Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bloomington/Normal Day 3: JJ's

One of my favorite movies of all time is "The Blues Brothers".  In that movie, the part when the brothers go to recruit Matt Guitar Murphy from his verbally abusive wife, played by Aretha Franklin, they go to a really run-down restaurant, resembling a hole in the wall. What I like about that scene, is that Aretha's character refers to their fried chicken as the "best fried chicken in the whole state."  So, very similar, there is this awesome place in Bloomington called Super JJ's.

The place is small, has old ceiling tiles, has some old carpet and floor tiles, looks like this:

But there is the kicker: the food is freakin' amazing.  The fried fish is so fresh and clean.  The fries are delicious.  I have ordered their wings before and they are so good they make me and anyone else want to take some "to go" and make the 2 hour drive back home with it.  I ordered something new, which is on that sign in the middle of the counter, near the hot sauce squeeze bottle.  I ordered a chicken sandwich.

It may not look like much, but that fried chicken sandwich was the best chicken sandwich I have ever eaten.  This is a big deal considering that during my teenage years I had lived on a mix of the chicken sandwich from Burger King and Mcnuggets from McDonalds.  It is amazing and perfectly cooked.  An easy 3 out of 5 stars.  Please look them up and go there. 

  • 1510 W Market
    Bloomington, IL 61701

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bloomington/Normal Day 2: Destihl

So, Destihl is this brewery/restaurant that had told us the previous day that they only take reservations.  So, I we made reservations and when we got there, we still had to wait for a table.  I'm sure there is a Jerry Seinfeld episode about the purpose of having a reservation and this always reminds me of that.  When I worked at a restaurant and I heard that we had a reservation coming in an hour or even coming at a certain time, I quickly went into action putting a table together.  Under my supervision, I never had a reserved table wait.  I'm not saying wait a few minutes or wait longer, but I mean that the party would come in, tell me their name and their reservation and I would sit them: that easy. 
So, this place does what Schlafly does, for example.  They have a brewery/restaurant combo.  We sat down, ordered our food and was stuck in the curse of slow food and service, which we have been experiencing the whole trip so far then.  So, besides the slow service, what did we get?  The first item was deep fried bacon, tempura style.

Crispy crunchy fried batter on maple bacon.  A 3 out of 5 stars.

I ordered one of their signature dishes: Thai Fried Chicken.

It was a drumstick and breast piece, fried lightly with a thin coating and covered in these Thai flavors, like the flavors in a Phad Thai noodle dish.  It was a 3 out of 5 stars.

So, it was an okay place, not very child friendly and if you are hungry and you want to order, get a beer and get food within 30-40 minutes, then this isn't the place for you.  We also happened to seat in "Spot A" as I had mentioned earlier.

DESTIHL® - Opened November 2007
318 S. Towanda Avenue 
Normal, IL 61761 
P: 309-862-2337  F: 866-381-0349

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Bloomington/Normal Day 1: Flat Top

For work, I was sent to Bloomington with my family.  This meant that while my wife had meetings, I was allowed to take our two kids someplace and keep them busy.  The last time I had gone to Bloomington, was about last year or so for the same reasons.  Anyhow, on the first day, we were looking for dinner and decided to try out the restaurant right next door to our hotel, on Tonawanda Avenue.  The restaurant was called Destihl and we walked in, asked for a seat for 5 and then the hostess asked if we had a reservation.  I had said "no" and then she told me that they only take reservations and without a reservation it would be about an hour till we could have a table. 

A personal peeve of mine, is when a restaurant hostess or seater tells me that there is a wait and then you look around yourself and see 3 or 4 booths open that could sit 2-4 each, and a large table/booth against the wall that could seat 6.  We will call that table/booth combo "Spot A", because it will become important later on.  So, we left and walked just across the street to a place that looks like a steak house, called FlatTop.

FlatTop is an interesting place.  It is so interesting that it could work in other cities, like Saint Louis.  You walk in, get a table and then order.  Their special item is a food bowl, prepared on a giant flat top and then delivered to your table. 

So, what happens is that you grab a long wooden sign on a post and write your name on the sign.  Then you go up to the very large bar where they have all kinds of rices, noodles, vegetables and meats and pick your stuff that goes into your bowl.

