grade B" syrup, as I have come to the well-considered conclusion that Grade A is for sissies.

Maple Syrup from the pantry today.
  Grade A Dark Amber on left.  Grade B on right.
The darker color is matched by a much more intense taste.


Overnight Waffles
Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (I use 1.5c all-purpose flour and .5c whole wheat flour.)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups milk
  • 8 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (My mother's rule is "always double the vanilla."  Just sayin'.)
  • 2 eggs

Directions:
1. Before going to bed, combined the dry ingredients, then stir in the milk, butter and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap or a tight-fitting lid and let stand overnight at room temperature.
2. Grease and preheat your waffle iron. Separate the eggs and stir the yolks into the batter. Beat the whites until they hold soft peaks. Fold them into the batter.
3. Ladle the batter into the waffle and waffle until light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes depending on your waffle iron.