Inching Back To The Norm At The North

Yesterday it was a brisk but bright day in Columbus. The B.A. Jersey Girl and I both had a hankering for some Momo Ghar dumplings and their killer sauce, so we decided to brave the stiff fall breeze and hike up to the North Market for lunch. It’s the first time we’ve been there since some distant time in the P.P. (Pre-Pandemic) Period.

I’m pleased to report that the North Market was bustling when we got there and decked out in its holiday finery. There were lots of shoppers downstairs, and diners like us looking for our lunches, and when we had purchased our dumplings and went upstairs to eat most of the tables in the large dining area were occupied. We grabbed one of the few open tables and proceeded to dig into our dumplings (which were exceptionally delicious, as always) and enjoy our lunch. Even when we left at about 1 p.m., and I snapped the above photo, there were still latecomers upstairs eating and lingering at their tables, and some shoppers downstairs, too.

I wouldn’t say the North Market is back to its normal, P.P. traffic and trade–yet–but I was heartened by the cars in the parking lot and the number of customers in the building. Of course, we wore masks when we were downstairs buying our lunch, in compliance with the order issued by Columbus’ mayor, but it was still great to see so many people out and about–Delta, Omicron, or other COVID-19 variants be damned. The North Market is a civic treasure and its businesses, like other Columbus small businesses, deserve our support. Yesterday’s experience suggests that other people share that feeling.

We’re gradually getting closer to the P.P. normal. And as more people get out and get back to their old habits like going to the North Market for lunch–and rediscover delights like Momo Ghar dumplings–the trend will grow stronger. It has been, and will be, a prolonged process, but we’re definitely getting closer.

Post-Pie Remorse

After a terrific Thanksgiving, with lots of family time, football, food, amber ale, thorough analysis of The Game, and a few friendly hands of euchre, today I’m dealing with the traditional bout of post-Thanksgiving remorse. Specifically, I’m feeling guilty that, when we returned home last night, I was unable to resist scarfing down a piece of pumpkin pie, followed immediately by a piece of pecan pie.

At that point, sated by my late-night pie intake, I went to bed and slept soundly. But the morning’s light always seems to bring second thoughts, and there is no doubt that the two-piece-of-pie nightcap drove my overall caloric intake into the red zone, setting the stage for the equally traditional winter weight gain that typically occurs over the next few months.

But this year, I vow to resist the norm. There was only one response, therefore, to my post-pie guilt: leash up Betty and take a few laps around Schiller Park on a cold, gray morning with snowflakes drifting down, hoping that the prompt walkabout will burn the calories before they find the waistline.

In reality, if I hope to make a meaningful dent in yesterday’s calorie count, multiple walks will be in my future, and maybe a short jog, too.

Cherry Pie (And Other Odd Family Thanksgiving Traditions)

Yesterday at lunch, the Bus-Riding Conservative, JV and I got to talking about the Thanksgiving family meals we enjoyed as a kid. Thanksgiving is one of the most tradition-bound celebrations in the pantheon of American holidays, and you could tell that everyone participating in the conversation was enjoying their memories about their particular Thanksgiving family food rituals.

Until, that is, both the BRC and JV shocked me by saying that it was traditional for them to have cherry pie as part of the Thanksgiving meal. That really stopped me cold. Pumpkin pie? Obviously! Pecan pie? Of course! Apple pie, or mincemeat pie? A bit on the edge perhaps, but . . . acceptable. But cherry pie? Cherry? Shouldn’t the only red fruit served on Thanksgiving be cranberry?

Then I realized that I was being unfair and improperly judgmental. The strength of America lies in our diversity, and our willingness to embrace and value differences–even if it involves something as basic and beloved as Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t particularly care for cherry pie. In fact, I find it rather cloying and would never voluntarily order it. But I’ll defend to the death some family’s right to install it as a treasured Thanksgiving family tradition. And upon reflection, I’m sure that some of our family traditions, like the cranberry relish plopped out directly from the can so that it can be sliced with a knife with only a sprig of parsley as a garnish, might strike others as a bit odd.

So let those special Thanksgiving traditions run free! Jello molds with embedded grapes? Hell, yes! Tofurkey? Why not! Squid on a stick for an appetizer to go with the early football game? It’s just another thing to be thankful for.

