When the bill arrived after lunch in a casual, sit-down Mexican restaurant, I noticed the “tip amount” help printed at the bottom of the receipt.

I’d never seen it before, so I tweeted out “Terrific or Tacky?” The responses that flurried back were roughly split 50/50.

Some thought it was helpful, acknowledging a lack of math skills or as a reminder of more important things, like paying attention to you guests.

@RellaBellaK I like it, but then, I’m terrible at math

@ericeatsout I actually like it. A tactful reminder that 15% isn’t acceptable these days, and that most servers deserve a healthy tip

@jwillensky I like it. Convenient, and nice to focus on dining companions instead of math.

Others thought it tactless — even offensive.

@Dinnersforayear tacky. very tacky

@ttolmachoff tacky

@TheLargWhiteMan I’ve always found it unnecessary. #ijustusemynoggin

And still others were ambivalent — and funny.

@andrewkfromaz tacky but kinda handy at the same time. I guess it’s like a fanny pack.

It struck me as funny, too. How many people go to the trouble to calculate the tip to an exact amount, with no rounding?

On the same trip, I encountered another restaurant, this time a brewpub, that printed the “convenience” math.

What is the right amount to tip, anyway?

Everyone has their own idea of how much to tip, so I’m not going to tell you how to tip. That’s your decision, based on your experience.

I once got a $100 tip on a $50 tab from a couple oil men celebrating a strike over burgers and brews.

Another time I got one penny from a group of snooty women, one of whom I “accidentally” spilled a drink down her back. (Ladies, please don’t insult your server until after you’ve been served.)

In the end, it’s up to the server to give good service. It’s up to management to schedule appropriately so that servers can give good service.

And finally, it’s up to the diner to grade the service in the form of a tip.


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A Temporary Vegetarian

I’m doing something I’ve never done before.

I’m eschewing meat. On purpose.

There is no ulterior motive, and no need to get alarmed — it’s only temporary. How hard can it be?

Blame it on my working vacation in a mountain town filled with fit granola heads, and restaurants with plenty of menu space dedicated to veg-heads.

And I don’t have to review a single one of them, so I can order what I want, like a bowl of yellow curry with tofu and mushrooms at Squatters Brew Pub.

Blame it on my temporary housing, in the home of a lovely vegetarian, who has a pantry stocked with grains, beans, and nuts, and shelves stuffed with vegetarian cookbooks. (That’s her own cookbook in the middle, the blue Chocolate Snowball.)

The surprising thing about eating strictly vegetarian, to me anyway, is that it’s just not that hard. A piece of cake.

Breakfast has always been an easy meal to drop the meat, what with all the oatmeal and egg options, including one of my favorites, huevos rancheros from Loco Lizard — not to mention the smoothie kick I’ve been on lately.

Lunch and dinner, on the other hand, always seemed like meat meals to me.

But I’m finding I don’t have to struggle find something appealing without meat, like a juicy avocado, tomato and sprout sandwich with smoked Gouda from The Back Door Deli.

Of course, this — like all fairy tales — will come to an end.

Because at the end of the day, I’m a bacon-loving, steak-eating girl. Life without meat just doesn’t sit right in the saddle for me.

Maybe that’s why my temporarily vegetarian mouth and my permanent carnivorous brain had a failure to communicate just two weeks into this little experiment.

You see, I ordered a bowl of French Onion Soup at The Foundry Grill at Sundance Resort without blinking an eye. Delicious, caramelized onion soup with a toasted crostini and melted Gruyere — vegetarian, right? Wrong.

I had reached a turning point:

I could drop the charade and return to my flesh-eating ways, or I could dust myself off, wiped the sherry-drenched, rich veal stock off my chin, and climb back on the vegetarian horse.

In the end, I chose the latter (right after I drained the soup bowl) and, for now, I’m back on the veg-train with another week to go.

But I was wrong about one thing.

Giving up meat is lot harder than I thought, after all. It’s not a piece of cake (and I probably couldn’t give up cake for very long, either.)

How about you? Have you ever given up meat? Did you stick with it, or revert back to your old ways?


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Steak with Friends: At Home with Rick Tramonto – Review

Note from Chef Gwen: Linda Avery ponders “chef ink” before diving into the newest cookbook from celebrated Chicago Chef Rick Tramanto. Read on, and then head to the kitchen to make the “to-live-for” melon & tomato gazpacho with grilled shrimp.

