day forty-nine: taste of thai express

August 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

I know, I’ve been away from the blogging for a bit. Purchasing a house in my new city-to-be, but still, no excuse. And also no excuse for how long I’ve had these two pictures of my delivery order from Taste of Thai Express taking up space on my iPhone.

No excuse, but here goes something that may, in the end, just sound like an excuse.

The thing is, for all the times I’ve eaten at Taste of Thai Express, I can’t think of anything much to say about it. The name is somewhat of a misnomer, as the takeout isn’t ready all that quickly and certainly not any more quickly than at the completely unrelated and, in my opinion, significantly better Taste of Thai restaurant on The Commons.* That said, Taste of Thai Express, unlike Taste of Thai, does deliver, which may make it more ideal in certain chillier and/or lazier situations.

Is this a cop out post? Or just some filler to get me back, as quickly as possible, back into the blogging rhythm for my last few weeks in town? Perhaps. But, even so, I’ve been to Taste of Thai Express many times over the years, and while I’ve found nothing so despicable as to deride, also realized there’s nothing so memorable as to, well, remember. If you like spice and get off on that wonderful, radiating, occasionally hallucinatory Thai spice, 5 or 10 on the scale, top of the tops, you won’t find it here. The dishes I’ve gotten from Taste of Thai Express all tend toward the sweet, like a mediocre Finger Lakes wine. Even something like the Spicy Basil (marked with two spicy asterisks) is tepid. The curries are okay as are the soups. My favorite thing to get here, though, is probably anything with the broad, Wok-fried noodles, like Pad Kee Mao (“Drunken Noodle”) or Spicy Rad Nah (which, again, despite the two asterisks, is still not that spicy). But I’ll take my thick, greasy, pan-charred noodles topped with just about anything.

My only non- or dis- or un-recommendation (which may be a no-brainer, I admit): Don’t order the fried squid for delivery. I don’t know how it looked, tasted or felt in the restaurant, but by the time it arrived at my door, it was pale, lukewarm and soggy. The sweet and spicy dipping sauce covered up these qualities adequately and tastily, but it’s just not worth it. Oh, and if you like cashews and would like plenty of them in your cashew chicken order, go somewhere else. There were maybe eight sad, overcooked cashews tops in the order pictured above. Chicken with Cashew Topping or Chicken with a Few Cashews would have captured the dish more accurately.

Another reason for my lack of enthusiasm in reviewing Taste of Thai Express has to do with its somewhat recent change in location. I used to enjoy the quirky, homey feel of the old State Street location, but find the new, Meadow Street/Route 13 North location (in the old CTB) cold, corporate and cumbersome. It feels more like a fast food restaurant than a place where I’d like to sit and eat. I used to enjoy their food more when I could sit there and enjoy it, but these days, I opt for takeout or delivery.

Okay, my typing muscles are functioning again**. I’m moving on from this lackluster review of blah Thai food and onto, next, something, if not more delicious, at least more interesting, more fun to write and (hopefully) to read, too. No excuses. I promise.

* If anyone has on good information the real scoop behind the naming of these two restaurants, please let me know. Internet lore says that the restaurants are owned by the same family, yet operated by two different brothers. I have no other information to substantiate this. Something, though, tells me this may not be an amicable brotherhood, that there may be another rivalry that runs deeper than copyright…

** Yes, another excuse: I’m still sore from a Monday trip to the gym with a certain muscular graduate student of my very close and beloved acquaintance. I now know the frustration and clumsiness babies and toddlers must feel when trying to do simple things, as picking up cups, brushing my teeth and even typing on my computer have, for the last two and a half days, required a certain amount of forced coordination and will. Maybe I overdid it?

Price: Dinner in a hurry (< $11)
Location: 209 S. Meadow Street (route 13)
Website: Taste of Thai Express

Taste of Thai Express on Urbanspoon

day forty-eight: shortstop deli

July 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Choice paralysis. This is what I feel when I step up to the counter of the Shortstop Deli and grab an ordering sheet. Choose your sandwich size, choose your bread. Toasted or not? Choose your toppings, as many as you like. Would you like that cold or hot? Extra meat? Cheeses? How many? Dressings? Which ones? Or, instead, would you like a Hot Truck pizza sub, which opens up with it, a litany of additional toppings as well as mysterious sandwich acronyms: PMP, WGC, MBC, SUI and CSC. (Only one of these mysterious acronyms–PMP, or, Poor Man’s Pizza–is defined.)

