Johnny Utah’s (SONO) – Not Crowded for a Reason

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The original plan was to meet at Donovan’s to watch the first half of the Cowboys-Packers game, have a burger, and I was looking forward to also ordering a bowl of Clam Chowder. But Donovan’s was packed so plan B was to walk down to Johnny Utah’s, which has a good beer selection for my buddies and 10 TVs for the game. While Donovan’s was packed, there was hardly a soul in Utah’s, so grabbing a table was an easy adventure.

We immediately ordered Wings ($12.00), hot with bleu cheese. When they arrived they looked a little strange, instead on the wing slathered in sauce, they had a light coating and they were swimming in a small pool of Buffalo sauce, with a side of blue cheese dressing. I chose a winglet for the initial bite and it was OK. There was very little spiciness to the wing. I added a little extra sauce and again, they were OK, still not a lot of spice. I added extra sauce and a little blue cheese dressing and they were still, just OK, nothing special at all. They were pretty boring at best. With my bacon and cheese additions this was a $14.50 burger that was not worth the money.

The next round was burgers. I ordered a medium-rare Johnny Utah’s Burger ($12.00), a half-pound burger with red onions, lettuce, and tomato, served on a brioche roll, and I added bacon and American cheese with a side sweet potato fries. For a bar that was 85% empty it took almost 25 minutes for 3 burgers and a sandwich, but we were watching the game so this was not an issue. When they arrived the consensus was that each was cooked more than ordered, mine was medium+. The first bite of the sweet potato fries was disappointing, they were all crust, tasteless and overcooked as well. The meat had a little flavor, was highly compressed, and offered little juiciness. The bacon was very pedestrian and the cheese was grocery store quality. The brioche had zero buttery goodness, it was very bland. Overall it was a very disappointing burger.

The service was outstanding, the server was prompt, efficient and checked in regularly. Hopefully this is the standard when she is serving more than one table. It was too bad that Donovan’s was too busy, and it is understandable why Johnny Utah’s was not.

Johnny Utah's on Urbanspoon

China Gardens (Delray Beach) – Great Owners Serving Very Good Food

China Gardens is located in a northbound strip mall just south of The Boys of Military Trail in Delray. There is ample parking for the restaurant that probably seats around 60-70 people. The owners were on-site when we did take-out on Christmas Day. They were fantastic in handling a very difficult crowd and an overabundance of orders and egos, and for that reason alone I would give them my business. The menu includes every variety and desire of a Cantonese restaurant. The food ranged from excellent in certain dishes to OK in others.

The best of the order was the Hot & Sour Soup. It had a great flavor with a vinegary taste with just a hint of spice. The Fried Dumplings were also excellent, but they were the smallest dumpling I have ever seen. The skins were thin and the filling had great flavor. The egg rolls were pretty good. The skins were thin and the filling was basic egg rolls without any mini-shrimp. I did not like the ribs. They were boiled first and were soggy and bland and then crisped under the broiler before placing on the plate. I would avoid these.

The Moo Shu Pork was very good. The only issue was they also included shrimp in our order. We did see this before the one member of our family who has a shell fish intolerance ate any. Given the frantic nature of the kitchen that night it was perfectly understandable that some orders may have been mis-cooked.

The General Tso Chicken was good. To the benefit of the restaurant the pieces were quite large and they used white meat as well, which I really liked. The breading was thing, again a positive, but the sauce was a bit lacking. I would have preferred a little more flavor. The fried rice was a bit underseasoned and flavored, it was more bland then I prefer.

Overall I was pleased with China Gardens. The soup was a stand-out and if you choose specific items you can design a very good meal. And with the owners as personable and professional as could be, I would definitely return.

China Gardens on Urbanspoon

Mario’s Osteria (Boca) – Stick with the Pastas

Mario’s Osteria is located on Glades Road in Boca Raton, just east of I95, sharing feeding duties in a mall with PF Chang’s. The traditional red sauce Italian is mixed with a southern Florida feel. Instead of red-checked table cloths and candles burning in wine bottles, the décor balance hard woods with enormous metal chandeliers. The menu is extensive, with one side comprised of appetizers, sides and pizzas while the reverse side offers Paninis, pastas, meats, fish and chickens. Your traditional selections of parmesans, meatballs, baked pastas are all available.