Linda Avery Reviews Steak with FriendsSteak with Friends:
At Home with Rick Tramonto

By Rick Tramonto with Mary Goodbody

photos by Ben Fink

Facts: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 290 pages, $35.00 (or Amazon at $23.10)

Photos: 240 photos plus illustrations

Recipes: 150

Give to: Meat lovers, Rick Tramanto fans, budding chefs, that friend who throws dinner parties

Reviewed by Linda Avery:

What is it with chefs and artwork? Not what they hang on the walls of their restaurants but body art.

Have you noticed? Some of the most colorful, creative art now graces the limbs of star chefs.

Is it a necessary outlet for all of those overflowing creative juices? (The subject didn’t escape Melissa Lavrinc Smith, who actually wrote a book that targets the constantly growing group of “Inked Rogue Chefs).

Rick Tramonto’s latest cookbook Steak with Friends: At Home with Rick Tramonto has a lovely cover photo of his family in their home with an array of food spread before them. But, your eyes immediately go to the words Chef and Faith written in a medieval script on the chef’s forearms.

(Yes, I’ll review the book in a minute but bear with me; it’s fascinating and gives insight to this James Beard Award winning chef).

Tramonto has 24 tattoos, those on the left side of his body are about his faith, and those decorating his right side are about cooking.

He likens the restaurant kitchen to the military i.e. strict and regimented: this is a release. Beside that he likes the art.

Last summer, I attended the 10-year anniversary celebration of his restaurant Tru (from which he recently departed). His wife Eileen was at our table and we had had a brief chat about tattoos, so when he stopped by the table she had him rolled up his pant legs to show off the new knife images which took a couple years to finish. Wow – ‘nuf said.

Okay, now the book! And it is a fine one with far more than steak recipes and while instructive, it’s not a how-to-grill book. Tramonto chose steak as the centerpiece because it’s a hallmark of Chicago and it represents an indulgence.

He wants you to know how to cook it perfectly to your taste because “if you overcook it, there’s no going back.” The grilled steak section includes numerous cuts with tomahawk (aka Cowboy cut – a bone-on ribeye), flatiron, skirt and hanger among the lot, and then he moves to classics like Steak Diane, Beef Wellington, and Filet Oscar.

There are 150 recipes and the variety beyond beef is superb (fewer than 30 recipes are actually “steak”) including Peekytoe crab salad, cioppino, garlic sausage, lemongrass duck, even the ubiquitous mac & cheese.

Desserts like Killer Chocolate Pudding and Key Lime Brûlées are mouthwatering. The headnotes are charming, informative, and insightful and you’ll find the sidebars and tips useful. Don’t overlook the Sources section to learn where the pros buy when local isn’t available.

Not to be outdone by fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless’ inclusion of music, Tramonto recommends Aerosmith, U2, The Rolling Stone, The Beatles and Santana for high energy when grilling up steaks.

Since farmer’s markets are brimming with tomatoes and melons, I decided to try this fabulous gazpacho. Although Tramonto calls it a perfect little appetizer, I think of it as a light dinner or great summer lunch.

Pen and Fork Review Steak with Friends

photo © Ben Fink

From Steak with Friends: At Home with Rick Tramanto

Melon and Tomato Gazpacho with Grilled Shrimp

Serves 4

I must have made a hundred different gazpachos during my career and never tire of the fresh, uncooked vegetable soup. When I decided to make a version I knew everyone in the household would like, I turned to perfectly ripe melons and tomatoes for the basis of the soup and then garnished it with grilled shrimp. What a perfect little appetizer before a grilled chicken or steak dinner!

1 pound medium shrimp, deveined with shells on (20 to 25 shrimp)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ripe heirloom or other tomatoes, seeded and cut into large cubes
2 ripe red beefsteak tomatoes or 4 yellow tomatoes, cut into large cubes
2 ripe yellow beefsteak tomatoes, cut Into large cubes
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut into large cubes
1 small red onion, diced
1 rib celery, chopped
1/2 ripe cantaloupe, seeds removed, flesh scooped from rind and diced
1/2 ripe honeydew melon, seeds removed, flesh scooped from rind and diced
1 teaspoon minced jalapeno pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided
Pinch of smoked paprika
1 red tomato, finely diced, for garnish
1 yellow tomato, finely diced, for garnish

1. Prepare a clean, well-oiled charcoal or gas grill so that the coals or heating element are at medium-high heat. Alternatively, you can use a stovetop grill. Soak 4 bamboo skewers in cool tap water for about 20 minutes. This will prevent them from charring.