As Shortstop proudly proclaims on one of its outside banners, “Toasted subs really are a big deal” and choosing the right sub, toasted or otherwise, is a big deal as well. As such, my first time at Shortstop was an utter disaster. I was in a huge hurry and my partner asked me to pick up something with “meat, cheese, hot peppers, pretty much anything except a meatball sub.” Through an avalanche of bad decisions, a flurry of pressured, erratic choices on the ordering slip, I somehow managed to order him a sandwich with cheese, hot peppers, meatballs and sauce. In essence, a really disgusting-tasting meatball sub. Looking back, we laugh, but then, running late and very hungry, we quibbled. In front of friends no less. About what did or did not constitute a meatball sub. (I swore up and down that I had not, in fact, ordered him a meatball sub, though, looking inside his sandwich, I realized my position was, in the end, entirely untenable.)

The next time I visited Shortstop, even though there was a line at the counter, I took my time and chose more prudently. In addition to the usual meaty sub classics, there were a number of well-advertised vegan and vegetarian sandwich options as well. Though undergrads swear by the Hot Truck pizza subs, I am not a fan, and so stuck to the non-acronymed Shortstop classics. I ordered a single toasted French bread hot chicken breast sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, bacon, provolone and brown mustard. For Jacob, I ordered a single toasted French Bread cold salami sandwich with onions, black olives, hot peppers, pepperoni, provolone, oil and vinegar. Screw Subway, this is what toasted subs were all about! The Ithaca Bakery French bread was fresh and had a nice crust. The sandwiches were more than amply-sized and did not skimp on the toppings or meat. We were both much happier and domestic peace was restored.

Finally, one of the best things about the Shortstop Deli is that it’s open around-the-clock — to everyone but loiterers. Which is a shame: The benches outside the building, which feel like perfect places for loitering, have a 10 minute limit. While this may be enough time to consume a single sub, it is definitely not enough time to chow down a double or grand slam — unless, that is, your last name is Kobayashi or Perlow.

Price: Student-friendly (< $7)
Hours: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (including all holidays!)
Recommended: Toasted subs with your choice of convenience store snacks, ice cream treats and/or beverage
Location: 204 W. Seneca Street
Website: Shortstop Deli

Shortstop Deli on Urbanspoon

day forty-seven: c.t. bento cafe

July 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

C.T. Bento Cafe is really a cryptic name for a Japanese restaurant. Who (or what) is C.T. Bento? Or, if it’s not someone’s name, what does the “C.T.” before “Bento” stand for?*

In addition to having an unfortunate and inscrutable name, C.T. Bento Cafe also suffers from an unfortunate and inscrutable location. The building, which previously housed the short-lived Smart Monkey Cafe, is located on route 13 next to the Friendly’s. It’s not easy to turn into C.T. Bento’s parking lot, and when you do, you’re faced by two arrows pointing in the direction opposite of the way in which you’re driving. This, I must say, is the opposite of inviting. Instead, the adjective “anxiety-provoking” comes to mind.

Inside, C.T. Bento Cafe is way too large for the small number of tables it contains. Much as with Smart Monkey before it, the space feels as if it were intended for some other more corporate use, like the cafe/restaurant were an afterthought.

At the awkward time I stopped in (a bit after 2pm on a Saturday), I was the only person there. My waitress was incredibly friendly, though, and made C.T. Bento feel inviting. The menu contained the most basic Japanese staples: Edamame, gyoza, simple sushi (unagi, tuna, salmon), standard rolls (California, Philadelphia, Spider, Rainbow, shrimp tempura, Dragon), noodle bowls and, of course, bento boxes. I was hungry and wanted a little bit of everything, so went for the C.T. Bento dark chicken bento box.

The bento box came and it was pretty much what I expected for an $8.95 highway-side bento box, totally okay but nothing special. Everything was fine, but overall kind of bland. The box came with a typical salad with ginger dressing, marinated chicken over cabbage, 2 pieces of grocery-store grade California rolls, a dollop of a-okay seaweed salad, not-quite-Japanese rice, and one sad tiny piece of gyoza. The gyoza was so puny I almost felt bad eating it. It was like a tiny fish that should have been thrown back into the pond to grow plumper, thicker, meatier or perhaps instead be left to provide more substantial nutrition to a predator smaller than me.

