A Story worth repeating

Hubby and I enjoyed, sort of, what could have been a very romantic evening last weekend in Brown County. Read on and I’ll explain later…

Last Friday saw us spending the night at the adorable Story Inn, about 10 miles south of Nashville, Ind. in the miniscule village of Story. Calling Story a village is something of a stretch. As far as I can tell, the whole shebang consists of the inn, a farm or two, and a stop sign. It is, however, a supremely peaceful, idyllic little escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday bigger city life. Don’t expect to find wi-fi, televisions or even alarm clocks in the rooms at Story Inn. You’ll be lucky if you get cell phone reception. There’s really no choice here but to relax. This is not a bad thing. It’s perfectly ok to switch off and be inaccessible every once in a while.

the charming Story Inn

We basically spent our evening at Story chilling out in our rustic cabin digs, and meandering down a big gravel hill in the moonlight to enjoy dinner at the inn. The on-site restaurant is the only food option for miles, unless you fancy making the 20-minute-or-so drive into Nashville up a series of twisty country roads guaranteed to make you carsick.

When all is said and done, the Story Inn food and ambiance are worth the trip. The farmhouse-style décor in the restaurant is cozy and intimate, but totally casual. In keeping with the rest of the whole Story Inn experience, meals are a leisurely affair. So much so that the web site suggests allowing at least two hours for dinner.

For such an out-of-the-way location and small-town vibe, the Story Inn cranks out some impressively high-quality food. The menu is small, but servings are generous and ingredients are familiar, yet still fancy enough to be upscale. Locavore to the core, the menu graciously recognizes an array of local producers and suppliers.

the Story salad

To start, we quickly scarfed down warm slices of sourdough-esque table bread along with a Story salad consisting of mixed greens, goat cheese, apples and pecans.

chicken dinner Story Inn-style

Hubby liked his chicken breast with gingered peaches, corn pudding and roasted vegetables, and even tolerated the onions sprinkled in here and there. Now THAT’s saying something.

spicy tomato vegetable risotto

My vegetarian entrée of delectable roasted baby artichokes, tomatoes, olives and feta over lemon risotto was beautiful and delicious as well, with a surprisingly spicy tomato broth that really brought it all together. For dessert, we shared a sinfully rich chocolate pot de crème buried under a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

chocolate pot de creme

Did I mention the Story Inn offers a top-shelf wine and beer selection, along with full bar service? The Manhattan(s) I sipped were perfectly mixed, and hubby enjoyed his Upland Wheat beer served as it was in a Mason jar. All told, we agreed that Story Inn was an out-of-the-way find worth discovering, and we slowly made our way back up the hill to our settle into our charming accommodations for the night.

So, yes, it could have been a wonderfully romantic evening if it weren’t for two hiccups — No. 1 being the fact that we had our two boys along for the ride (our three-year-old son and my seven-year-old stepson). And No. 2 being that said seven-year-old stepson woke up barfing his brains out at 3 a.m., poor little dude. Eight words you never want to hear in the middle of the night: “My tummy hurts. I need a trash can.”

Next time, I think we’ll arrange to leave the kiddos at home.

For more information,


Story Inn on Urbanspoon

Recent culinary exploits and obsessions

A few foodie items I’ve recently been jazzed about:

My French Fontignac 5-quart casserole dish.

Last year, I just HAD to have a Le Creuset something or other. (I think I was probably inspired by seeing Amy Adams make a beef bourguignon in one in the movie “Julie & Julia.”) I settled for spending some of my Christmas money on a lovely blue Fontignac vessel I found at Bed, Bath and Beyond instead. This was a pricy piece of cookware – even on sale, it was still $80 – but I had visions of using it to make gorgeous stews and braises through the winter.

Long story short, this beautiful pot sat on a shelf in my basement until about three weeks ago. For starters, I was intimidated about using it. Secondly, I wasn’t quite sure how to use it. It wasn’t until I was in Ireland this summer and used a similar pot owned by one of my sisters-in-law to make curry that I got over my fear.

So a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, dusted off my Fontignac and broke it in. I finally found out what I’ve been missing all this time. The inaugural dish? Braised country-style pork ribs with a bourguignon-ish sauce of red wine, beef stock, tomato paste and rosemary. The beauty of this pot, I quickly realized, was being able to sear the ribs in it, then simply dump in the sauce ingredients, put the lid on and throw it in the oven for a couple hours. The heavy cast-iron construction means this is a pot I’m likely to have forever. Oh, and the meal was fantastic.