2. In a mixing bowl, toss the shrimp with enough oil to coat lightly. Season with salt and pepper. Thread the shrimp equally on the skewers. Grill, turning once, for 2 to 3 minutes total, until the shrimp turn pink and are cooked through. Remove 4 shrimp from the skewers and set all the shrimp aside to cool.

3. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, mix the 3 types of cubed tomatoes with the cucumbers, onion, celery, cantaloupe and honeydew melons, and jalapeno and pulse until nearly smooth but with some chunks remaining.

4. Transfer the soup to a bowl and add the lemon juice and vinegar. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the chives and the paprika and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper and a little sugar, if needed. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until well chilled.

5. Ladle the soup into chilled bowls. Chop the 4 reserved shrimp and sprinkle over the top of each bowl. Garnish each bowl with the diced red and yellow tomatoes, remaining 1 tablespoon chives, and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve, with a full skewer of shrimp next to or balanced on top of each bowl.

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Trend Spotter: Black Garlic

The first time I heard about Korean black garlic was back in October of 2008, in a NYT story by Florence Fabricant, but avant garde chefs, like Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, had already started playing with it in early 2008.

It didn’t make any trend lists that year, but by the end of 2009, it was on several “hot new food trend” lists.

The fermented garlic started turning up on more restaurant menus like Blackbird in Chicago, David Paul’s in Lahaina (Maui), wd~50 in New York throughout 2009.

And in January 2010, it landed at Crudo, in Phoenix.

Now, home cooks can buy black garlic at Whole Foods ($12.99, 5.47 oz.), from a company called — straightforward enough — Black Garlic.

What exactly is black garlic? It’s real garlic that’s been through a 3-week fermentation process, and 1-week drying process, using a variety of temperatures and humidity levels.

Is it really safe to eat? I assume so, since I’ve been snacking on the tasty orbs for the past few months.

The sticky, black cloves taste sweet, almost raisiny, with the faintest hint of garlic flavor.

You can slice or chop them to use as a garnish on any number of dishes from pasta to risotto to bruschetta.

The Black Garlic website has a handful of recipes, but if you google “black garlic recipes,” you’ll find more and more chefs and bloggers experimenting with this new “toy.”

You can make a paste by mashing the cloves with some olive oil in a mortal and pestle, and use the paste to boost the flavor of soups and sauces.

I used the paste as a spread on a turkey and brie sandwich, with thinly sliced Granny Smith apples.

So, go ahead. Splurge. A little goes a long way, and since it’s fermented, once opened, it will keep in the refrigerator for months.

Have you used black garlic in your kitchen?


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Gelato in Italy

If there is a pizzeria on every corner in every town in Italy — and it seems there is — then there are two gelaterias on the opposite corners.

It’s widely known that Italy has some of the best ice cream in all the world, and even though it’s called gelato, and it’s made differently than the ice cream in the States, Italian gelato really is something special.

But unlike the pizzerias, where nearly every pie is perfection, not all gelaterias in Italy are turning out the same quality of frozen fare.

If you pass by a gelato shop that displays gelato flavors in Marge Simpson styled coifs, keep walking.

Because odds are that the next shop won’t be about the window dressing.  It’ll be about the flavor and texture, looks be damned.

Here’s a look at those kinds of gelaterias in Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Manarola and Bologna:

FLORENCE: Vivoli Il Gelato isn’t easy to find, tucked on a back street near the Piazza Santa Croce. But it should be on any serious gelato-lover’s radar.

Vivoli can’t keep their bins full, and although most of the flavors are traditional — cream, vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, stracciatella — they’re all sublime, rich and creamy.

Not all gelaterias have rich and creamy gelatos.

Some focus on the Sicilian style of gelato, which doesn’t contain eggs.

Places like Florence’s Gelateria Carabe’, just a short walk from the Galleria dell’Accademia and Michelangelo’s David, which of course you will go see.