The most memorable party of the C.T. Bento bento box was the spicy-yaki dipping sauce that came on the side. I ended up dipping much of my bland bento box–the chicken, rice, gyoza, and California roll–into the sauce, just to give the different textures some flavor. Ginger and wasabi, the usual staples, were conspicuously absent from the bento box and table.

Amid the hubbub of route 13, C.T. Bento Cafe is a relatively calm spot (with beer and wine to boot) to pick up some inexpensive Japanese fast food. It’s not good, but if you’re looking for a place to pick up rolls for friends who don’t know what good Japanese food is and don’t want to spend much money, it probably won’t offend.

* I pondered this for all of two seconds and the first thing that came to mind was “cthulhu tongue.” Something tells me that’s probably not it…

Price: Fast food sushi (< $10)
Location: 335 Elmira Road (route 13)
Website: C.T. Bento Cafe

day forty-six: john thomas steakhouse

July 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Exactly one year ago today, for my 30th birthday, I went to John Thomas Steakhouse with my partner and mother for a celebratory meal. This year, in commemoration of that visit, I am blogging about said meal so that none of you need make that expensive of a mistake for your next birthday. For the price of a meal at John Thomas, one could eat at the best restaurants in the world; instead, here, one is most likely to receive a very expensive piece of meat that tastes like its been heated up by an underpaid line cook.* Want a side with that? That will be $7.50 please, for a mediocre plate of mashed potatoes. How about a salad? That will be an additional $9.75 please, for one thick slice of tomato and a slice of mozzarella. Oh, but it’s drizzled with basil vinaigrette? Well, then…

Reminiscing about this meal brings up a litany of expletives and also the scent of death. The carpeted interior of the John Thomas farmhouse — which is, admittedly, somewhat cute from the outside — smells like old people and mold. The only other people in the restaurant were a couple who looked like they might be in their 80s and were kvetching about the place in Noo Yawk accents. I touched the walls of the room where we were seated and they felt like felt, that cheap green felt that is sometimes stuck to the bottom of furniture so as to avoid the scratching of wood floors. I am a short person and even for me, the ceilings seemed way too low. I looked up at the heating/air-conditioning vents around the top of the room and saw rust all around the edges. Plus, the waiters all look like extras in some Amish musical, with button-up shirts, bow ties, and suspenders. WTF?

I tried to put this all aside and ordered the least expensive steak on the menu. John Thomas was running a recession special at the time (which seems to have ended now that all of us bankers and brokers are no longer suffering and can, thankfully, order full-price steaks again), so I was able to get a porterhouse for 2 for something like $80, which didn’t seem like much of a bargain to me. But maybe it would totally blow my mind, change my ideas about what a steak could be? I tried, as hard as I could, to keep an open mind.

I ordered my steak medium rare and while most parts of the steak were, in fact, a perfectly pink medium-rare on the inside, other, thinner parts of the cut were more toward the medium end of things. The outside of the steak was far too charred and actually detracted from the rich, silky taste of the aged beef. I would have been far happier, I thought, had I ordered this rare. Or if I had cooked it myself with a grill and a thermometer.

We all ate our meals and tried to find decent things to say about them that could possibly justify the exorbitant bill we were about to receive. Alas, we found little that could do so. Instead, we ate in somewhat guilty silence, while I felt like a total tool for having chosen this overpriced, underwhelming restaurant for my birthday, knowing full well that my mother would insist on paying for it.

Leaving John Thomas, it seemed to me that the place had been possibly be getting by on two things alone: 1) Being the only real steakhouse in Ithaca to call itself a steakhouse, thus making it an easy choice for dad-heavy graduation and reunion weekends, and 2) Serving as the dinner restaurant for the neighboring La Tourelle Resort. (If only Simply Red were open for dinner!)

