Date Week 2013 Lancaster/Harrisburg
Rather than start a new thread for each of the places we are dining this week, I figured I'd just do them all in one thread and add to it as I go through the week.
We had a big meal at home with the kids on Sunday afternoon before their drop-off, so we chose to go to a movie instead of out to eat. Mr. CentralPA had been dying to see Pacific Rim, but this isn't a movie website so let me just say this one did not improve his already dismal stats in movie picking and we didn't get any snacks at the theater. :)
On Monday night we dined at Char's at Tracy Mansion in Harrisburg.
Back in November I did a little review as part of another Harrisburg dining thread and basically flamed them for service mis-steps, but acknowledged that the food was all fantastic and I had no doubt we'd give them more chances.
The food is still fantastic. We shared a lamb tongue gyro that contained basically the most tender meat I have ever had in my life. It was a "small plate" but would have easily been a filling lunch for one. It was a lot of food even for 2, and difficult to split. But I will say it was worth it because it was just that tasty - and something I've never had before, which is always fun. We also split the special salad of the evening which was grilled peaches on balls of cottage cheese and a bed of arugula. There was other stuff, too, but I can't recall right now. Whatever it all was, it melded beautifully and just felt like a perfect summer salad. For some people there may have been a little too much dressing. Personally, I could have used a little less, but Mr.CPD was happily sopping up all the extra on the plate. The salad was large in size. I never would have wanted on for just myself. It was perfect to split.
For my entree I got the smoked pork tenderloin with gorgonzola gnocchi and pork belly. The gnocchi and pork belly "nuggets" were swimming in a mustard pork jus with cipollini onions. There was also some braised cabbage? But I don't recall any on my plate. I didn't care, it was delicious. My husband had the special fish of the night which was a wasabi halibut. He loved it and was going on and on about how perfectly cooked it was. I didn't try his, I had to finish my own for lunch the next day as it was, but he tried mine and swooned. We got the bread pudding to share for dessert. It was good. Exceptional? No, but still really good.
I feel like since it was a quiet Monday evening there is no way to say if the service issues we encountered on a Saturday night last Fall have been fixed. But it was still a great night. I wish we had been seated on the porch because the weather was perfect, but we didn't think to ask about that and the option wasn't offered to us at arrival. But really, I can't make any complaints at all regarding the entire experience. Service was great and food was great.
Date #2 was the new Lancaster gastropub, Hunger N Thirst. Located on the premises is also a gourmet food market and a bottle shop. We did not visit either of those. My review is purely of the gasteropub.
Unfortunately, my husband and I were immediately turned off by the hostess. Upon seeing us as she approached, she let us know that it might be a 30 minute wait because they were SO full. Interesting, we could see an empty table for 2 over her shoulder. Before we even got a chance to respond, she said she would double check on that and walked away. She returned to say that while she did, indeed, have a table, she wasn't going to seat us at it because she felt like she should check with the server of that section first because she felt bad seating another person in her area. What? I never heard this before, and I couldn't help that it was a turn off. Of course, she wanted us to go and browse in the bottle shop. Hmm...
At the end of our evening when the place had completely emptied out, we overheard her sit another couple and make excuses that their server was tied up for the moment and walked away. We got our dessert and paid our check, and that couple still hadn't been served. And by that time, the place was empty. The other service issue was that it took far to long to get my 2nd beer. Ok, so I reminded the server. Wait staff really needs to not tell the customer that things are someone else's fault. They just need to try their best to make it right. But my server felt the need to let me know that she had put the order in, but the bartender apparently needed a "verbal reminder." I don't need to know that, just get me my beer. I know I can be tough in this department, but clearly there are some service related issues here.
Another pet peeve we had was the cow bell. Really? A cow bell to announce the finishing off of a keg? I understand they pride themselves on constantly rotating taps and keeping the beers fresh. The beers we had were very good and the list was quite nice. However, this celebratory element to announcing that a beer was now unavailable struck me as immature and out of place. The last time I remember the kicking of a keg being celebrated was at a fraternity house in college. This activity might prove popular with the F&M kids, but I doubt the prices will appeal. On this particular weeknight, the crowd that was there was decidedly mature. My husband and I are in our 40's and were far from the oldest people in the room. In fact, we noticed because we were afraid that would be the case, that it would be a young hipster-ish crowd and we'd feel out of place. But no. If I had to guess I'd say the range was quite broad from mid 20's to mid 60's. Which was actually nice to see.