Since then, I’ve used this versatile cooking vessel to boil water for pasta, to make a delicious risotto, and yes, to prepare a beef stew. Looking back now, I don’t know what I was so scared of. HUGE bonus, it’s super-easy to clean. No matter how messy it looks, whatever’s left in there scrubs right out. I LOVE this pot. And it’s so pretty, I just leave it out on my stovetop on display when not in use.

Fontignac casserole dish

Cherry pie filling and preserves.

I’m in a big cherry phase at the moment. Given the choice between strawberries, raspberries and cherries, I’ll take cherries any day. This preference is approaching something of a fever pitch lately.

It all started about five weeks ago during a freelance assignment that required me to stay in some bed-and-breakfasts in Southern Indiana. (I know, I know… it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it!) For one of the breakfasts, we were served buttermilk pancakes with freshly made cherry preserves from one of the nearby Amish farms. The preserves were presented simply in a little white ramekin, and they looked like edible red jewels. Absolutely gorgeous.

When I volunteered to make a dessert for the monthly teacher lunch at my son’s preschool last week, I came across a recipe I made some years ago for cherry cheesecake brownies. Decision made. This is a yummy and fairly easy dish to make – you make a brownie mix according to the directions on the box, then top it with a simple cheesecake batter and bake for another 20 minutes to so. When it’s cool, you cut it into squares and top it with spoonfuls of cherry pie filling. According to the thank you note I received, it was a big hit.

I also had intentions of making a strawberry shortcake for dinner at a friend’s house the other night, but the strawberries I bought were sadly disappointing. Cherry pie filling to the rescue! I bought a can and we spooned it over slices of pound cake and topped it with a dollop of Cool Whip.

Which brings me to…


I’ve come across two new cake recipes lately that I’ve been whipping up like crazy. The first is a lemon yogurt cake I came across in Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life.” (She specifically says in the book that she thinks recipes are made to be shared, and I heartily agree.)

The recipe uses ingredients you’re likely to already have on hand, with maybe the exception of plain whole-milk yogurt (which you can buy by the single-serving container at the supermarket for less than a dollar). I’ve made it several times within the past few weeks – it works well with the lemon glaze as directed in the book, or with a spoonful of fresh fruit sauce (or cherry preserves!) Plus, you don’t have to use lemons – they are easily be swapped out for oranges or even limes would be good. The recipe makes one 9-inch round pan full, not too much and not too little, and the cake itself is bright, lemony and luscious. I made it for a book swap I hosted last weekend, and several guests took leftover slices home for breakfast.

glazed lemon yogurt cake

The second new cake discovery is the pound cake I made for the strawberry-turned-cherry shortcake. I found it on Allrecipes.com, one of my go-to sites for cooking inspiration, and it contains the surprising ingredient of whipping cream. Whereas the lemon cake is light and fruity, this one is dense and rich, but still plenty moist. With the cherry pie filling and whipped cream topping, it made a pretty and delicious dessert. In fact, I made another one to take to my cousin’s house today and serve it the exact same way. I’m also planning to try this recipe again with some chocolate chips thrown in the mix. Because, after all, everything’s better with chocolate chips…

Sweet dreams!

The talented Mr. Tallent

Hubby and I escaped for a brief overnight visit to Bloomington this weekend in honor of my pending 40th (gulp) birthday in two days. This is not how things were supposed to play out.

The trip was originally meant to be a surprise jaunt to Montreal, courtesy of hubby’s ingenuity and massive frequent flyer miles. He selected a lovely boutique hotel and polled my friends to cover childcare for the toddler, although he did unintentionally let the location slip a few weeks ago. We had a series of babysitters all lined up, our bags were packed, and we were good to go. Or so we thought. You know what they say about the best-laid plans…

We were scheduled to leave for the airport Friday morning around 8 a.m. Unfortunately, the toddler kept us up a good part of Thursday night coughing his little head off. He wasn’t sick exactly, but he wasn’t right, either. When the alarm went off at 7 a.m. after a fitful couple hours of sleep, we debated about the best course of action. As my friend Christina so aptly summarized the Murphy’s Law of parenting: if you stay, he’ll be fine. If you leave, he’ll come down with pneumonia.