Hot Shot

I like spicy food. In my never-ending quest for heat, when I go out to eat I’ve gotten in the habit of asking what kind of hot sauces the restaurant has available. I’m always on the lookout for something new and good to add to the home refrigerator hot sauce collection.

Yesterday I tried Yellowbird Habanero Condiment for the first time. My technique for sampling Yellowbird, like any newly discovered hot sauce, is to start first with trying it on french fries, then moving to liberal application to the sandwich if the sauce passes muster. I think a bit of caution is prudent when you’re talking about unknown, random hot sauces. That way, if the sauce doesn’t hit the spot, I only lose a few fries and not the entire sandwich.

I’m happy to report that the Yellowbird sauce gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me. It’s on the hotter end of the heat scale, but not so far that it could be featured on a Man vs. Food episode. It gave just enough to give the food some zing, paired well with both the fries and my fried chicken sandwich, and provided the incentive for a slug of cold beer. It had very good flavor, too, which is something some hot sauces neglect in their quest for unendurable, crippling fieriness. And it left my lips with a pleasant heat level when the dining is done, which is another telltale sign of a good sauce.

I’ll be looking for Yellowbird in my neighborhood grocery store.

Butter Coffee?

I’m an old fuddy-duddy with respect to some things–like reasonable napkin size at restaurants, for example–butt I am willing to try something new now and then. And when I saw that this food truck offered “butter coffee,” which certainly sounds like a weird combination to me, I felt like I had to give it a taste.

Butter coffee is exactly what it sounds like: black, fresh roasted coffee blended with “grass fed unsalted butter” and “cold pressed organic MCT coconut oil.” The woman working in the truck noted that it is popular with the keto/low-carb diet crowd. And it tastes like what you would expect when butter is melted into coffee. It is buttery, for sure, but the combination of the butter and the coconut oil cuts against the bitterness and blackness of the coffee. It’s a pretty smooth drink that tastes somewhat like buttered popcorn, and I finished all of it.

It would not be a favorite of people who like sweets, for sure, but I could see getting it again.

A Tipping Point

Yesterday we went to a restaurant. When we sat down after finding our way to a table on our own (“Sit anywhere you like,” the hostess helpfully said) we were confronted by this increasingly familiar QR code item on the tabletop. I’ve been in restaurants before where you use the scanning feature of your cellphone to connect in order to call up the menu.

But this scanning feature was more extensive. You not only called up the menu, you placed your order yourself–hitting a “send to kitchen” button when you were done–and then proceeded to pay for the order, entering in our credit card information on the key buttons of our phone. But when I got to the “tipping point,” where I would put in a gratuity for our waitress, I was stumped.

What is the proper tip amount under these circumstances? By the time I was entering the tip amount, our waitress had literally done nothing; the whole process had been entirely self-serve. By tipping at the outset, there was no connection whatsoever between wait staff performance and the tip, to say nothing of the fact that many of the traditional wait staff duties–providing menus, offering helpful information about what was good, presenting the bill and receiving payment–were being done electronically. We didn’t really interact with our waitress until she brought the food.

I still gave the waitress a good tip, because I appreciate anybody who is working under these circumstances, but not as much of a tip as I would under normal circumstances, when the waitress would offer the full array of services and I wouldn’t have to do 80 percent of the work. Is there a new normal for tipping under these circumstances?

Napkin Shrinkage

Yesterday JV, the Bus-Riding Conservative and I walked down to the North Market, passed the Veterans’ Day parade, and headed to Hot Chicken Takeover. For those of you not familiar with HCT–which I reviewed on this blog in 2015–it offers happy diners the opportunity to enjoy highly spiced, incredibly juicy fried chicken.

In such a place, where eagerly anticipate that they will be mopping up fiery chicken juices from hands and face and attempting to shield their clothing from drips and stains, adequate napkin supplies are essential. And yet, Hot Chicken Takeover–like most other restaurants that fall below the cloth napkin line these days–provides only skimpy single-ply napkins like the ones shown above. The napkins are woefully insufficient to provide meaningful lap protection. Even if you carefully try to construct a multiple-napkin lap shield, the napkins will flutter to the ground with the slightest movement or the mere whiff of air caused by a passing patron. And the cheap napkins will quickly become soaked and ripped to shreds if you try to use them for any absorption activity other than a dainty dab at the corner of the mouth. By the end of the meal we had assembled an impressive pile of damp, mangled napkins that we had to clean up and throw away along with our food container.