Not only did they have everything labeled nicely, but behind this bar, on the wall, they had a whole sign describing the calories of each prepared item or sauce along with the spicy level.  So, you fill your bowl up and then take it to the bar surrounding the cooks.  There you can make any last minute changes, like turn your bowl into a soup or a salad.  Whichever change you make, you place a colored plastic stick into your food, so that the cooks know how you want it prepared.  So, they cook it, and get it to you just as you had ordered it.

I would give the place, atmosphere, food and everything else a 3 out of 5 stars.  The only issue we had with it was that since the flat top cooking area was a certain size and they have a lot of vegetables and things that appear to be raw, it takes a lot of time to get everything cooked.  Since it is the only cooking method of the food there, it is possible that you may have your bowl at the cook's bar, ready to be cooked, fr as much as 5-15 minutes before there is a space on the cook-top to cook it.  I went back for seconds after the first bowl was finished within 2-3 minutes.  The second bowl sat there, waiting and waiting and after it was delivered to me, the rest of my table had eaten and was ready to go. I would give the service as far as the cooking is concerned, maybe a 2 and 1/2 stars out of 5.  Someone has to know that this is a problem and they need to be thinking of solutions.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cafe Mochi

My wife used to think that there was a curse on South Grand, in St. Louis.  This curse, was one best described as good food and bad service.  There are some great places on South Grand.  In fact, the only place that I have been, so far, that has good service and good food is called Meskerem.  The other places; Natasha's, The Vine, Lemongrass, and Cafe Mochi, have good food and bad service.

Cafe Mochi is a nicely done restaurant, selling Japanese and Asian food, along South Grand.  It may be the last restaurant in that area, on that side of the street.  It was a nice day outside and we chose to sit outside.  We noticed at least 3 people, wearing black, wondering around and talking to customers so I thought that there would be 3 servers at 10 tables which seems like a no-brainer.  But, little did I know that there was only 1 server, and two bussers.

After ordering and waiting about 25 minutes, we got our food. I had ordered their Kabob dish.  Be very careful when you order and look at the menu, because the way the menu was arranged, they had a list of specialty sushi rolls and then the last item in that list, was a Kabob platter.  The plate was described and in no way mentioned anything of being a roll or a sushi.  It just didn't make any sense.  The plate I had received looked like this:
So, it at least looked good.  The potatoes were seasoned and cooked, the salad was anemic, the meat was cooked thoroughly, the onions were still crunchy, the peppers were soft, the mushrooms were hard and the squash was hard.  It seemed some items were cooked perfectly and others were not.  The food was good and I'd give it a 3 out of 5 stars.

This is where the bad service gets displayed.  This restaurant with the above mentioned ones, all have a habit of getting the customer their food and then disappearing.  They never send a server or anyone to come back and ask how the food was, how we are doing or if they can get us anything else.  They don't come back when someone spills their drink, they don't bring everything ordered and they basically just act like they took care of the customer and they sit back and wait for their tip.  The problem we have with these types of servers, is that they don't get our normal tips.  

I know that the cost of the food and labor and the main payments of the chefs are in the cost of the food.  So, the amount I tip, goes to the server.  If service was bad, I tip as low as 15% or even 10%.  If the service is great, I'll go as high as 20%.  In this place, when we ask the server a question, she would say "ok" and then not come back or not get us different drinks, or the food we had ordered, etc.  It seemed that she thought that she would just deliver stuff and hide.  Now, she paid a lot of attention to other tables, and even stood and talked at some, but at ours, she tried to stay away.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Strange Donuts

I think it best to show you how great it was, while we didn't pay attention to the movie, the food and food trucks were great, at Food Truck Friday at the Art Museum.

We tried food from Pie on the fly:

The pie slice was eaten, by me, before I took a picture of it.  I'd say a 3 out of 5 stars.  They are located about 20 feet down the street from Strange Donuts, on Sutton.

So, how many people show up at these nights on Art Hill, in Forest Park?  Well...

