We’ll be away for the next week doing “research” in England, visiting my sister and brother-in-law in the Cotswolds. If we can manage it, we’ll let you know how the local ale and delicacies compare to Bucks County. Wishing you and your loved ones a Happy and Healthy New Year.
Archive for December, 2008
When the Cross Keys Diner in Doylestown went dark last summer, its regulars were shaken. So abrupt had been the closing, people couldn’t help but worry about the owners, Steve Auslander and Ann Boyer, though they’d promised things would return to normal soon.
As the weeks then months passed, thoughts turned more selfish. How could this Doylestown landmark, in business for over ten years, suddenly evaporate from our lives? What would we do for lunch? For weekend breakfasts? Don’t even mention some of the alternatives. Chain restaurants aren’t diners.
Then a whisper of a rumor began. Someone was buying the diner. Although it took a little longer than expected (restaurant openings always do), the Cross Keys Diner reopened on November 24th. At the helm are Paul Markert, Jr. – a line cook at the diner for the last eight months – and Scott Edwards, a friend and culinary colleague of many years.
Paul and Scott have worked together at the Carversville Inn and the Centre Bridge Inn. Although both have backgrounds in fine dining, they’ve always loved the Cross Keys. “I have loved this place from the very beginning,” says Paul, whose sister Amanda Markert has worked there for six years. Before joining the diner’s staff, “I used to be a regular,” he notes. Scott, too, had a regular spot at the counter.
That’s all fine and good, but as a regular myself I wanted to know more about who they were, and their “philosophy” of diner eating. Were things going to change?
After the diner reopened a few weeks ago, Mark and I had breakfast there. As we settled in at the counter, we glanced around, checking things out. After studying the menus, the specials board, even the crowd, we turned to each other with the same conclusion: Nothing had changed.
That’s pretty much the way Paul and Scott intended it. They recognize the value of the trade Steve and Ann had built up over the years. “Most of our business is regular, so when we went into it, one of our main focuses was to keep the regulars happy,” says Scott.
“Our main idea is to try to get the place running the way it was and then go from there,” adds Paul. The menu is the same, just reprinted. The produce vendor, Amoroso breads and rolls, Ellis True Blue coffee (“We didn’t want to touch the coffee; the coffee’s wonderful here.”), and Haring Brothers meats are all the same. Even Nancy MacNamara and Amanda are working the tables, clearly happy to be back themselves.
“We wanted people to feel, ‘we’re back home again.’”
Like the previous owners, Paul and Scott will introduce new items through the eclectic specials board. A new menu may come in the summer, incorporating past “specials” into the regular lineup to make room for new Blue Plate specials and diner comfort food. And: A dinner menu may be in the future.
Among the changes Scott and Paul have made: The home fries are homemade now, and the french toast has been upgraded to Challah French Toast (made with Jewish egg bread).
Reassured that my old diner was back, I asked how things were going. Was business good? How did the opening go?
Paul and Scott laughed at the question. “It was like turning over an old car that hadn’t been run or maintained for five months” says Paul. “Everything broke,” recounted Scott. “The coke machine – eight times. The dish machine, the ‘Good Eats’ sign. The coffee wasn’t right. And the sink just broke today.”
But business is good. On their first day, no advertising, they hosted 160 customers. “We’ve been very fortunate,” Paul says. “Everyone’s been great. Everyone seems to be really happy.”
Sunday was one of those nights: Too cold and windy to go out, and two weeks of avoiding grocery shopping had caught up with us. So it was going to be a simple supper, pulled together from whatever we happened to have around. Although that included beef – a New York strip in the refrigerator, a sirloin in the freezer, both from Haring Brothers – I’d reached my limit for huddling over the grill and decided it would be a good time to give the broiler a try.
Haring Brothers sells a “Montreal Burger and Steak Rub,” a concoction of salt, spices and (dehydrated) garlic that has a way of bringing out the flavor of meat.
Modestly submitted, my Sunday night recipe, with notes.
1 New York strip steak, about 3/4-inch thick
1 Sirloin, about 1/2-inch thick
Haring Brothers Montreal Burger and Steak Rub
- Pat the steaks dry on both sides, then sprinkle with a thin layer of rub and let sit for 30 minutes. (If the steaks have been frozen, I like to let them sit on paper towels, so a bit more moisture wicks out. Less moisture should mean less smoke when broiling.)
- Preheat the broiler to high setting. Set the oven rack so the meat will be about four inches from the heating element.
- Put the steak in the broiler, anticipating five minutes a side.
- After five minutes, flip steaks, note smoke in oven.