The food experience was less than stellar. My bibb salad would have bee perfect had the lettuce been torn. It's probably my own issue, but I don't like having to cut up fully intact leaves when I get a salad. Not that I expect it to be chopped up small, but somewhere within the range of bite sized would be good. Despite that inconvenience, the sherry vinaigrette was great and the flavors with the apple, gouda and almonds went together so nicely. And, this salad was dressed perfectly. You got the flavor of the dressing but there were no puddles of it in the bottom of the dish.
In general, I was hopeful about the rest of the meal. I had ordered the duck tacos and Mr. Central PA ordered the asparagus fries and the mussels with a side of french fries. The duck taco was terrible. Sorry, it just don't know how else to describe it. I LOVE duck confit. It is one of my favorite things to order out. But you could barely taste it, or anything else in the dish, because it was so overwhelmed with saltiness. This dish has potential. It looked great when in arrived. The rich duck should have been nicely contrasted with the fresh sliced radish and the pickled onion. But it was so over seasoned and the sauce on it was so overwhelming that you didn't get any of those wonderful flavors.
My husband is a bit of a mussels connoisseur, so I was anxious to hear what he thought. His response was basically, "meh." Not bad, but not great and something seemed off about the broth. I tasted some broth and personally felt it had a chicken-y taste and mouth feel to it. I don't know if they used chicken broth to steam the mussels, but it didn't work great if they did. The asparagus fries, however, were out of this world. They were really a home run, including the aioli dipping sauce. Really spectacular. Such a simple thing but they pretty much saved the meal.
Our dessert was almost as bad as the duck taco. We ordered the ricotta cheesecake with lavender honey to share. It came out in a crock, so I think we both expected it to be warm. Instead, it was ice cold and dry. Clearly over cooked. The only moistness to it came from the delicate lavender honey that was drizzled over the top.
I think they are still working out some kinks and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. They did let us know that they are in the process of making some menu changes. The space they created is actually really lovely, but I fear that an awkward location may work against them, especially when combined with mis-steps in the food and service. I'm always trying to support new culinary endeavors in Lancaster city (and county). I want them to succeed. I also want them to be good. This place isn't good yet, but I'm willing to give it another try and hope that it gets better.
Thanks for this review, centralpadiner. I'll check out the marketplace and bottle shop and report back. (Maybe I'll try out those asparagus fries, too.) Do you think that the FOH would be better/less annoying if I were to make a reservation (if they accept such)? Too bad that they had so many misfires; my expectations have been accordingly lowered.
We were really sad, because we had high hopes. Like I said, we will probably be willing to give it another try. We ran into a friend there that evening and saw her again the next day. They let things roll off their backs much more than we do, but admitted that the hostess greeted them the same exact way and were equally baffled by it. I can't imagine it was that crazy busy when they arrived, because they were finishing up when we got there. The CLAIM was that a whole bunch of tables had just walked in before us.... Now I don't know if that's true.
I really felt bad for the people that came after us and we noticed still hadn't gotten service for quite a while. That is the kind of thing that will make my husband walk out.
Our friend had also been there a couple times before already. She said that she had tried the mussels on a previous visit where they were much better than they had been the night we were all there. I've heard very good things about the burger. She also said the steak was good, but note that is one of the changes they are making. They are giving up on the hanger steak in lieu of a petit filet... that is also sad to me and makes me wonder if Lancastrians just aren't familiar with hanger steak, because I would actually prefer it to a filet.
It might just be a place that is better to go to for some small plates and charcuterie rather than with the expectation of a meal.
Well, for Wednesday night, Mr. CentralPA made a huge scheduling error and planned a team-building event for that day with a group dinner following. Hmmmm.... lucky for him, he's the boss and the boss's wife got to enjoy "date night" with 25 colleagues. :)
The group chose the Appalachian Brewing Co. located in Lititz. We had been to various ABC's many times, but never this location. (By we I meant my husband and I, not this particular group)
The post and beam room is really attractive, but there is nothing to absorb sound. As you can imagine, the space is beyond loud. I'm not sure if this is something that can be remedied, or that they would even want to. But that takes away some of the pleasure for me. I have some hearing issues and that kind of environment is very difficult for me.