Hubby thought we should move forward with the trip as planned, but left the final decision up to me. Being the slightly neurotic, often over-reactive mom that I am and knowing I’d spent the whole weekend worrying about the little man, I finally caved and said that I didn’t think we should go. So all bets were off. Hubby got on the phone to cancel the flights and hotel reservation. We did recoup some of the expense and wrote off the rest with a hard swallow and a “c’est la vie.”

Disappointed and pissed off, we went about our usual business for the day, doing yard work and spring cleaning. Not how I’d hoped to be spending what should have been a romantic birthday weekend with my hubby. The toddler, of course, was fine. He did keep coughing, but seemed to feel just dandy. Fortunately, our friends who were lined up to babysit kept their offers open, so we dropped the little man to Laura and Colin’s house for a few hours Friday night and headed downtown to do a little beertasting at Sun King Brewery.

I just wrote a profile about Sun King for an upcoming issue of Indianapolis Dine, so I’ll make you wait for the full scale of my observations in that publication. Suffice it to say, if you live in Indianapolis and you like beer, you need to check this place out. Open since last July, the owners are a couple of characters, and they make a damn good product. They offer tastings Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and the place was hopping when we were there. (No pun intended.) We sampled a handful of beers, my favorite being the Wee Mac Scottish Ale, a sweetish malty brown brew with hints of toffee and caramel. Yum.

For dinner, we ended up at the Rathskeller, site of my second date with hubby nearly six years ago. The past few times I’ve eaten at the Rat, it’s been nothing special, but I’m pleased to report the food has come up in stature somewhat since my last visit. A warm soft pretzel comes standard in their breadbaskets – nice touch – along with some blow-your-head-off horseradish mustard. Hubby enjoyed a huge plate of pasta with chicken, feta, veggies and herbs, and I went the traditional route with a steamed brat and warm German potato salad with vinegary hot bacon dressing. The food was good, but servings were WAY too big. Both of us left half of our dinners behind.

The toddler continued to seem ok through Friday night, so hubby and I decided to venture an overnight trip to Bloomington. Our friends Kellie and Theresa offered to stay at our house with the kiddo, making our lives that much easier, bless them. We booked a room at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, which turned out to be a great location just half a block off the town square. We parked the car and didn’t think of it again until this morning.

After we checked in and dumped the bags, a pre-dinner drink was in order. This being the tail end of I.U.’s spring break, everything was pleasantly deserted, no lines or traffic. Crazy Horse served as our first stop, where we enjoyed unwinding at the copper-countered bar over a cheap beer.

At the suggestion of several friends and thanks to some great word-of-mouth, I’d zeroed in on a place called Restaurant Tallent for dinner. The chef, Dave Tallent, has been getting some great buzz and is a repeat James Beard award nominee, one of the highest honors any American chef can receive.

The menu posted by the door sounded pretty ambitious, and a little out of my comfort food zone, to be honest, but we were intrigued enough to give it a try. I’m soooooo glad we did.

Now, the problem with places like Restaurant Tallent is that they come so highly recommended that you get your hopes up for a stellar dining experience before you ever set foot in the door. Expectations are terribly high, and so is the possibility that it might not turn out to be as good as you hope for, then you wind up disappointed. Just like our Valentine’s Day dinner at 14 West (see previous blog entry). Well. I’m thrilled to report that Restaurant Tallent delivered everything we were hoping for, and then some.

The place smelled amazing from the second we walked in. Décor was low-key, warm and romantic – low lighting, funky modern light fixtures and a rich, understated brown and green color palette. It seemed fairly dead for a Saturday night, but I was grateful to get seated immediately and wrote off the lack of customers to spring break. Our server, Dustin, struck just the right note of being friendly and helpful without ever seeming intrusive or pretentious. That’s something to be said with the caliber of food being served here.

As I said, the menu was a little intimidating – we don’t usually eat at restaurants that serve foie gras, caviar and tartare. The short list of starters and entrees changes according to the season and the chef’s inspiration. Ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible, and everything is as absolutely fresh as can be.

Hubby and I decided to share a starter. Although the arugula salad with goat cheese beignets was plenty tempting, we have a hard time passing up anything that includes pancetta. And so we opted for the black truffle tagliatelle pasta with pancetta, mushrooms, spinach and parmesan.