I was told the portions are quite large so I ordered a Veal Parmesan, served with a side of pasta and Marinara sauce. Others ordered the Cavatelli with Chicken Meatballs (to share) and a Shrimp Scampi.

My veal arrived and it was breaded, fried, topped with melted cheese and a little Marinara. The pasta was a regular side portion with Marinara. The veal was very overcooked, some bites were incredibly chewy. The flavor of the meat was good and the scant sauce was good, but not great. The pasta was also overcooked, and again the sauce was good.

The Shrimp Scampi and the Cavatelli portion were quite large. There was probably 8 ounces of pasta on each, the two chicken meatballs were enormous and there was a tremendous amount of shrimp on that order.

Service was outstanding, friendly, helpful and spot on with his checking in.

Overall Mario’s is a good choice if you are looking for a decent red sauce restaurant.

Mario's Osteria on Urbanspoon

Dorsia’s (Boca) – Great Find for Outstanding Food

Dorsia is located on North Federal Highway in Boca Raton just north of Congress on the southbound side. It is a small storefront in a six store strip mall and valet parking is available. Once inside the scenery changes to a well-appointed restaurant with white tablecloths, a bar that seats 10-12 and service that is friendly, brisk and knowledgeable. This is a family run establishment and the care for the customer is felt in the interaction of the hostess (probably the wife) and the chef in each of the dishes.

We decided on a single course for dinner and I chose the Squid Ink Linguine with calamari, shrimp, tomato, white wine, and garlic. I was expecting the ring shaped calamari but when it arrived the calamari was presented as juliennes with five medium-large shrimp. While the server was asking others if they required Parmesan cheese I tasted the dish. There was no need to add another component, this was a delicious dish. The house-made pasta was soft and still maintained a delightful bite, the shrimp were sweet and perfectly cooked and the calamari were nicely prepared. The flavors were fantastic. This was a great pasta.

For dessert we shared the chocolate mousse pie. Please order this silky wedge of deliciousness. The texture was wonderful. With a cup of espresso, it was the perfect ending to the meal.

I highly recommend Dorsia over so many other places in Boca that have glitz over food. This is the best meal I have eaten in Boca and struggle with thinking of a better restaurant in the area. Thank you for proving my point to my relatives that small family owned restaurants prepare food at a different level than the so-called fancy chains.

Dorsia Restaurant on Urbanspoon

City Fish Market (Boca) – All Glitz with Cafeteria Food

City Fish Market is located on Glades just off and the Florida Turnpike. It shares a common driveway with the Hilton. Valet parking is available. The valet was excellent and very quick both when we arrived and when dinner was completed.

I ordered the “New Orleans Seafood Gumbo” for my appetizer. It contained chicken, Andouille sausage with a scoop of Jasmine rice plopped in the center. The portion was more rice than soup, contained a few pieces of chicken and one slice of Andouille. I did see a small piece of okra as well. It was a fairly weak imitation of a great NOLA tradition, which no restaurant in New Orleans would ever serve.

For my entrée I ordered the “Atlantic Black Grouper” and for my sides I selected the fresh vegetable medley and the whipped sweet potato. When it arrived I could only stare. There was zero thought behind the presentation. The kitchen slopped some sweet potato purée on a plate, added a few florets of broccoli and cauliflower plus a one inch carrot segment and placed the fish on the empty portion of the pate. It was presented like a bad college cafeteria. The fish was well prepared and maintained its texture. That was the only positive. The sweet potato purée was disgusting, overwhelmed with maple flavor, it was way too sweet and had the texture of baby food. The florets were half-cooked and the carrot segment was barely cooked, more raw than cooked. This was one of the worst prepared fish dishes I have ever eaten.

Another member of our party ordered the Lobster Roll. This was an embarrassment to the classic New England dish. There was barely any lobster meat in the roll and the kitchen threw some French fries on the plate. I have seen more care taken at a roadside lobster hut.