In short, yesterday we witnessed a total mismatch between napkin and food. And, as noted above, this seems to be an increasingly common, and disturbing, phenomenon in the restaurant business. Gone are the days when restaurants supplied sturdy napkins that could be unfolded to provide useful lap protection, or even tucked into the collar, and then used to clean off hands and mouth. I know those kinds of napkins still exist, because we have them at home. Evidently they are just too expensive, and the zeal for cost-cutting has led restauranteurs to offer clearly inadequate napkins instead. It’s an irritating trend and makes me wonder just how small and flimsy restaurant napkins might get.

Stop napkin shrinkage. Bring back adequate napkins!

A Clean, Well, Quieter Place

One of my favorite short stories is A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, in which Ernest Hemingway tells the story of an old guy drinking in a cafe. A young waiter, impatient to move on with his evening, rips the old guy for hanging around rather than going home so the cafe can close up. The older waiter, made a bit more patient and understanding by years of life, respects the old guy’s need for a clean, well-lighted place where he can enjoy a drink before heading back to his presumably lonely life. It’s a great story, written in the classic, straightforward Hemingway declarative sentence style, that speaks to both the young and old among us.

I suspect that if the old guy were around these days he not only would be looking for a clean, well-lighted place, but also one that is quieter, too. So many modern restaurants seem to be intentionally designed and consciously configured to be as loud as possible, as if a raucous atmosphere will make a place seem really exciting (and, perhaps, compensate for marginal food). It’s annoying for those of us who want to have a nice conversation over our dinner, and find ourselves unable to do so because of the din. I suspect that the old guy in the Hemingway tale would be irritated by the noise, too.

So I am happy to report that the new Sycamore restaurant in German Village has dialed back the noise level to the point where you can actual talk to the people you are eating with, without shouting or asking people to repeat everything. The prior incarnation of the restaurant was so loud that was impossible, and in my view made eating there unpleasant. Last night we took a large group to the Sycamore, had a great meal–the food is uniformly terrific–and enjoyed lots of chat over our dinner. I’m hoping that is a sign that the trend toward ever louder restaurants has ended, and the proprietors are recognizing the value of some effective sound-dampening. efforts

If I want a loud venue, I’ll go to a sports bar where I can drink beer, eat chicken wings, and cheer for my team without worrying about irritating fellow diners. But if a want to good meal, give me a clean, well, quieter place.

More Praise For JT’s

I’ve written before about the many accolades being garnered by JT’s Pizza and Pub, my nephew’s bar and restaurant (see, e.g., here and here). So I hope readers will forgive me if I give JT’s another shameless plug by calling your attention to the nice article about JT’s in Columbus Alive, which observes–aptly–that JT’s gives Columbus diners what they want. This article even calls out the “Big Al” pizza, named for my brother-in-law–which makes this shameless plug for JT’s even more of a family affair.

If you haven’t tried JT’s and live in the area, you really should give it a shot. Why not go somewhere that will give you exactly what you want?

Road Breakfast

Normally I don’t eat breakfast, but I make an exception when I’m on the road. This morning we are in the Cincinnati area for a family wedding, so a road breakfast was in order. And when you Google “breakfast near me” you inevitably find a lot of good options if you are looking for a place that opens early, closes up shop by mid-afternoon, and serves all of the traditional breakfast fare.

We decided to go with the Original Pancake House on Montgomery Road. With a cheerful, old-school facade like that, it had to be good—and it was. The menu offered more than a dozen options in the pancake category alone, as well as pages of other breakfast dishes. But pancakes are in the restaurant’s name, and pancakes sounded good, so pancakes it was. Buckwheat pancakes, to be precise, with hot coffee and orange juice on the side.

My position is that there is a right way and a wrong way to eat pancakes. I like to first apply butter to each pancake in the stack so it can melt, then liberally douse the stack with syrup and let the syrup seep in to the pancakes before slicing the pancakes into squares for ready consumption. To its credit, the OPH had excellent syrup, hitting the sweet spot between too-thick syrup that causes the pancakes to break apart during syrup-sopping maneuvers and syrup that is too runny. And the pancakes themselves had a great buckwheat flavor.