As we waited for the pasta, Dustin delivered a basket full of warm slices of the most melt-in-your-mouth tender rosemary-dusted peasant bread and a ramekin of fresh butter. We also got a freebie amuse bouche — a little ceramic Asian spoon containing a chilled quarter-sized scallop mold of butternut squash panna cotta skewered with a crunchy parmesan crisp and topped with a drizzle of sweet sauce. It was a scrumptious little mouthful, almost like pumpkin pie filling, and the parmesan crisp was just salty enough to offset the creamy sweetness. We were off to a good start.

Our starter arrived, looking and smelling unbelievably good. When we laid eyes on the small dish set in front of us, we worried it wouldn’t be big enough to satisfy both of us. We were wrong.

This pasta serving was small, but mighty. There were just a few thick noodles, really, cooked to toothsome al dente perfection. The flavors were ridiculously intense and expertly combined, the best of which was the tiny cubes of crispy-chewy pancetta. For the uninitiated, pancetta is a cured Italian meat, like bacon but with more primal pig flavor oomph. My only criticism of the dish, and I’m struggling to even mention one, was that I couldn’t distinguish the taste of the truffles amid all the other vibrant flavors. Having never had truffles before, I was looking forward to tasting one, but no matter. The dish was insanely good irregardless, and several bites were more than enough to make both of us happy.

We were still raving about the pasta (and proceeded to for the rest of the night) when our entrees showed up.

I’ve tried scallops a few times in the past, including my own so-so attempt at grilling the little suckers, but I knew that I’d never really tasted them they way they SHOULD be enjoyed. Tonight, I decided, was a good opportunity to do so. I received three beautifully browned scallops atop a mushroom risotto cake and a small mound of collard greens. A country ham consommé was the finishing touch. Gordon Ramsay would have been proud.

First of all, my plate was absolutely gorgeous. The chef and kitchen staff obviously take great pains in appearance, believers in the mantra that you eat first with your eyes. There were no fancy garnishes or unnecessary schwack on the plate, just a healthy serving size of highly flavorful, fragrant, beautiful food. The succulent scallops were sweet and tender with a lovely caramelized crust, and the mushroom risotto was delicious. Collard greens seemed an unlikely accompaniment on paper, but were just bitter enough to balance the sweetness of the scallops, and the salty ham jus pulled the whole thing together.

As good as my entrée was, I must admit, I think hubby’s might have been even better. Sliced duck breast (prepared well done at hubby’s request without a bat of the eye), mounted on spicy red rice with duck confit and steamed bok choy. Oh. My. Goodness. My mouth is watering just remembering it now. We both all but licked our plates clean.

I wanted to order dessert so badly, but knew I just didn’t have room left to enjoy it to its maximum potential, and so we refrained. We seriously thought about taking a leisurely walk and then coming back a little later to order some. In lieu of a sweet finale, hubby asked for an espresso, encouraged by the coffee machinery behind the bar. Sadly, this proved the only flaw in an otherwise perfect meal. To be fair, the vast majority of Midwesterners could order an espresso here and think it wonderful. But, being the worldly, well-traveled man that he is, hubby has shot back enough real-deal authentic espressos in Europe to know the difference. He has even invested in a machine of his own to make them just the way he likes.

Having seen hubby proudly display his own creations at home, I knew enough to cringe when I saw the espresso arrive at the table without any sort of creamy foam on top. Hubby was happy that the barista/bartender heated the cup, but pronounced the coffee itself not good. Which is so sad! At a restaurant that pays such close and careful attention to every food detail, the coffee fell short.

Even though we had politely refused dessert, Dustin delivered us a tiny plate containing two chocolate sandwich cookies glued together with raspberry cream filling “to fortify us for our walk.” We each took a tiny nibble, intending on just a taste, and proceeded to polish off every crumb. Our total bill for one starter, two entrees, and two beers for hubby (plus the bonus amuse bouche and cookies) came to just under $80. Completely good value, we felt, for the quality of food, service and atmosphere.

The espresso disappointment aside, and it wasn’t a serious transgression, our overall Restaurant Tallent dining experience was fabulous. The food itself was nothing short of incredible. The pacing of the food was perfect, slow enough to build anticipation, but quick enough to be efficient. Another interesting note, there are no condiments on the tables. Dustin came over after we’d had our first taste of each course to see if we wanted salt or pepper. The mark of a true chef is in the seasoning, and Dave Tallent passes that test with flying colors. I can’t wait to go back. I just heard someone say that Restaurant Tallent offers half-priced entrees on Monday nights… that could be very dangerous information for me to know. I would be completely willing to drive to Bloomington and back in an evening for a 50 percent-off dinner.