Afterwards, as the mosquitoes started to come out and attack us, we visited Strange Donuts.  This is Strange Donuts:

Let me try to explain the love for Strange Donuts:  When I was young, my father used to take me or one of my other 3 brothers to the best donut shop in the city, called Donut Drive-in.  The Donut Drive-in, was a smallish building with a tiny one lane drive through window.  At times when there were no cars driving through, we used to walk up to the drive through window and look in and watch the older gentleman baker carefully make each donut batch, by hand.  The smell of the baking process was incredible.  After we watched, we went in and my dad would let us choose a donut that we wanted.

This donut place, is featured on all sorts of Route 66 shows and cooking shows as the donuts win awards for the fact that they are hand-cut and cooked donuts.  The bakers in this shop have been making these donuts for at least close to a hundred years, I would guess, since my father knew of it being there already in the 50's.  Every trip that I took to this donut place was special, it was special time with my father and brothers as we would sit on the hood of his car, in the lot and eat our freshly cooked donuts.  This was before fake flavors, high fructose corn syrup and any other preservatives.  These donuts felt like a warm hug or the sunlight on your face on a cold day.  They were incredible and I thought no other donut could come close.  

But then there is Strange Donuts:
I am going to say it, but if the Donut Drive-in has the best donuts in the Metropolitan area, Strange Donuts has the second best.  There are all kinds and flavors of donuts at Strange Donuts, but when a bite in any one of them brings back the memories of my childhood and the Donut Drive-In, while other donut places have been unable to do so, means that this place is that good.  The flavors are varied and delicious and taste so old school that they must have found so classic or traditional recipes.  I can't say that they are the best in Saint Louis.  It would be to me as saying that there is a restaurant that makes a dish better than your grandmother or mother.  Would you actually say that?  This donut spot has been the location of so many happy food memories that only a really, really good donut place could come close to even being thought of next to it.

All the donuts, as weird as they were, were also all delicious.  They were new as while I have made my own maple and bacon donut, I have never seen a gooey butter cake donut.  I have to give them, at Strange Donuts, a 4 out of 5 stars.  They are good and strange and weird and non of their flavors are half-thought of.  I mean that if they wanted to do a Smores donut, they do so even with a marshmallow on top.  I wish the guys at Strange Donuts the best of luck and happiness.  I hope that they get spread out throughout the city and bring happy memories to those that they server and see.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

First time at Baxter's

Baxter's is a restaurant in Lake Ozark, boasting a huge lake view, which it does have.  Their website mentions that they are a restaurant the has a great bar and serves great American food.  That is the idea and it seems to be close to what is really served.  I went with my family and in-laws, we were seated at a table on the patio, overlooking the lake at sunset.

Now, first off, the food was good but nothing as interesting as other restaurants that hold the "fine dining" phrase in their name.  I ordered the "Baxter's steak burger" and to the heartbreak of my father-in-law, who loves the food there, the burger was slightly dry.  They describe it as "our special blend of striploin, ribeye and tenderloin freshly ground in house daily".

 The problem wasn't that it didn't have flavor.  The problem was that on a large bun with a piece of lettuce, slice of tomato and 3 rings of red onion, didn't add any moisture to the burger, which tasted like dry meatloaf in the center.  So, the outside was seasoned properly but the inside was arid like a desert and it actually took the moisture out of my mouth, like a saltine cracker.  Every bite I took, I had to take a sip of my drink.  So, here I am about 1/3rd of the way through my burger and my mouth is still dry.  I figure I would start to try some of my side dish. 

I had chosen to have the "roasted red bliss potatoes", which probably meant something poetical to them.  To me, it meant that they were steak cut fries, as seen in the picture, sprinkled with Kosher salt, dried parsley, and roasted in such a way that one of them could have a crispy outer shell and soft on the inside while another one could have a soft outside and be almost raw on the inside.  I ate another fry and it was cooked well.  It was like sticking your hand in a bag of black and white marbles and without looking, trying to pull out a black marble.  You win or lose and it was or seemed completely random.  I'd give the dish a 3 out of 5.

As far as service was concerned, the only thing that really stuck out was the fact that even the salads were dry.  There was a teaspoon of dressing on a giant salad.  So, when my wife asked for a little bowl of balsamic vinegar, to go on her salad, we were amazed at how quickly and nicely the waitress responded with a "yeah".  Then we never heard from her again.  Maybe she fell in the lake.  That waitress, actually never got back to us, she didn't even bring the kids their ice creams that came with their meals.  That was a different waitress.  Our waitress vanished and I had us all asking, out loud, "was that our waitress?" Pointing at a server in the corner, then wondering as another waitress walked by and another.  When a table loses their waitress and can't find her anywhere, then that is a problem.