- Ignore smoke alarm. Note popping in broiler.
- Acknowledge nervousness with popping.
- After one minute, move steaks down to lower rack. Turn on lower oven. (We have a stacked Magic Chef.)
- Turn off broiler. Set lower oven to 350 degrees.
- Put steaks in lower oven and allow to bake for seven minutes.
- Remove steaks from oven, let stand ten minutes.
The steaks actually came out pretty well: The thicker New York strip a perfect medium rare, the sirloin slightly more cooked, but still juicy. I served them with sides of Dreamfields rotini tossed in Wegmans basting oil and parmesan cheese, and spinach.
Next time I’ll try setting the broiler to low and putting the steaks a bit further from the heating element. Much as I prefer grilling, it’s only December, and I’m sure there’s more cold weather in our future.
A recent piece in the Intelligencer tells us the farm market formerly run by Delaware Valley College may reopen this spring, to be run by the owners of Shady Brook Farm in Lower Makefield. This is great news for folks around Doylestown. The “new” farm market is a beautiful facility, and the folks at Shady Farm do a nice job running markets, including a stand at the Wrightstown Farmer’s Market. It sounds like a good match.
What is it about walking into a bar or restaurant where they know your name? Am I dating myself, by referring to the old refrain from Cheers? Perhaps. But now that I’m older, I do think it captures something.
Our grandparents, and even parents, grew up in tight communities. Family and friends were close by – next door, or two doors down. I bet the word “community” wasn’t even used. Maybe you don’t have to refer to something that you just take for granted; it’s like wallpaper – there but hardly noticed.
But today we belong to many communities. We belong to a work community, maybe even more than one. An “old friend” community. Maybe a community based in a house of worship. Or one based on a hobby or interest. And even, one based in a bar or restaurant. The kind of place where when you walk in, they recognize you, greet you by name, and get your drink ready.
Why is this so nice?
We’re fortunate to have found this at a couple of restaurants in Bucks County. Since moving to Wycombe, the Pineville Tavern has become our neighborhood hang-out. Mark and I happen to enjoy eating at the bar – or counter in the case of diners – and look for places where this is comfortable to do. The Pineville, or PVT, definitely fits the bill.
There are regulars at the PVT bar. I once heard one of them chastise the bartender for allowing cheddar cheese to arrive on his cheeseburger. “How long have I been coming here?” he demanded. “I always get American cheese!” Returned the bartender, pointing to the customer’s friend: “You said you wanted the same as him.” When his pal – and everyone else at the bar – confirmed this, the customer settled down. (The bartender did get him American cheese, though.) It was just part of the give-and-take you find between staff and regulars that everyone actually enjoys.
The Pineville has a casual menu that runs from burgers to ribs, salads and pasta. The specials bring in a bit more variety. There’s always a fish entree, homemade pasta and a steak dish. The prices range as well, so if you “just want a burger” you don’t have to spend a mint.
Another of our favorite places is the Cross Keys Diner, which recently reopened after a five month hiatus. Here, too, we usually settle in at the counter, where we can read the paper, chat with the wait staff as they run back and forth, and generally enjoy the hubbub.
I liked this feature in the Intelligencer letting us know what restaurants are open on Christmas Eve. It’s by no means comprehensive, but for those of us not visiting families (to celebrate the holiday) or eating Chinese food (because our holiday starts a few days earlier), it’s nice to know there are options.
So, times aren’t great right now, but to avoid getting anyone depressed I’ll skip the litany of challenges going on in the economy. While the sad truth is the macro picture is beyond the control of any one of us, there’s much we can do to make ourselves feel better.
Two words: “Comfort cooking.”
Jill Andresky Fraser, a financial writer whose blog EconoWhiner draws its name from (thankfully) former Sen. Phil Gramm’s labeling us “a nation of whiners,” asks, “As we all face a long-term financial winter that begs for moments of comfort, blissful denial, or commiseration, is there a better way to forget our troubles than putting together a dinner for family and friends?”
Putting on some favorite music, gathering our ingredients and a sharp knife, all while sipping on a good glass of wine, and we are off on an adventure that always ends around the table.
This is so spot-on. For me, a cold winter’s day can be tempered by neat bourbon with the smoked mozzarella from Altomonte’s, followed by the meat loaf from one of my favorite cookbooks, Real Beer and Good Eats: The Rebirth of America’s Beer and Food Traditions, by Bruce Aidells. Yes, I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy. The meatloaf and its accompanying spicy gravy calls for many vegetables, coarsely chopped, and I’ve found winter days can be tempered by time in the kitchen, cutting up onions, red peppers, green peppers, celery, carrots and garlic while listening to music and chatting with the dog. The beef will come from Haring Brothers, the beer for the gravy will be Yuengling, and by the time the meatloaf goes into the oven, the house will be infused with the smell of good things simmering. Because the recipe makes two loaves, and for some reason I hate halving recipes, the only question will be who we can invite for dinner.