And you should go taste Carabe’s Sicilian style gelato, because what it lacks in richness from the absence of eggs, it makes up for in the fresh fruit flavors and sweet cream.

SIENA: You’ll find plenty of Marge Simpson coifs in Siena, but you’ll also find a serious gelateria (below) on the Piazza Il Campo, which has one of the deepest, darkest chocolate gelatos I found.

Every shop offers a wide variety of cones, some made on premise, or maybe you’ll expend all your carb calories on the gelato itself by choosing a cup instead of a cone.

Whichever delivery vehicle you choose, don’t choose just one flavor. Even in a small cup, three flavors can happily co-exist and you’ll get to experience a wider variety of flavors.

SAN GIMIGNANO: One of the most quaint, hilltop Tuscan towns northwest of Siena, San Gimignano, is home to a Gelato World Champion gelateria, called Gelateria di Piazza. (Pluripremiata means winning.)

No matter what time of day, there is a line out the door at Gelateria di Piazza, even though there are a handful of other gelaterias within eyesight.

Gelateria di Piazza makes plenty of traditional flavors, but you’ll also be tempted by more unusual flavors like rosemary scented raspberry and Gorgonzola with walnuts.

MANAROLA: Among the five seaside towns that comprise Cinque Terre on the western coast of Italy, the town of Manarola has the best gelateria, a tiny shop called Gelateria 5 Terre.

Traditional hazelnut and pistachio are the best selling flavors at 5 Terre, but my absolute favorite was a caramelized fig and shortbread studded gelato, made with mascarpone. (pictured below, top middle).

BOLOGNA: As much as I adored the Manarola gelateria, my absolute favorite shop was in Bologna, called Il Gelatauro.

It wasn’t just the charming interior, or the Slow Food certificate hanging on the wall, or the fact that this gelateria also makes amazing chocolates and cookies.

It was the gelato. The silkiest, creamiest, most delicious gelato in all of Italy — or at least among the 15 to 20 shops I visited.

It was the roasted pistachio gelato, made from pistachios from Bronte in Sicily.

Or maybe it was the delicately flavored gelato made with bergamot and jasmine.

Yes, Italian gelato really is special.

Maybe it’s because of the slightly lower fat content, a result of a higher ratio of whole milk to cream.

Maybe it’s because of the melt-on-your-tongue texture, a result of a slower churning method, reducing the amount of air whipped into the gelato vs. American ice cream.

Maybe it’s because Italian gelato is served a few degrees warmer than ice cream, which makes the flavors burst through easier.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the experience of being in Italy, swirling a spoonful of silky gelato on your tongue, soaking up la bella vita.

Vivoli Il Gelato
Via dell’Isola delle Stinche, 7
Gelateria Carabe’
Via Ricasoli, 60
Bar Il Camerlengo
Piazza Il Campo, 6
5 Terre Gelateria e Creperia
Via Antonio Discovolo, 248
San Gimignano:
Gelateria di Piazza
Piazza della Cisterna, 4
Il Gelatauro
Via San Vitale, 98/B

(If I’ve left off your favorite gelateria in Italy, please share it with us, and tell us why you love it.)


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Phoenix Files – The Cafe at MIM

Culturally speaking, Phoenix became much richer on April 24, with the opening of MIM, the world’s first global musical museum, a 190,000 square-foot, two-story complex featuring more than 10,000 instruments and associated objects.

Perhaps the best kept secret of the barely 3-month old museum is the bright and airy café located off the main wing.

And here’s another secret: you don’t have to purchase an admission ticket to eat in the café.

All you have to do is stop at the admissions desk and ask for a pass for the café.

Café might be a misnomer, as the set up is cafeteria-style, although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill cafeteria — or typical museum café for that matter.

The café is operated by Bon Appétit Management company, and the kitchen is run by Edward Farrow, a chef with serious credentials including the River Café in New York, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and Kai, Arizona’s only 5-Diamond restaurant.

While the setting seems like a cafeteria — shuffling through a food line, paying at a register at the end, and eventually, placing your tray on a conveyor belt headed for the dishwasher — the cuisine tells a different story.

The menu is driven by Bon Appetit’s “Circle of Responsibility” philosophy. Crafted — and subsequently labeled — with identifiers like “Organic,” “Vegetarian,” “Gluten Free,” Low Fat,” and “Farm to Fork.”