Food okay overall, atmosphere was great with a great view.  Menu and restaurant was kid friendly.  It was a smoke free restaurant but there were people smoking on one of the lounge chairs while they were waiting for a table. But as I said, it was okay for the price.
2124 Bagnell Dam Blvd, Lake Ozark, MO 65049
(573) 365-2669

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It was the dog days, on the lake

It was my second time there, but the first time that I had eaten on one of the tributaries from the main restaurant.  Dog Days is a restaurant, situated on the Lake.  Like other places, it has parking access for cars and docks for boats.  It is shaped like a long line, with the main restaurant, then an outdoor deck like seating and eating area, a bar then a another seating area and then another covered area with bar and seats for eating again.  It runs parallel with the shore of the lake and allows everyone who sits there, to see the lake, which is cool.  The place had live music starting up while we finished our meal, on Thursday evening and was really starting to get busy, but had a lot of families there as well.

So, besides have great food for the kids and treating them really well, they have all sorts of other kinds of American style foods.  I order a chicken burger, with avocado and bacon with a side of black beans and rice.

The last time were here, the rice was undercooked but this time, everything was perfect.  The rice was mixed with onions and peppers with the beans and everything tasted great and was cooked properly.  The burger was huge and with all of those fixin's, made for a filling lunch.  I'd give this dish a 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

There are a lot of people here during the summer time and even though it was not very hot, probably in the high 70's, on this night, there was a lot of people getting drunk and a lot of kids having fun with their parents.  So, basically, it seems that this a great place for everyone.

1232 Jeffries Rd, Osage Beach, MO 65065

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Day 5 in Las Vegas

A great day out needs another one, right?  So, it is Sunday and we fly out on Monday, so we take a break.  We start the day with a trip over to the Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino for some dining and shopping.  We walked through the mall area and didn't find anything that really got our attention, so we noticed something and tried it: Mesa for brunch.  We have eaten at Mesa before, but this was the first time we have eaten brunch there.

So, what type of food does Bobby Flay like to have at brunch and what does his place serve?  Well, the usual Bobby Flay stuff.  I don't mean this in a bad way, but people don't go to Bobby Flay's restaurant to eat spaetzle or chocolate chip cookies, so you wouldn't expect them to be sold there.  So, they start us off with the basket.  Other restaurants do break or chips or something and here they gave us basket of goodies:

Like all things Bobby Flay, there was a chocolate chip muffin, a cornbread slice, some blue corn something-er-other and jalapeno stuff and things and all very tasty, a bit dry, but very Bobby Flay.  A 3 out of 5 stars.

Proper tea service is strange and unusual in American restaurants.  If you order hot tea, even at brunch, you should be presented with a kettle and everything you need.  Therefore, if you finish your glass quickly, you don't have to wait on other factors like the water from the kitchen or the server to have another cup.  It is all in your hands.

My wife had ordered a Spicy Scrambled eggs dish which had some sweet ham, spicy eggs and biscuits:

I would say it was a good 3 out of 5 stars.

There was a side of grits as well:
Fine and good also at about a 3 out of 5 stars.

Then I ordered a side of mango bacon:

I know this may sound bad and a traitor to most of everyone I know, but I didn't like this bacon.  I felt that the mango and citrus flavor on the bacon was too much and cut the fatty pork flavoring to existence so it just tasted like the Christmas ham that a relative would make with a pineapple slice on it.  I didn't think it tasted at all like bacon.  A 2 out of 5 stars from me.

The final thing was totally Bobby Flay.  It was a blue corn waffle:
This tasted good, better than a buttermilk waffle and not as dry.  It worked perfectly with the cream on top and it was just right.  I'd give it a 4 out of 5 stars.

Since it was our last night in Vegas, we decided to go some place special.  On our fifth anniversary, we went to RM Seafood and had the best dining experience ever.  Last year, in July, we went to Rx and so we decided to go back again. Rick Moonen's places are easy winners.