Road breakfasts like the one this morning help to make travel time special.

Beer And Cheese

I enjoy a meal of beer and cheese every now and then. And in that regard, I’m part of a long line of human beer-and-cheese fanciers–a line that, as a recent discovery shows, dates back thousands of years.

A study published in Modern Biology focused on well-preserved human droppings found in salt mines near Hallstatt, Austria–salt mines that have been existed for thousands of years. People who worked deep in the salt mines over the millennia took their food to work, and they weren’t shy about answering the call of nature in the mines rather than journeying back to the surface. The dehydrating salt in the soil had the effect of turning the solid human waste deposits from days of yore into desiccated samples (non-smelly, the article linked above daintily points out) that have their biomolecules still intact. That means scientists can analyze the dried-out dung to see what the humans were eating over the years.

Ah, the romance of science!

The study of the fecal remains from the Iron Age, 2,700 years ago, showed traces of brewers’ yeast–the kind that produces traditional beers like pale ales. The paleofeces also showed lots of whole grains and fibers, as well as traces of blue cheese. And the study’s authors note that the ancient working man’s diet produced healthier, and more biodiverse, gut microbes for the ancient salt miners than are seen in most modern humans because none of the food was processed.

So there you have it: beer, bread, and cheese have a long history and are healthy, to boot. And those of us who still enjoy those long-term human dietary staples, 2,700 years later, get to use modern amenities like bathrooms, too.

Unexpected Consequences Of Remote Work

The prevalence of remote work has changed a lot of things in our world. From traffic patterns during rush hour to restaurant usage in downtown areas to what people are regularly wearing from the waist down that can’t be seen on Zoom or Teams calls, the reality of many people working from home has reordered our lives in more ways than we can list.

Here’s another change that you might not have considered yet: what are you going to do with that inevitable cache of leftover Halloween candy? You know, the excess that was created because you don’t want to be caught in the dreaded predicament of being the only house on the block to run out of candy while Beggars’ Night is still going strong, so you bought an extra bag or two of “snack size” candy bars and little boxes of Milk Duds?

In the pre-pandemic world, the solution to disposition of the excess Halloween candy was easy and obvious: because you didn’t want to keep the tempting little goodies in the house for fear that you would fall into a chocolate consumption frenzy, you took the leftovers to the office. Once your supply of candy was placed in a bowl next to the coffee machine, you could be confident that the candy would be fully and happily consumed by anonymous officemates within hours, if not minutes.

But with remote work, those rapacious hordes aren’t at the office every day anymore, and the office coffee station isn’t the hub of frantic consumption that it was in days of yore. You’re not going to be able to rely on “taking it to the office” to get rid of that leftover candy, unless the federal government declares an emergency and orders everyone to return to their offices for National Candy Consumption Day on the Monday after the Halloween weekend, to assist in the Snickers and Reese’s and SweeTarts disposition effort.

Give it some thought before you go out to buy your trick or treat candy this year and come up with your preferred approach. Do you buy less, to avoid any excess? Or do you follow your standard “avoid a shortfall” overbuying approach, and figure out an alternative method of getting rid of the leftover trove? Or do you head in an entirely different direction, disavow candy altogether, and offer trick-or-treaters those unappealing “healthy snacks” that nagging health authorities have been trying to get us to hand out for years, on the theory that while the kids clearly won’t like them, at least they won’t tempt you, either?

Welcome to the remote work world.

The Great Screw Top Status Shift

Recently I was out at our neighborhood wine shop, looking for some interesting bottles to try. As I surveyed the racks and boxes and shelves for likely candidates, I realized that one of the factors influencing my decision was whether the bottle was corked or capped—with the balance tipping toward capped. And there were plenty of appealing choices in the screw top category, too.

That’s a pretty significant change in perception and product packaging from the days of my youth. For years, screw top wine was the realm of MD 2020, Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, and Thunderbird, consumed exclusively by winos and high school kids who were just starting out their drinking careers and didn’t know any better. Reputable wineries offered only corked bottles because wine connoisseurs expected fine wines to come with a cork and thus insisted on it.