Seriously, anyone can cook the food they have at John Thomas. If you’re hankering for a good steak, go down to the farmers’ market and buy some local, grass-fed beef, lightly season it with salt, pepper and maybe a little bit of olive oil and cook it to your desired temperature over a grill or in your broiler. If you’re hankering for a fancy seasoned steak, order one off the Internet to arrive tomorrow and, likewise, cook it to your desired temperature over a grill or in your broiler. Chances are it will cost far less and be more delicious than what you’ll get at John Thomas. And, the ambience will probably be nicer, too.

Okay, that’s out of my system. I’m off for some birthday fun.

(Shameless plug: If you’re in Ithaca/not at Grassroots tonight, head up to Pixel Lounge in Collegetown after 9:30 for what should be a totally killer dance party!)

* A good source tells me that one such underpaid line cook was, for some time, a regular at the Chanticleer. He wore medieval garb and had burns (steak burns?) all up and down his arms. I don’t yet know what to make of this but think, nonetheless, that it says something about the place.

Price: Sell your stocks, break into the trust fund ( > $40)
Hours: Sun-Th, 5:30 – 10pm; F-Sat, 5:30 – 11pm
Location: 1152 Danby Rd # A (on 96B, past Ithaca College, on the right, in front of La Tourelle Resort)
Website: John Thomas Steakhouse

John Thomas Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

checkpoint two: halfway there?

July 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

So, the good news is, as of today I’ve covered 45 different places here at 90 days, 90 restaurants. The bad news is I’ve got 45 more restaurants to cover and only 25 more days to go. Thankfully, I’m pretty much caught up on my eating and the ill-lit photo-taking thereof. This means the challenge is now to pontificate less, to be more pithy or pithier, whichever it is. Alas, in the hierarchy of words I like, “pontificate” is definitely above “pithy.” Thus, instead of the word “pithy,” I’ll drop the alliteration and use “concise” instead. And leave it at that. In the interest of being more concise. Or pithy. Whatever.

The lingering question remains: Will I succeed in completing all 90 reviews and celebrate with a meal at Hazelnut Kitchen? Or will I have to take some liberty with the comma in “90 days, 90 restaurants” and be made to suffer an ignoble fate where I wait for hours for a table at Viva Dulleria only to be served Tamarind’s seafood pad thai in a Pita Pit pita smothered in Corks Boom Boom Sauce and served with a melange of Sahara’s and Jack’s fries on the side?

Stay tuned. (And, if you want email updates along the way, subscribe via the column to the right…)

day forty-five: state diner

July 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

The State Diner is my favorite late-night, post-Felicia’s greasy spoon food stop. Usually, when I’m there, it’s 1am, nothing else is open and I am desperately in need of some kind of caloric energy to sober me up and get me back up the hill and home safely. I order the same two things every visit — the souvlaki platter and a chocolate milkshake — and they always hit the spot.

I remembered my next to last visit to the State Diner fondly. It was a Thursday night last June. Some new summer friends and I had wandered downtown after a fête at the A.D. White House. We had some drinks, talked some talk, then went to the State Diner for milkshakes and called it a night. Or so I thought.

The next Tuesday, at another A.D. White House fête*, I was talking with one of my new summer friends. “Do you remember everything about Thursday night?” Of course, I replied, glibly, confidently. “Okay…” “Okay, what?” I asked and proceeded to reiterate the preceding paragraph. “If you say so,” he retorted. “Because, I sure as heck don’t.”

Later that week I was shocked to find the photographs below of my new summer friends on my iPhone. Shocked not so much because they were shocking (I found them quite sweet, actually), but shocked because I don’t remember taking them nor any of the sequence of events below happening at all.

Fortunately, nonetheless, a good time seemed to be had by all.

These conditions, though, are not ideal for any kind of semi-legit restaurant reviewing. As such, I returned to the State Diner a few weeks ago for a complete legit and utterly tax-deductible business lunch.** I ordered, as could be expected, the souvlaki platter and a chocolate milkshake. My business partner ordered what, on the menu, seemed to be a totally legit hamburger platter.

My souvlaki was, as it always is, exactly what I expected and wanted: Big, well-done (c)hunks of pork served with an oily salad and fries. The State Diner, in fact, does souvlaki way better than the presumptuously named Souvlaki House in Collegetown. The State Diner souvlaki is diner-perfect or, as almost as good as short-order diner souvlaki in the United States is going to get. The salad is salty, oily and not in the least bit healthy; the fries are likewise.