I will not go into extreme detail at Rx.  The server we had was perfect and even delved into 5-10 minute long conversations with my wife about nails, makeup and sewing. (She said she did cosplay and made her own clothes for her job at the restaurant.)  We got our ipad, made our drink selection and then our food came out. 

I forgot what our drink was called, but it was prepared using this cart, at our table.  The drink was a special, made for two, drink:
Now, comes the food:
Mini-chicken pot pies: the gooey creaminess of the pies enclosed in pastry.  A 4 out of 5 stars.
A pickle jar, a 3 out of 5 stars.

Mini-pastrami sandwiches, a 4 out of 5 stars.

Moonen tots: tater tots made from both potato chunks and mashed potatoes.  A 3 out of 5 stars.

A tomato and peach salad.  A 3 out of 5 stars for me.

A macaroni and cheese cooked in a little dish and covered in cheese.  I think my wife would give them a 4 out of 5 stars for this.

As I said, the food above at RX is always good and the service is excellent.  However, I think the food at Rose.Rabbit.Lie may have been a better quality and have earned more stars. Please still check them out.

Desert was at a different spot and yes, that means more pictures.  My wife and I always wanted to try the food at the Red Square, but this night's dinner meant that we couldn't get food there, right?  Well, we stopped in anyway for desert.  The dining room in the Red Square is big and open and looks Russian or Eastern European.  It has a walk-in vodka freezer room.  It has a bar made with a layer of ice and snow on top.  It has a huge chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  They also had a large strawberry version of a baked Alaska:

Not only was it very big and filling, but very strawberry and very tasty.  It was perfectly sweet but not too sweet and I'd give it a good 4 out of 5 stars as a desert.  Again, this was at Red Square and go check them out:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Day 4 of Las Vegas

With the okay buffet at the Bellagio and the bad service at the bar at the Wynn, we wanted a day where we knew that we would have a good time.  This started with a lunch that my wife was looking forward to for the whole trip:

Hot n Juicy has the best tasting hot and garlic sauce that we have ever had.  So my wife got a lobster and mussels and I ordered the Cajun fries and a basket of potatoes and sausage.

Cajun fries were crispy and spicy.  A 3 out of 5 stars.

I placed the potatoes and sausage on the fries, so any sauce would drip on them and make them tastier.  Again, a 4 out of 5 as being good.  The thing with this place is that the food is always good.  It is well worth a trip for people who like seafood and sausage and things like this.

My wife wanted to check out a tea store and we went to this place on the same road called Tea Station.

It was a simple place inside, seats for maybe 20 people, and a bar where the guy behind it would make all of the tea and tea drinks.  My wife ordered a honeydew milk tea and the cup smelled like fresh cut honeydew, a 3 out of 5 stars. 

She ordered a desert for the two of us to share, I did not know it would be huge:

What this is: is a giant shaved ice desert.  It has a huge mound of shaved ice in the middle.  It had red beans on top, grass jelly to the left, some boba to the right and the foreground has some agar balls made with rice, purple potato and sweet potato.  There was a small shot glass of warmed up sweetened condensed milk that was poured on top of everything.  Everything turned into something very sweet and yet most of it was very low calories.  It was delicious and an easy 3 out of 5 stars.

That night, we had reservations for the Foundation Room: (

The food here is not expensive, but not cheap either.  The service was as good as Rose.Rabbit.Lie and they were very interesting and knowledgeable.  We ordered some pork belly:
An easy 4 out of 5 stars.

We ordered a side of grilled asparagus, which was a 3 out of 5 stars:

My wife had ordered two appetizer dishes as her main course: The yellow tail tartar bruschetta and the Stefano Farms burrata:
She loved both and would give a 4 out of 5 stars.

I ordered an 8 oz steak with a horseradish crust:

This very good, but not super.  I do eat some horseradish and spicy foods, but this crust was very spicy and had my scraping it off of the top of the steak to cut it.  It was tender, perfectly cooked to medium rare and completely seasoned.  I'd give it a 3 out of 5 stars.

The Foundation Room is a special members only or paid access club at the top of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino.  The bar area has music and some dancing space for the DJ, there is a balcony overlooking the strip and on the other side is the restaurant, which was good enough for us to return.  Check it out if you go there and please wear something nice, no chubbies and flip-flops.