The food at ABC is what it is. In fact, they have really scaled back the menu since I had been there last (honestly can't tell you how long it's been). No pizzas anymore - at least not in Lititz. I got a burger and it was done perfectly to my liking and was actually quite tasty, but the husband got crab cakes and said they tasted like they looked - cheap crab meat and lots of filler. He admitted that it would probably be unfair to expect more considering their price of $18 for 2 cakes and a side of fries.
I know it is hard to find any love for ABC around here, because the food is far from spectacular. But, I gave them a glowing review in the past (for a completely different location) for handling a large group of over 20 including half kids with ease. Last night was the same. Twenty-five adults, all drinking, some walking in a few minutes late and ordering after everyone else. But the food came out for everyone in a timely manner, as ordered, and hot. Drinks were flowing and the server barely looked as if she was breaking a sweat. And as the party was breaking up I let her know what a great job she did. Obviously that carries back to how they handled it in the kitchen as well. So I stand by the idea that a large group looking for a casual evening probably can't go too wrong at an ABC location.
On Thursday we finally got to Citronelle. We have heard nothing but good about this place and were really looking forward to it.
First things first, it is BYOB. This is a great trend that seems to be working it's way out to the Lancaster area from Philly, where it has been popular for years. We decided to just make the most of this and took the best wine we had, a 2004 Brunello di Montalcino that we received as a gift. We had been waiting for a special occasion, and figured, "what the heck, date week is special enough!"
This restaurant is VERY small. I'd say 30 seats, at most. Maybe more like 26. It feels like the room is just as small as Ma(i)son, but that they have squeezed in a few more seats. Because of this, they need to figure out better ventilation or A/C. It was uncomfortably hot when the space was entirely full of patrons. Yes, it is Summer, but this past week really hasn't been that hot, so I can only imagine how it was the week of the heat wave.
Any complaints stop there. Service was relaxed and friendly, but you definitely know you are there for a special food experience. The menu is very small. What you see on the website is what you get. The fish of the day is the only special entree.
We each started with one of the appetizers. Everything sounded so good it was hard to choose. I had read a review of the crab croquettes that was quite gushing, and started with that. My husband had the lentil terrine.
I should say that I have crab issues. I was raised spending my summers on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay and while I have had many crab cakes in my life, I always compare to those from a little lunch counter at a small marina north of Rock Hall, MD. When Miss Virginia died, so did my opportunity to ever enjoy those cakes again, but I have been searching ever since only to be filled with disappointment. Well, these croquettes, while different, brought back a memory of a soft, creamy delight that I have not experienced in almost 15 yrs. There is really nothing else I can say, nor a higher compliment that I can give to this dish. It was exactly what I hoped it would be.
The lentil terrine was very unexpected. I had no idea what to expect, but I thought it was delicious. I think my husband might have been licking the plate at the end.
For entree's he got the beef short rib and I got the fish of the day which was a cobia poached in olive oil.
My husband was a bit surprised at the preparation of the beef. It was not the usual braised, falling apart, tender short rib that he expected. I'm not sure how they did it, but this short rib was served boneless and nice and red in the center, but still tender. I tasted it and thought the flavors were very nice. I think it is safe to say that we liked it, but there was nothing about the meat itself to knock our socks off. It was the attention to the vegetable sides that seemed to make a difference. My husband couldn't stop talking about the accompanying beets and squash. The israeli couscous offered a very good textural compliment, but may have been a bit bland. I only took a small taste of it.
I have to say the same for my cobia. The fish itself was very good, but not stellar. However, the accompanying fennel puree and what I think was a tomato confit were excellent. It also included haricots vert and what can only be described as a warm mango jus.
We also chose to get a ratatouille side dish, just because the local produce has been so great this year. It was also quite well done. The nice thing was that he let the vegetables shine, and didn't do too much to them.
For dessert we split the financier with raspberry sorbet. It was light and perfectly sweet. Again, a lovely dessert. I have nothing bad I can say about it. But I'm not sure I can wax poetic either, and that's ok.