But, as has happened in so many other areas, the availability and perceptions of screw top wines have radically changed. Whether it was cork shortages in Portugal, articles in wine magazines arguing that modern screw top caps are more protective than corks, a general awareness that capped wines were becoming more available, or trying a screw top bottle somewhere and finding it was indeed potable, public opinion shifted. And after that happened, and people like me began gingerly giving it a try, we realized that capped wine is a lot easier to open than wrestling with a corkscrew and running the risk of cork explosions and failure and the cursing that inevitably accompanied it. With the screw top, it’s a quick twist, some satisfying metal cracking, and you’re in. Once people got over the perception hump and tried it, they realized it had some advantages—and in America, convenience and speed is always going to be a selling point.

The shift always begins with people laying aside their settled views and being receptive to a different approach.

“Fair Style” As An Adjective

A restaurant located near our firm, OH Pizza + Brew, features this sign about its dessert options in the restaurant’s front window. To some, no doubt, the phrasing seems odd. But to anyone who has been to the Ohio State Fair, and has eaten “fair food” along the midway, a reference to “fair style” desserts conveys a powerful message indeed.

What is a “fair style” dessert, exactly? Typically, it has multiple characteristics. First, of course, it must involve food stuffs that are bad for you, prepared in a way that accentuates their unhealthy impact. That means desserts that are fried, that are high in sugar, and that include components from Dr. Nick’s “neglected food groups” pyramid shown on a classic Simpsons episode.

Second, the dessert must be excessive. That means the portions must be huge—think of a piece of fried dough as big as a dinner plate—and the dessert must features unholy combinations that push the caloric content off the charts. Fried Snickers bars on top of ice cream in fried dough might be one element, for example, but you’re going to want to add, say, pieces of candied bacon dipped in chocolate, whipped cream, drizzled caramel, and then drop M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces on top, just to give the concoction a real fair flair.

And finally, a true “fair style” dessert must be plausibly, if messily, portable, and capable of being consumed by someone walking on a dusty path between ancient rides like the Tilt-a-Wheel. That means handheld options, like red hot elephant ears doused in powdered sugar and the covered with other goodies that will leave your hands gross and sticky for hours, or desserts that can be wedged into a cheap cone or flimsy paper bowl that will immediately begin to dissolve as the dessert quickly melts in the summer sun.

That’s what a “fair style” dessert means to me, at least. I haven’t been into OH Pizza + Brew to see what they offer. Frankly, I’m kind of afraid to check it out.

Putting The “G” In Goodbye

The people of Columbus generally, and German Village specifically, got some bad news this week: G. Michael’s Bistro is closing after more than twenty years of operation. The news of the restaurant’s closing was abrupt and was a shock to those of us who were G. Michael’s “regulars.” Apparently, the end came because the proprietors of the restaurant could not reach agreement with the owner of their building about a new lease. You can read their farewell message here.

We went to G. Michael’s, over and over and over again, because we always knew we could count on it for a fine meal and excellent service. I’ve had so many terrific dishes there, and I’ve written about some of them–like the spectacular duck sausage and white bean cassoulet appetizer featured in this 2017 post and pictured below. (I can still taste its delicate and succulent flavors in my memory.) We loved that the menu changed every so often, always giving us a chance to try something new while preserving a few never-changing standbys, like the shrimp and grits. And we also loved that it was only a block away from our house.

The closing of our favorite restaurant is hard to swallow (bad pun intended), and we’re not alone in that sentiment, as the sign above indicates. That’s because the relationship between “regulars” and their go-to dining option transcends a mere business relationship. The people at G. Michael’s knew us, and we knew them; we were greeted as friends by the always cheerful parking attendant as we approached the door and happily greeted again when we entered and walked to the host’s stand. Since we moved to German Village in 2015, we probably have eaten there more than 100 times–by ourselves, with family members and friends, and hosting large groups. I inevitably took clients who were in town on business to G. Michael’s because I knew that it would impress my guests about the quality of Columbus dining, the excellent fare, and the cool, relaxed German Village setting.

Now I’ve have to find a new favorite restaurant, and that sucks. G. Michael’s will be sorely missed.