Hubby and I pleasantly passed the rest of the evening walking around Kirkwood and the I.U. campus, stopping into Nick’s for another beer and a pool hall where I was promptly shamed by the decline of my shooting abilities. I was AMAZED at the number of ethnic eateries presently housed along 4th Street. This stretch has come a long way since I was a student, now housing Ethiopian, Thai, Korean, Tibetan, Italian, Turkish, Moroccan and I can’t even remember what else. Very, very impressive. Every restaurant looked better than the one we’d just passed, and I found myself wishing we had about a week to get acquainted with all of them.

After a leisurely sleep-in this morning, hubby and I were ready to venture out for more food. The other restaurant I’d been wanting to try was FARMBloomington, and although a walk-by last night revealed it wasn’t as upscale and romantic as Restaurant Tallent for an honorary 40th birthday dinner, it was just the ticket for brunch.

FARMBloomington manages to be down-home yet still trendy at the same time. The décor is bright and cheery with homey, cozy details like hanging quilts and a somehow charming wall display of bedpans indicating the restrooms. Like Tallent, FARMBloomington focuses on farm-fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The brunch menu is full of egg dishes, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and other standard breakfast fare with modern gourmet spins.

We started by toasting the trip with mimosas. Hubby ordered a basic breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and oven-roasted tomatoes sprinkled with savory herbs. It was nothing fancy; just solid, hearty, super-fresh, good food. The tomatoes made the plate, and I vowed to attempt something similar at home to serve over pasta or alongside a roast.

My breakfast was French toast, made with day-old Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse brioche soaked overnight in custard batter, then cooked and topped with a dazzling orange syrup and dollop of tangy crème fraiche. Mmmmmmm. I can’t even begin to describe how good it was. A lady at the table next to ours leaned over to ask me what it was and said she planned to order it on her next visit.

Again, the serving sizes were just right and the prices were extremely fair considering the quality of the food. We left completely sated and happy with our food decisions for the weekend.

So, although it wasn’t Montreal, hubby and I had a fantastic visit to Bloomington and vowed to come back again soon. And I got a chance to reconnect and spent a little downtime with the man I love, which is exactly what I wanted for my birthday.

Restaurant Tallent on Urbanspoon

14 West, not the best

Yesterday, hubby and I were recounting all of the Valentine’s Days we’ve shared thus far. Last year, we were in Paris — that’s going to be a hard act to top. Ever. Year before that, I was 8 months pregnant and laid up on bed rest. Neither of us can remember what we did the year before that, but for our first V-Day as a married duo (2006), I cooked a lovely candlelit dinner at our little rented cottage in Sonoma. We weren’t physically together for Valentine’s Day the year we were dating. I was in Indiana and hubby was in Germany, but I seem to recall he sent me some books for the occasion.

So that gets us up to speed. We weren’t sure we’d even have a chance to do anything romantic this year, between getting toddler-care squared away and hubby having to work at some sort of motorcycle trade show downtown at the convention center this weekend. Lo and behold, the daycare where the toddler attends offered a babysitting service last night courtesy of a Girl Scout troop trying to raise money for a trip this summer. Sold to the man without the hat! Hubby pledged to knock off work by 5 p.m. and date night was on like Donkey Kong.

I started thinking about dining options, worried that we might have trouble getting in somewhere nice, what with the trade show going on and the fact that it was Saturday night on Valentine’s Day weekend. My original idea was to hit Tastings, a relatively new wine bar located in the swanky Conrad Hotel. However, hubby and I knew we would want a full meal and it looked like they only served cheese plates, so that was out.

I’d wanted to try 14 West for a long time, and an online search discovered they had a special menu this weekend. Perfect! When I called, the only reservation times open were 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., both well outside of the babysitting window. Hmph. I put my name on a wait list and figured if all else failed, maybe we could eat at the bar. As luck would have it, I got a phone call around 3:30 from the hostess saying she’d had an opening at 6 p.m. I figured I must be livin’ right and quickly claimed it.