I was never sure about this Thanksgiving. All along I’d imagined a big, warm gathering, our first Thanksgiving in our new home. I could see and feel it, even when reality kept blocking the view.
Then one September Saturday morning, as we walked through the Wrightstown Farmer’s Market, we took the plunge and put down a deposit on a “happy turkey,” a free range turkey from The Happy Farm in Kintersville. Along the lines of, if you order it, they will come, I guess. At the time we had no guests or plans. But we were hopeful. And then Mark’s sister and family said they would come down from Boston. With my parents, and Mark’s cousin, Ruthie, that would make ten. We also kept inviting people – who weren’t sure if they could, or not, maybe, depending on…
A few weeks later I read an article about a Thanksgiving meal made of all locally grown and bought ingredients. Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult here, I thought. Mark and I had been talking about starting Bucks County Taste; this could be my first blog post. And now we had guests. I was set (just give me a goal). On to the menu.
Ah yes. Next challenge. In the beginning of November we decided it was time to shed a few pounds. Well, more than a few. Mark has had success on Atkins, so we started doing it. How was this going to impact my Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving? Hmmn. No stuffing, no sweet potatoes, no yummy desserts. And, in all fairness, could we really impose this on our family and friends? “Yes we can” seemed an appropriate phrase. Oh, it won’t be so bad.
In Bucks County, good barbecue is hard to come by. It seems like every restaurant around advertises its awesome ribs but, truth be told, most of the racks we’ve tasted are more about boiled pork and bottled sauce than real barbecue. So, the places that make a real effort are worth paying attention to: The ones I know of are the Duck Deli in New Britain, J.B. Dawson’s in Langhorne, Smokin’ Lil’s in Doylestown, Wegmans in Warminster and, if you care to cross the river, H.I. Rib in Pennington, N.J.
There are plenty of other places around, I know, and give me time – I’ll get to them.
Smokin’ Lil’s, where Lynne and I ate last night, is the one I had the highest hopes for. It’s part of Lilly’s Restaurants and Catering, the same folks who run Lilly’s on the Canal in Lambertville and Café America and Lilly’s Gourmet in Doylestown. All of these places are friendly and consistent, so I go into any of them ready to be happy.
And, I can’t say I was unhappy at Smokin Lil’s. I think the barbecue there is pretty good, but only pretty good. The meat’s tender but was smothered in sauce and over-spiced. If I had to use one word to describe our meal last night, it would be “peppery.”
Lynne and I both had a “I’m Just Gettin Started” platter, which allows you to choose one meat entrée and two sides. I had ribs, with sides of cole slaw and corn (off the cob, but hey, it’s December). Lynne had brisket, cole slaw and baked beans. We agree the cole slaw was very good – not too saucy, not too heavy on the mayonnaise. The corn wasn’t mushy – which is no small thing for a side of corn – but it was peppered to the point of stinging my tongue after a few bites. Lynne thought the beans were okay, but didn’t have much beyond that to say about them.
Of course, in barbecue the main attraction is the meat. (Well, maybe the macaroni and cheese, but I’m on Atkins, so I skipped that.) Both the ribs and the brisket were tender enough, and if you scraped off the sauce, you got a nice hint of sweetness and smoke. But you shouldn’t have to scrape. The layer of slightly oily, very peppery sauce seemed unwarranted. Lynne, who’s traveled to Memphis and Kansas City enough to have developed a true attitude when it comes to barbecue, feels strongly that anyone who drenches their meat is trying to hide something. And while we don’t think the folks at Smokin’ Lil’s were doing that, we do think all that sauce was unnecessary. There are pitchers of it on the tables, after all, so we wondered why they didn’t just serve up the meat and let diners add sauce to taste.
Of course, you can avoid the whole issue simply by ordering your meat without sauce. I’ll try that next time.
And, we’ll definitely go back to Smokin’ Lil’s. I want a full portion of brisket, they’ve got several options with chicken that look good, and – like everyone at Lilly’s – the folks there are friendly. They also make good ice tea, though I don’t recommend that when it’s snowing outside. (We had to go across the street to Chambers19 for a bourbon to warm up. Iced tea and snow – what was I thinking?).
We’re still looking for Bucks County’s King of all Barbecue.