I ordered the Molten Chocolate Cake for dessert. There is a new standard for the worst recipe and execution. The cake was dry and there was zero molten, there was a hole in the center of the cake. The exterior was coated in sugar and was horrible. My suggestion is throw away the recipe.

Overall, the only positives I can say of City Fish is the staff. The valet parkers and our server were outstanding. On the other hand the kitchen staff treated the food and the presentation like a bad roadside diner, giving the impression they just did not care about quality of what they served, throwing undercooked and badly executed recipes on a plate with zero care about the visual. At these prices the quality should be significantly better.

City Fish Market on Urbanspoon

Tautog Tavern (Bridgeport) – A Burger with Potential

bl_3My continuous search for great hamburgers in CT brought me to Tautog Tavern in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport. The non-descript exterior displays two large American flags and is American throughout the interior. Entering Tautog Tavern is a throwback to a speakeasy saloons of years past. The wood bar extends the entire length of the right wall with floor to ceiling liquor shelves behind the bar. Above the shelves is an antique harpoon.  All of these items were brought to Bridgeport from Hoboken, NJ and commemorating this exodus, the owners hung the obligatory photo of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin overlooking the front of the bar. Photos and maps depicting the rich heritage of Bridgeport adorn the left wall with booths stretching from front to back and a few high top tables in the center. The overall feel is very pubby and very dark.

bl_1Manning the kitchen are the Carter and Hunter King. You may remember these brothers from the King’s Kitchen at Southport beach where they created some incredibly flavorful lunch specials last year.

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But I was there for the burger…and I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with fries. When it arrived on a wood slab it was also accompanied by lettuce, tomato, micro-greens and a sampling of house made vegetables. The dish also included ketchup and bacon-jam.

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The burger was encased in a toasted Martin potato roll with Vermont white Cheddar cheese melted atop the patty. I was informed that the meat was from Pat LaFrieda of NYC, and my expectations were elevated. The meat was very flavorful, a good blend from LaFrieda. Unfortunately, the grind of the meat was much too fine, delivering a texture more akin to a meatloaf versus a hamburger. The melted cheese was very good, and added a nice creaminess. The house-made bacon jam was the star…it was delicious, a great addition to the burger. The bacon was missing. The French fries were frozen pre-packaged, very basic but they were very good, crispy on the exterior and moist inside.

Overall, the burger served at Tautog Tavern was good. I did not like the grind at all and wish the bacon was included,but for $10 it is a very good bar burger.

Tautog Tavern on Urbanspoon

Harlan Social (STM) – Delicious After Two Years

rsz_collageTwo years ago Harlan Social opened as a part of the Lockworks project in Stamford amidst questions on whether the area would support the restaurant or whether the restaurant investors and the developers were visionaries. Two years later Harlan Social’s success shines as a local hang-out, an after work meeting spot, and a destination restaurant.

Harlan Social was the brainchild of Owner & Executive Chef Steve Lewandowski, who was previously the Sous Chef at Manhattan’s Abby restaurant, Gotham Bar & Grill, and Fantino in the Ritz Carlton before joining Tribeca Grill and becoming its Executive Chef. Currently overseeing the kitchen is Executive Chef Michael Sobelman, whose resume includes Sardis and Tribeca Grill with Lewandowski. When Harlan Social opened Lewandowski immediately reached out to Sobelman to join him and oversee the kitchen.

Harlan Social recently introduced its new Fall menu and CTbites visited to sample some of the new additions. The interior of Harlan Social is divided into three areas, a bar area to the right, and a large dining area to the left separated two-thirds of the way to the rear with a floor to ceiling wine rack; ample to host private parties. Guests can choose between a table or a booth in either area. The open kitchen occupies the rear of the restaurant. The atmosphere is hip and vibrant, and offers one of the best after-work bar scenes in Stamford.

The menu is divided into several sections, from Small Plates to full Entrées, which allows each guest to enjoy an individualized experience, and flexibly designed for those looking for either a full course of appetizer, entrée and dessert or those sitting at the bar desiring 2-3 smaller plates.