Hubby agreed to meet me in the 14 West bar at 5:30. I changed outfits about five times (hubby told me to wear something “hot”), packed up the little man and we were off. Right on time, I had just parked the car in one of the Circle Centre lots and was locking it up when I got a text. “Running late, just got called into a meeting.” Great. I texted back to ask how late and walked on up to the restaurant. With my hand on the door, hubby replied “45 minutes.” I nearly burst into tears, seconds away from spinning on my heel and calling the whole evening quits. Fortunately, hubby then called as I was on the verge of meltdown to tell me it was just a joke and he was waiting for me at the bar. Whew. Crisis averted.

14 West was hopping, obviously a popular spot. It’s pretty upscale, the décor is fairly romantic and hubby looked very dashing sitting at the bar. (My heart went pitter-patter all over again when I caught sight of him.) We enjoyed a drink – Stella Artois for him and a fragrant glass of Riesling for me — and chatted warmly for a cozy half an hour. The bartender was very friendly and had a wonderful laugh. I had high hopes for a lovely meal.

At 6 on the dot, we got up to claim our spot – a very wide table tucked into a corner upstairs in a crowded, noisy room. Hubby and I felt miles away from each other, but our table was nearly jammed flush with the one next to us. It was almost like we were on a date with the people sitting next to us instead of each other! Intimate conversation was a little difficult to achieve, but no matter. We settled in and turned out attention to the menu.

Our waiter, who we’ll call Brandon (because that was his name) seemed pretty stressed; we overheard him explaining to our fellow compadres next door about how many tables he had to take care of and how busy they were that night. Um. Yeah. Not what you want to hear from your waiter immediately after being seated. This didn’t bode well. Still, Brandon managed to get us our drinks fairly quickly and explained the steak frites appetizer in detail when hubby asked, but didn’t give us any schpiel about the special menu. We placed our order and waited. And waited. And waited…

We didn’t order anything complicated, two entrees and a Caesar salad for the hubster. I really wanted to try either the lobster mashed potatoes or the lobster mac and cheese, but the side servings looked huge and I knew my seafood-hating hubby wouldn’t have pitched in to help. A hostess with huge boobs brought us a couple warm pretzel rolls in the meantime, which we devoured in about two seconds. Thirty minutes later, we’d watched Caesar salads flying around the room to every table but ours. Brandon finally came by to let us know our entrees were on the way and got flustered when hubby asked about the status of his salad. Hubby told him if it was coming out as the same time as the entrees to just forget about it. So he did.

Entrees arrived a few minutes after. The food was delicious – hubby got a steak with steamed vegetables on the side. Nothing terribly fancy, but he said it was good. My meal was a nicely cooked piece of Chilean sea bass on top of risotto with some wild mushrooms and a basil sauce. It tasted great, but the serving size seemed a bit scant for $36 or whatever we paid for it. Also, when I took a bite of mushrooms, I felt something in my mouth that didn’t seem right and proceeded to fish out a dime-sized piece of cardboard. That was somewhat alarming. I’d already eaten half my meal by that point, so I went ahead and finished it, hoping I wasn’t in for some sort of delayed-reaction contamination.

Brandon finally came back to check on us and I pointed out the cardboard. He apologized profusely, promising to bring it to the manager’s attention. A short while later, he returned to let us know they were going to comp us two desserts, which we would have ordered anyway, so that worked out pretty well. I did find it a little off-putting that he didn’t let us select the desserts we wanted, instead just telling us which two they were going to give us. But hey, it was on the house, so whatever.

To Brandon’s credit, the desserts arrived fairly quickly – an individual cheesecake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate drizzle, and a slab of chocolate mousse cake with another scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, this one rolled in an addictively crunchy praline coating. Both were yummy. We polished off the cheesecake, but the chocolate cake was so rich, we could only manage a few bites. That’s saying something – I usually have no problem tackling the most decadent of chocolate desserts, but this was too much even for me.

By this time, we really needed to get going in order to pick up the toddler on time. Brandon dropped off the check, but then kept passing by our table without picking up my debit card. I tried unsuccessfully to flag him down three or four times before getting pissed off. We finally just stood up to leave and handed him our payment on the way out, standing in the hall while he ran my card. Even with the comped desserts and the subtraction of one of hubby’s Stellas, the bill still topped $100.