My only disappointment with my meal was the fact that it seemed to be a dollar or two more expensive than I remembered it. That said, I was very disappointed for my friend and her not-burger. I had been given to thinking that a quarter-pounder was more or less standard these days. This was possibly a sixteenth-pounder. We could barely find a semblance of a patty on top the artificial bread and beneath the slice of possibly artificial cheese that had a consistency more akin to the type of plastic wrap often found sandwiched in between slices of artificial cheese than a slice of artificial cheese itself. One would be far better off in terms of both quality and quantity at Wendy’s for the price.

Where’s the beef? I thought, as I sucked down on my seemingly endless diner-perfect milkshake. The State Diner’s chocolate milkshakes are, for me, what I imagine the Pulp Fiction $5 milkshake to be (minus the cherry and whipped cream). The milkshake stays cold and feels endless thanks to the old-fashioned metal milkshake shaker cup that comes served alongside the smaller serving cup. It’s a divine elixir of an almost bygone era, the last extant remnant of roller-skate waitress and drive-in days. Much like the State Diner itself.

* I am going to miss such weekly fêtes. I get the feeling that while exciting, my upcoming grad school adventures might not be quite as fêted as my current events coordinator position…

** More expensive completely legit and utterly tax-deductible business lunches will have to wait until our complete legit business is more utterly profitable.

Price: Diner-reasonable, but not cheap (< $10)
Recommended: Souvlaki platter and a chocolate milkshake, it seems. Not sure about anything else.
Hours: 24/7
Location: 428 W. State Street

State Diner of Ithaca on Urbanspoon

day forty-four: mia restaurant

July 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

Statistically speaking, it was probable that in the ninety some odd days I was writing this blog, a new restaurant would open in Ithaca. That said, given my propensity to dilly-daddle, mosey, and/or lollygag, I couldn’t imagine that if this theoretical new restaurant were to open that I might be the first one to review it. A quick, lazy Google search after my trip to Mia Restaurant on the Commons last week turned up no intrepid Yelp reviewer’s commentary. Did I jump to my review? Nah. I was tired that night after a swim and a cocktail and went promptly to bed. So, here I am, a few days later, still hoping to be ahead of the curve.

Likewise, though the owners of Mia Restaurant were, trend-wise, a bit slow to jump on the whole upscale suburban pan-Asian phenomenon made popular by chains like P.F. Chang’s, they are nonetheless, the first restaurant in Ithaca to do so and, as such are, like me, curiously both late to the game and ahead of the curve. Like the proprietors’ other restaurant, Zaza’s, Ithaca’s one upscale suburban Italian restaurant, Mia fills a niche. And it does so, to my delight, remarkably well.

I had wanted to go to Mia earlier, but had been dissuaded against doing so by my partner, who was put off by the high prices and the commingling of various Asian cuisine smells inside. Stepping in with my friend last week, my finely tuned sniffer did not pick up on this quality. Instead, I was perplexed by the entrance way, which had, in my opinion, remarkably inauspicious feng shui. It felt, oddly, like we were poking around uninvited in the hallway of a rich friend’s apartment building. Where was the restaurant?

The hostess noticed us awkwardly bumbling around and motioned for us to step up and into the restaurant area. From that moment on, we never needed for anything. The waitstaff were there whenever we needed them (and often seemed to know when we needed them before we were even conscious of this ourselves), yet were never obtrusive or overly stuffy. They answered our questions about the menu, cleaned off our table between courses, and swapped out our silverware as appropriate. I had completely forgotten, during my time here in Ithaca, that service like this existed. Neither the service at The Heights Cafe nor John Thomas held a candle to what we experienced at Mia.

The table settings at Mia were minimalist yet comfortable. Looking around the restaurant, we felt very much not in Ithaca any more, definitely not on The Commons any more. Everything was too clean and too new. I felt like I had stepped outside space and time and into an environment where food and drink were all that temporarily mattered. I get this same feeling after trouncing indecisively around an airport for a while before finally deciding to stop and drink at a particular airport lounge. The airport’s fluorescence disappears from view and there is, for a moment, a sense of stillness, calm darkness, without stress or delays. Mia has this same feeling: It looks like it could be in an airport, and its awkwardly-placed bar in the center of the restaurant looks uncannily like an airport bar.