The Farm to Fork label means the ingredients are locally sourced, and Chef Farrow is on speed dial with local producers like Queen Creek Olive Mill, The Meat Shop, Fossil Creek Creamery, and Seacat Gardens.

The menu features a weekly soup and another that changes every two days ($2.95 cup/$3.95 bowl), just like the global special ($8.25), a personal-size pizza ($7.25), an AZ local special ($8.25), and a grill special ($8.25).

The global dish might be a braised rabbit panni, with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and havarti, served with a bowl of Mediterranean olives. (pictured above)

There are weekly deli sandwiches and burgers — beef, turkey and veggie — and even a hot dog.

House made potato chips ($1.75) with sea salt are made fresh daily.

Theoretically, you could eat here every day and never have the same dish twice.

The grill special could be a fine piece of halibut, rubbed with a sweet chile glaze, seared to just done, and served with a tomatillo-avocado salsa, and black, forbidden rice topped with pine nuts and sunflower seeds. (pictured below)

Did I mention it was only $8.25?

The Café at MIM makes all their desserts in-house, and they change frequently, too, like a cherry chocolate cream tart, a marble cake parfait and a Sonoran lemon cake, all $4.50.

For $6, there’s a local cheese plate, with cheese, flat bread, fig and date cake, and honey.

Could this little gem be one of the best lunch spots in the Valley? Maybe. It certainly exceeds the quality vs. price ratio.

And it couldn’t be easier to get to, located just one block south of the 101 off Tatum Boulevard.

On second thought, maybe we should just keep this little secret between us.

Café at the MIM
4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily


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Florence’s Mercato Centrale

Most tourists make a bee-line to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see The David the minute they arrive in Florence, Italy.

Not me. I had my eye on another Tuscan treasure just a few blocks away.

I did rendezvous with Michelangelo’s masterpiece — and it was spectacular — it just wasn’t the first thing on my agenda.

A food market was my top priority.

The Mercato Centrale (Central Market), a masterpiece in its own right, is a massive, two-story warehouse off the Piazza San Lorenzo with a very unassuming entrance.

Florence Mercato Centrale Entrance

Once inside, it feels like bustling Disneyland for food lovers, with stall after stall of all things food.

Like any good market worth its salt, it has prepared food stalls, too, so you can fill up before wandering the aisles.

At one point, the top floor was reserved for fresh produce and dry goods, and the lower level was filled with butchers and fishmongers.

When I visited the market, the upstairs was roped off, and all vendors were located on the 1st floor, with an adjoining, tent-covered parking lot with even more fresh vegetables.

What kinds of stalls will you find cruising the aisles?

You’ll find cheesemongers who sell wine and olive oil.

And charcuterie purveyors who sell cheese.

There are butchers who specialize in poultry. Some with the heads…

And some without.

There are butchers who’ll cut to order that most famous Tuscan beef steak — Bistecca alla Fiorentina — from the white Chianina cattle breed (pronounced kee-a-nee-na).

And then there are offal purveyors — lots of offal purveyors. Tripe seems to be the most popular, and Florence is also known for lampredotto, stewed tripe sandwich, with the crusty bread dipped into the herb and garlic braising liquid just before serving.

I’ll be perfectly honest. Munching on cow stomach at 9 a.m. was not on my agenda. I just couldn’t stomach it. A caffé macchiato and a cornetto pastry were much more my style.

If oogling tripe and chicken heads proves too much to bear, wend your way to the colorful and tame dried fruits and nuts stalls.

Or erase the memories of blood and guts by soaking up views of gorgeous fresh fruits and vegetables.

One of the best ways to experience the market is with a knowledgeable guide who speaks Italian, so you can ask the vendors questions.

Divina Cucina, aka Judy Witts Francini, is an American-born chef and cooking instructor who moved to Florence in 1984, and fell in love with both the city and a local man whom she married.

Judy has intimate knowledge of the central market, and conducts a Monday-at-the Market tour each week.

Visit her site (link below) to learn more about her tours and cooking classes.

Or you can wander aimlessly, as I did, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of one of Europe’s largest indoor food markets.

Mercato Centrale
Piazza San Lorenzo
Florence, Italy

Divina Cucina
Cooking classes, market tours
Florence and Chianti


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