I realize Brandon was extra-busy and stressed, but still. There’s no excuse for lackluster service at a restaurant of this caliber, especially on a special occasion like Valentine’s Day. I tipped 10 percent; an amount hubby and I felt was extremely generous, all things considered. The food was great (well, apart from the cardboard) and the ambiance was nice, but overall, the 14 West dining experience was something of a letdown for us. And served as a reminder why we don’t tend to frequent upscale restaurants very often – too much pressure and too many high expectations that can fall short. When we’re paying that kind of money, we expect things to be pretty much perfect, and they rarely are. (St Elmo’s is one of the few spots that really delivers in this capacity.)

In retrospect, we figured we probably would have had a much better experience just eating at the bar like we’d originally intended. Live and learn. It was still great to get dressed up and meet my handsome husband out for a real date, so in that sense, it was definitely a happy Valentine’s Day.

Basta pasta

Never thought I’d say this, but I’m getting sick of spaghetti. I broke my five-day pasta streak last night. I had to. Between chocolate croissants for breakfast every morning, Caprese panini for lunch and pasta every night, my body was going into carbohydrate shock. Yesterday afternoon, I came down with a terrible stomachache and decided enough was enough. Or as the Italians say, “basta.”

For last night’s Il Pavone dinner, I considered going light with a bowl of soup and a salad, until I saw the steaks being delivered to the diners seated to my right. Remembering that I hadn’t eaten meat since Germany, I decided I probably could use a good dose of protein and iron. Tagliata, or sliced steak, topped with mushrooms sounded like just the ticket. Patrick’s colleague was also in a red meat frame of mind and ordered from the steak portion of the menu as well, but when our plates arrived, we couldn’t tell whose was whose.

One plate arrived hot and sizzling, like an Italian fajita platter, slices of steak topped with arugula and big shavings of parmesan. The other dish was a big hunk of meat with a mushroomy-peppercorn sauce. Hubby’s friend and I were both a little confused. I thought I had ordered my meat topped with mushrooms; he thought he’d ordered his topped with peppers. We traded plates, but still couldn’t figure out whether or not we were actually eating the correct order. In the end, we just split them down the middle and everyone was happy. I don’t even remember what hubby ordered, I was so into the beef. At least, I assume it was beef. If it wasn’t, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know about it.

The sizzling platter was delicious and the parmesan lent a touch of richness. And I always forget how much I like arugula until I get it on something in a restaurant. (Note to self: seek out arugula at Indy supermarkets.) The peppercorn sauce on the other steak was really spicy with crunchy whole roasted peppercorns that added a good amount of heat without blowing your head off. The steak was really on the rare side and though I’m more of a medium-well girl, it was so good I didn’t care. With a generous mixed veggie salad to round things out, the only carbs I ingested for the whole meal were a few bites of the toddler’s breadsticks.

My plan today was to try to see Michaelangelo’s “The Last Supper.” The original painting is housed in a church here called Santa Maria Della Grazie. The only hangup is, you’re supposed to make a reservation for a viewing. Weeks in advance. Hmph. The concierge here at the hotel gave me hope, however, that we might be able to just show up, wait on line and snag an unused reservation for one of the daily no-shows. I got directions, found out which tram line to take, and the toddler and I set out.

In typical Italian fashion, everything ends up taking MUCH longer than you think it’s going to, and you can’t ever count on anything to run efficiently or on time. We stood at the tram stop waiting patiently while the old step-up model trams that we can’t get the stroller onto passed us by again and again. After an hour, I gave up. Ever the little trooper, the toddler hung in there without too much complaining. Maybe we’ll try again another day. Or maybe not.

Changing gears, we hopped on the tram going away from the inner city and rode it to the Cimitero Maggiore (cemetery) at the other end of the line. It was a beautiful blue-sky day, and I figured it would be a good place to let the kid run free for awhile.

This cemetery has to be the most elaborately decorated resting place I’ve ever seen. The entrance is marked with huge stone gates and lined with half a dozen flower stands. Once through the entry, the graves and mausoleums are adorned with arresting statues depicting all manner of Catholic verses — the crucified Jesus laying across Mary Magdalene, life-size angels, Jesus gathering lambs. There are also stained glass inlays in marble headstones, whole series of family portraits atop the graves, and TONS of fresh flowers everywhere. This place is so scrupulously maintained, I didn’t see any browned or dried-out blooms at all. It was so peaceful and super interesting to stroll around, and we only covered a very small section near the front.