This evening, Mia’s clientele, too, felt like a hodge-podge of travelers just passing through. Beside us was a heavily tanned middle-aged man with his shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal his chest hair. Together with his wife, her helmet of bleached blonde hair, and costume jewelry, they looked like they were in visiting from New Jersey. They pulled a tiny baby stroller up to the side of their two-top. To my surprise, a pomeranian popped out and poked its furry white chin right over the edge of the table. No one batted an eye. Women in tight ripped jeans and stiletto heels headed up and down a staircase behind our table. Where had these people come from and where were the women in heels going?

It was time for a drink. We cracked open our menus to find a totally funky list of Asian-inspired cocktails. (For the less cocktail-inclined, Mia has a substantial list of wine, beer, and sake as well.) I went for the sake sangria; my friend chose the cilantro martini. The Sake Sangria, a mixture of sake, prosecco, lychee, pineapple, and grapefruit juices, tasted not so much like sake or sangria as a Japanese bellini, but was refreshing nonetheless. My friend’s cilantro martini was completely refreshing, the perfect thing for a hot summer day. The primary flavor in the martini was not cilantro, but rather lime, with a nice, subtle, cilantro finish. Both drinks were generously-sized and my friend and I had to be careful not to drink them too quickly, as we would certainly then want another one and then even more certainly be in no condition to drive home.

The dinner menu was simple, elegant. All of the options sound enticing; any more and choosing would be difficult. The cuisine runs the pan-Asian gamut and includes Thai, Chinese, Japanese and even Indian dishes. Appetizers are divided into five types: soup, salad, raw bar, rolls/buns, and small plates.

Mia’s soups were the least interesting of their menu items, and were simply the Thai standards, Tom Yum and Tom Kha. The salad section had an interesting-sounding hijiki, watercress and jicama salad with goji berries salad. Were my friend and I less hungry and more affluent, we would have certainly chosen a plate or two from the raw bar section: We saw a number of different sushi and sashimi options land at the tables around us. They all looked like city sushi, exquisitely plated, with all kinds of flourishes, instead of the colorless, mushed-up sushi usually served in our landlocked town. I do not get to eat barbecued pork buns nearly as often as I would like, so I chose the Mia barbecue pork buns from the rolls/buns section while my friend ordered the mussels in tom yum broth with Thai basil and chili pepper.

Anthony Bourdain famously warns against ordering mussels in restaurants. These mussels, however, defied all such invectives and were, in fact, probably some of the best I’ve ever had. The expediter accidentally placed the mussels appetizer closer to me and the pork buns in front of my friend. I thought I would have just one or two of the mussels before moving on to the pork packets, but I just couldn’t stop scooping them into my mouth. I dipped each shell into the spicy soup mixture and then quickly sucked each shell-ful into my mouth, the vacuum suction pressure removing the mollusk from its famed muscular foot into my gullet. The broth was articulate in its spiciness and featured, to my delight, delicately cooked jalapenos.

Mia’s barbecue pork buns were, while an innovative twist on traditional Chinese pork buns, surprisingly not as delicious as the mussels. Mia’s riff on the pork bun was a rice pancake wrapped around lightly crunchy barbecue pork strips and thin slices of pickled daikon. While the textures of this dish were complex, the pancake seemed to absorb too many of the pan-Asian scents my partner had described and obfuscated the simplicity of its tastes. That said, this appetizer was still pretty good and I found myself rooting for future iterations of it. Perhaps, I thought, it could be prepared in a special room only for pork buns?

We finished our appetizers before taking another look at the entrees, almost all of which sounded absolutely delicious. The entrees were broken down into seafood, meat, and vegetarian options. No fewer than four of the seafood options featured prawns, something one would be unlikely to find elsewhere in Ithaca. Other excellent-sounding options included an Indian-style red snapper, yuzu-soy sea bass, and a Thai seafood bouillabaise. The meat entrees included a chicken masala, Thai beef and pork curries, and an oddly non-Asian-sounding pan roasted cowboy steak with arugula salad and cumin-butter fingerling potatoes. Maybe this was the option for disgruntled party members who didn’t think they liked Asian cuisine? Maybe a little cumin-butter on the side makes any dish Asian? (Nonetheless, I thought this, too, sounded like a good possibility.)