I'm a little worried about this place. Of course, I worry about Ma(i)son too, and it is still here. But can Lancaster support 2 small, fine dining, BYOB's? I'm not sure. Because this is a place we won't be taking the kids for a few more years, I doubt we will be able to get there often. (I believe we were last at Ma(i)son during last Summer's date week.) And while I feel badly about that, it is the reality of our dining situation. As much as we love these places, we can only really do this type of dining once or twice a year.
This is a great place for a small birthday or anniversary celebration, and perfect for a business meal. You feel a bit too on top of each other for it to really be "romantic" for a couple's night out. (That's not particularly important to us, but it felt less romantic than Ma(i)son, IMO, for those that are looking for that) A group larger than 6 could have a problem. But, they take reservations and seem to aim to please. I would love to see a place like this create a prix fixe menu, but that would probably have an even tougher time in Lancaster. Either way, I am excited to hear what others thing, and curious to see how the place evolves.
On Friday night, we went to Federal Taphouse. Add this to the numerous options in the city and around the county with great beer and ok food in a large, loud, and fun atmosphere. We were there with friends and had a good time.
The beer selection is, obviously, massive. With 100 beers on tap it can be overwhelming, however I actually appreciated the way the list was broken down by style. It made it easy for me to order.
We ordered a pizza to share as an appetizer. I heard mixed reviews of the pizza at the Harrisburg location, but we enjoyed this one very much. Perhaps the crust could have been a little thinner for my taste, but overall it was very satisfying. We got the sausage, provolone and broccoli rabe, which was a very nice combination.
Otherwise, the food wasn't anything to write home about. I got an arugula salad and added a crab cake. Not sure why I did this considering I know how I am about crab cakes, but this one was certainly a disappointment. I won't get it again. The salad ingredients were nice and fresh, the pistachio covered disc of goat cheese was tasty.
Mr. Central PA diner got a sandwich and honestly, didn't say much about it either way. No complaints, no compliments but ate it all. The other members of our party didn't say much either, but they seemed fairly satisfied.
To me, this is an alternative to places such as Annie Bailey's, Lancaster Brewing, Iron Hill and Appalachian Brewing Co. AND Hunger N Thirst if they can figure out where they want to go with their "gourmet" menu. They all are more about the beer and the atmosphere then about the food - which is fine if you know what your in for. In general, this seems to be a winning formula in Lancaster right now, attracting young 20-somethings all the way up to those in their 50's or above. But I think I'm ready for something new. We need a wine bar alternative to Pour....
I really appreciate your reviews, CPDiner. I'd heard very little about Hunger & Thirst, but it was (past tense, now) high on my must-try-soon list. Now maybe I'll wait to hear if they've polished up the service before I go there.
I was delighted to read your review of Citronelle. It sounds like a great "special occasion" restaurant. Speaking of which, my husband and I made our second visit to Ma(i)son last week. Everything we had was delicious -- we shared two appetizers -- artichokes two ways and roasted shishito peppers -- BOTH prepared and presented very nicely. And we both chose the slow-braised pork for our entrees. It almost seemed like it was better suited for a winter comfort food menu item, but it was wonderful just the same. Coming from southern Chester County, we appreciate (and seek out) BYO restaurants that serve great food. Ma(i)son is one of few places in Lancaster that offers that combination.
We were at Ma(i)son on a Wednesday night and every table was taken. I think that's a good sign that they're there to stay for awhile. But if the BYO policy catches people unaware, it could be problematic. I'd hate to sit down to that kind of meal without a bottle or two to open.
Awww.... thanks! I actually feel like we don't get out very often. I try to keep up on what's new and ask around to anyone I know about where they've been lately and what it was like.
It was a fun week. We actually look forward to it every year, because he prefer to try a place out just the 2 of us before we decide it would be a good fit for our kids. You'd think that would be easier as they get older, but actually their increasingly busy schedules make a relaxing evening out difficult.
Unfortunately, the only spots we'd take them from this past week are ABC, Federal Taphouse, and MAYBE Hunger N Thirst if it improves. So it will be an anniversary, birthday or corporate dinner before we get back to the Char's or Citronelle. Those places are just not great for the kids based on price and general ambiance of the space. I mean, they'd probably love Char's but the only thing my son would want to eat is the $48 steak. LOL!