The toddler kept wanting to stop and rearrange the rock borders and then he tripped and fell straight into a muddy puddle, so I corralled him back into the stroller amid violent protest. We started walking toward the hotel, on the lookout for a little cafe we could duck into for a quick lunch, but nothing really jumped out at me and we were cutting into the toddler’s nap by that point, so we just continued on all the way back. I grabbed a fairly decent prepackaged salad at the supermarket along the way to eat in the room.

We planned to meet up with hubby downtown by the Duomo when he finished up with his trade show for the day, so I decided to try a new approach to get the toddler to eat something other than crackers and cheese. Some might call it an act of desperation. We went to McDonald’s.

I quickly discovered the Mickey D’s in the Duomo piazza is home to ALL sorts of humanity. I ordered a Happy Meal for the toddler, grabbed a stool in the back of the restaurant and hoped for the best. Alas, he only wanted to eat the fries. I did manage to get a fruit cup and some yogurt down his throat as well. I’m really going to have my work cut out getting his diet back on track once we get home.

We still had an hour or so to kill before hubby was due to meet us, so we went strolling around the shopping district yet again. There are some absolutely beautiful old buildings here. I’d love to go on a guided tour to learn more about the city and its colorful history, but don’t think I’ll get the opportunity before we leave next week.

Hubby made it through the metro, we reconvened and meandered over to a place I’d spotted just off the piazza. Most of the dining establishments in the general Duomo area seem to be total tourist traps, and Merchanti Caffe was no exception. After eating high on the hog and easy on the wallet at Il Pavone all week, the meal we had tonight honestly outraged me.

Hubby ordered his standard pizza salami, a good-sized pie to be fair, and I ordered the risotto con funghi (rice with mushrooms). We also had one beer and one rather stingy but delicious glass of wine. Our total bill: around 50 euros. That’s like 70 bucks or so. For 50 euros, three of us could easily have stuffed ourselves senseless at Il Pavone. With drinks.

My plate of risotto could have been a side dish. It was not a lot of food. There was no bread, no salad, no nothing else. Just a scoop of risotto. For 13 euros. My glass of wine cost about the same. NOT good value. To give you a comparison, I saw a sidewalk chalkboard outside a cafe near our hotel advertising a lunch consisting of a first course (pasta), second course (meat or fish), bread, 1/4 liter of house wine AND coffee all for a mere 9 euros.

I finished my risotto (quickly) and was still starving, but I wasn’t about to order anything else there at those prices. The waiters were very nice to us and I guess you pay for the ambiance, but I didn’t feel it was worth what we paid at all.

After settling the tab, hubby chased the toddler while I thought about picking up a sandwich or dessert elsewhere. If I’d known I was only going to get a small plate or rice and a few shrooms, I would have eaten the rest of the rejected Happy Meal earlier! As it was, I used the occasion as an excuse to wander back to the unbelievably beautiful gelato counter I’d found on previous excursions.


ah, gelato!!!

I got a medium cone, which could have easily passed for a large in my book, and three good scoops of my choice of gelato flavors to fill it. After much difficult consideration, I opted for the chocolate fondant, milky vanilla and creamy walnut versions. It was the mother ice cream cone and, at three euros, almost totally alleviated the bad feelings from my overpriced dinner.

As soon as I got back to hubby and the toddler, the two of them immediately commandeered my cone and I was relegated to sharing. No matter, I was finally full about halfway through.

Healthy organics

My latest catered event – a buffet dinner for 35 last Saturday night. The event was part of a healthy living retreat, so the focus was heavy on organic and natural ingredients. The menu: chicken marsala; butternut squash risotto; grilled vegetables; baby greens salad with dried cranberries, toasted pecans and apple cider vinaigrette; and multi-grain dinner rolls. For dessert: oven-roasted peaches with a mixed-berry coulis and toasted almonds. (I could kick myself for not getting a photo, it was beautiful!) And I whipped up a batch of cinnamon-ginger meringue kisses for a little bonus dessert nibble.

All in all, everything went swimmingly, and the client seemed to really enjoy it. Gillian, my sous-chef, was a fabulous help, and even bought along two small champagnes in a can for us to celebrate after serving! What a gal!

the buffet table

the buffet table

mixed grilled summer veggies

mixed grilled summer veggies

chicken marsala with mushrooms

chicken marsala with mushrooms