For my entree, I decided on the roasted half duck in a five-spice demi-glace with Asian greens and shiitake mushrooms. My friend went for the lamb kofta with Kashmiri spinach sauce. These arrived and were both not only larger-sized than I expected, but also nicely plated. My silly old iPhone camera could not do these plates justice. And these entrees tasted as nice as they looked, if not better. My duck was perfectly cooked and included only the best parts of the bird. There was none of that disappointing fatty lumpiness that often comes with duck, yet all of the flavor and juiciness. I was able to slice the substantial duck breasts into perfect diagonal pieces, then eat each with a tangy bite of the greens and mushrooms underneath it. The duck legs were flaky, rich, and provided a good counterpoint to the thickness of the breast meat. This, I thought, is what Madeline’s duck dish should taste like. For the same price, it doesn’t even come close. Madeline’s = banquet food. Mia = chef cuisine.

My friend’s lamb kofta curry was also excellent. I had, admittedly, been a bit concerned about the inclusion of Indian food to the menu — Was it necessary? Did it fit into the aesthetic? — but appreciated how the chef lightened and brightened the flavors of this dish. It had all the creaminess of curry, but felt elevated instead of weighty. The fresh spinach was not there just for texture, but rather popped with its own distinct flavor. And the crunchy roti spire jutting from the sea of curry was, if nothing else, good for dipping.

Because we had chosen and eaten so slowly, I happily realized that I had room for, if not a whole dessert, at least half of one. But first I had to go to the restroom. I headed up the staircase behind our table, where the women in tight ripped jeans and stiletto heels had been going. One more such woman passed me and I saw behind her a laminated sign that looked like something out of a spa and read “Orchid Room.” I imagined some kind of floral bacchanal taking place behind that door, but did not pull. The upstairs was just too disconcerting. There were signs to the bathroom that lead through a small hallway that looked far more like something out of a hotel than a restaurant. Across from the single stall bathrooms was an onyx door with big gold numbers. “201.” I remembered a sign outside, right next to the restaurant that said “Mia apartments.” Who would want to rent a luxury apartment right next door to restaurant bathrooms? And what was going on in the Orchid Room? Mysteries abounded, but this was no time for sleuthing, only dessert.

The dessert list, like the rest of the menu, was appropriately short. Everything sounded good: dark and white chocolate mousse, cardamom custard, a pistachio and cranberry tart, and a bittersweet chocolate bombe with raspberry mousse. I had to inquire further into two of the desserts, the zabayon pistachio kulfi and millefeuilles Michelle, as all these words except pistachio and Michelle were unfamiliar to me. I’m a sucker for pistachio anything and the waitress’s detailed description of zabayon kulfi was so evocative that I couldn’t help but go for that. Millefuilles, or the cake of a 1,000 leaves, for the record, sounds kind of like a Napoleon.

A few Google searches later, I’m still not sure which part of our dessert was the zabayon, better known as zabaglione, an Italian wine custard, and which part was the frozen milk-based kulfi, but it was all absolutely delicious. Each bite was cool, complex, and completely refreshing. The thick, almost milkshakey creaminess of the custard was slight sweet with just a hint of spice (cardamon, perhaps?). The finely chopped pistachios thickened the dessert and added texture without disrupting the custard’s smoothness. The full-bodied mango and kiwi slices, which were both at the most exquisite stage of ripeness (their prime of my life, as it were), proved to be great compliments to the chilled concoction. And the now trademark Mia swirl gave not only vertical flair to the presentation, but served as another tasty dipping vehicle as well. This, too, we ate slowly, savoring each bite, until the restaurant cleared out and it was time to go.

As we exited, we passed the proprietor, Lex, in a badass black chef’s coat. I did my best to telepathy mad props to him. My first visit to Mia was a success and left me wanting to come back, to different cocktails, appetizers, entrees and desserts, with the hope and expectation that they would be both different and equally good. Also, next time I’ll get my nerve up and open the door to the Orchid Room.

Price: Night on the town ($15 – $28/entree)
Hours: Dinner from 5pm – 10:30pm everyday, bar open F & Sat until 1am and Sun – Th until midnight
Location: 130 E. State Street on The Commons
Website: Mia Restaurant

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