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My favorite of the smaller options was the “Artichoke Muffaletta” a meatless interpretation of the New Orleans icon sandwich. It paired a glass jar filled with an artichoke / olive salad with a scoop of the wonderfully creamy Stracciatella di Burrata. The artichoke salad delivered bright and earthy flavors offset by the slight tartness of the Burrata, plus a little spiciness from red pepper flakes. There was great balance between the Burrata and the artichoke salad. Served with four slices of grilled bread this is a great start to the meal.

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Another delicious small plate was the “Local Burrata” served atop red wine caponata. The Burrata was a touch sweeter than the Stracciatella and was complemented by the brightness of the olives in the caponata, which also contained raisins for a little sweetness plus capers and red peppers. The raisin bread added additional sweetness to the dish.

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If you are looking for a milder first course the “Ahi Tuna Crudo” is a good option. It was served with slices of jicama, radish, and finished with greens and a Jalapeño yuzu vinaigrette. The soft, mild sashimi tuna was paired with the yuzu vinaigrette. The finely diced and fried garlic chips and red onion added a sudden shot of pungency. This presentation was a careful balance of soothing and mild flavors.
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The small plate that delivered the deepest flavors was the “Braised Lamb Flatbread.” This horizontal version of a traditional Greek gyro was served with pickled red onion, tomato, lettuce and tzatziki sauce. The grilled bread was sweet and a great canvas for the toppings. The braised lamb was delicious, fork-tender, and in combination with the sweetness from the tomatoes and the pungency from the onions created a delightfully rich dish.
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My least favorite of the smaller selections was the “Potato & Onion Pierogies,” served with beer braised cabbage and topped with grain mustard sour cream. The dough was a little thick and overwhelmed the potato and onion stuffing. The cabbage was also bitter and left an unpleasant aftertaste.
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The “Baby Kale & Blue Cheese Salad” was outstanding and included a mélange of textures from sliced apples to spiced pecans, and finished with cider vinaigrette. This hearty salad delivered great combinations of flavors from the nutty cheese to the earthy pecans to the sweet apples. The kale added a little pungency. The blue cheese was a mild variety and did not overwhelm any of the ingredients. This is an excellent choice for either a starter or as a main course.
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My favorite entree was the “Grilled Flat Iron Steak.” The perfectly prepared steak was served atop a medley of roasted Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, cranberries, almonds, plus a side of pomme frites. The steak was cooked to medium-rare, sliced, and delivered a deep, rich beefiness. When the meat was paired with the season’s best vegetables, it created a fantastic combination. The addition of the cranberries added a little sweetness to the dish and the almonds a touch of earthy crunch.
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The “Seared Sea Scallops” were served over a spinach and pancetta risotto and finished with a truffle vinaigrette. The highlight was the risotto, which contained pancetta, tomatoes and spinach. The pancetta delivered a great smoky notes to the entire dish, and perfectly complemented the sweet tomatoes and the scallops. The scallops were topped with a few pieces of black truffle pieces that added an earthy note.
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The “Garganelli Pasta” was served with a short rib Bolognese sauce and a dollop of herbed Ricotta cheese. The pasta was cooked to al dente and the sauce (more a meat sauce than Bolognese) contained chunks of soft and flavorful short ribs and a smoky tomato base which were offset by the creamy herbed Ricotta. There was a great balance in the meat, tomatoes and ricotta.

Harlan Social is one of the best restaurants in Stamford, delivering great food in an environment to satisfy all ages, from the vibrant bar scene to the relaxing dining area. The carefully designed menu allow each guest to plan a meal with either a selection of small plates or a traditional appetizer and entrée.

121 Towne St, Stamford, CT 06902
(203) 883-8000
http://www.harlansocial.com

Really Liked
Artichoke Muffaletta $10
Local Burrata $12
Braised Lamb Flatbread $9
Baby Kale & Blue Cheese Salad $12
Seared Sea Scallops $32
Grilled Flat Iron Steak $21

Liked
Ahi Tuna Crudo $14
Garganelli Pasta $12/23

Did Not Like
Potato & Onion Pierogies $12