Gracie’s (Providence, RI)

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I invite you to ask yourself which restaurant, if there is one, do you love so much that you’d drive a long distance just to have dinner.  For me, that restaurant is Gracie’s.  Last night we made a three hour round trip drive to Gracie’s for Providence Restaurant Week from Connecticut.  Gracie’s, once again, provided an experience that was well worth every second of that trip.

I am no stranger to the Providence dining scene after having lived in Rhode Island for nearly a decade and in Providence for almost half of that time.  I’ve been to many  the great restaurants in Providence – Al Forno, New Rivers, CAV, to name a few.  While they all shine in their own ways, they don’t compare to Gracie’s.   Nothing compares to Gracie’s.  Not in Rhode Island, not anywhere.  Gracie’s is the star that shines the brightest.

In early January I’d learned of Providence Restaurant Week and immediately placed a reservation.  I booked an early reservation for 5pm.  Just so you know, because we didn’t, the restaurant does not open it’s doors and a valet is not available a second before 5pm.  We learned the hard way on this intensely cold evening.  All of this was forgotten though, when the clock struck five and we entered the magical space that is Gracie’s.

We were seated in a cozy intimate corner and immediately one of our waiters came over to introduce himself and take our drink orders.  He told us about the drink special of the night, the Black Apricot, a cocktail containing whiskey and St. Germain.  Sounded good to me!  As we admired the elegant, charming, and whimsical decor that I adore about Gracie’s, we watched as the dining room began to fill up.  Our early arrival was met with a quiet restaurant with just several other tables of people, but shortly after the restaurant began to fill up quickly.

Soon after we placed our orders the first of a couple amuse-bouches arrived:  a pickled Italian salad consisting of pickled cauliflower and carrots.  It was sweet and tangy, the vegetables had a nice crunch.  Before we knew it the bread basket got around to us and we had a choice between a red onion and rosemary focaccia, cranberry sourdough, classic french bread, and my favorite, the honey glazed beer bread.  The rich and creamy butter speckled with sea salt was delightful on each of the bread choices.  We had a chance to sample all four by sharing.

My boyfriend and I both had the turnip soup as an appetizer.  Large bowls were presented before us containing duck fat turnips, pickled apples, and crispy confit while waitstaff came to our sides and poured the liquid portion of the soup in thick, steaming, steady streams into our bowls.  The soup was divine and our favorite part of the meal.  After we finished the soup, the second amuse-bouche arrived:  a grapefruit and ginger sorbet.  Nice and refreshing – the perfect palate cleanser.  Next came our entrees.  He opted for the rigatoni campagnaro while I got the duck.  Both were excellent.  The pasta came in a large portion and was the ultimate bowl of comfort.  The duck was a smaller portion and a touch more refined.  Lastly, for dessert he ordered the chocolate cheesecake and I chose a honey and banana bread pudding.

If you like coffee, the coffee here is not to be missed.  It truly was the best cup of coffee I have had in a very long time.  Rich, full bodied, and almost velvety, with cocoa notes.  One sip and my boyfriend said, “Wow, this is really good coffee.  It tastes like the coffee I had in Paris.”  Each serving of coffee comes in it’s own french press containing about two or so cups worth of coffee, creamer and demerara sugar on the side.  The coffee is from New Harvest Coffee Roasters, which is located in Pawtucket, RI. They use sustainable practices and source directly from small coffee farms in South and Central America. The coffee beens used are sourced from Costa Rica.

This coffee is sold at Ellie’s, Gracie’s new bakery down the street that recently had a soft opening.  I will be sure to pay a visit next time I am in town.  If by now my review doesn’t  sufficiently describe how much I love this place, maybe this will:  at one point in the night I said to my boyfriend, “Honey, I hope that in the future we will have two daughters so we can name them Gracie and Ellie.”  He just rolled his eyes a little, but I was completely serious.

By the time we finished dessert we were stuffed.  We couldn’t even dream of having another bite of food.  Just  then two maple cranberry macarons appeared at our table.  Our last little treat…or so we thought.  We savored the airy little French cookies, paid the bill, and headed out to the valet.  After the valet pulled up the car he officially concluded our evening by handing us a small, simply but elegantly wrapped package containing two chocolate chip cookies for the road.  Like everything else, they were delicious.

And that, my friends, is why Gracie’s is my favorite.

Thank you Nadiv, Eric, and the rest of the staff for another exquisite evening!

194 Washington St
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 272-7811

Noodles & Company (West Hartford)

Yesterday I got to try Noodles & Company for the first time – for free!  How, you ask?  A  coupon for a complimentary bowl of noodles for my birthday that i discovered from my Yelp friend Lesley.   Thanks, Lesley!

I came alone for lunch and the place was completed mobbed when I arrived between 12:30 and 1pm.  There was a line of people waiting to order and every table was full even though the place is not small.  Like everyone else in line I visually scanned the room for a place to sit.  By the time I placed my order a table had opened up.  I took my little number indicator and placed it on the table.  This is how they find you to bring you your noodles when they’re done cooking, by the number on your table.

I tried the truffle mac and cheese and had a small garden salad on the side.  The truffle mac was slightly above average with al dente noodles, a good amount of woody mushrooms throughout the dish giving it depth of flavor and texture, a nice truffle taste that was noticeable, fresh herbs that were almost a little overwhelming, and shaved parmesan.  While I liked it, it wasn’t what I was expecting – an ooey gooey baked macaroni and cheese texture.  Instead, it seemed like the noodles were cooked first then everything was thrown together in the bowl, which makes sense from a business perspective, considering all the other noodle dishes they have.  But, it was still pretty good.  I’d get it again.  The salad was ok, serviceable.  The balsamic dressing that came with it was better than balsamic  that I recently had at a more “upscale” restaurant.

333 N Main St
West Hartford, CT 06117
(860) 206-9986

Taino Smokehouse (Middletown)

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I drive by this place every single weekend and I’ve been intrigued.  Then I read some reviews and I knew I had to try it.  I placed a dinner takeout order around noon today.

I got here a little before 6:30 to pick up my order and the place was busy but shortly after I arrived it was SLAMMED.  I’ve worked in restaurants before and I knew exactly what it must have been like for them – I wanted to jump in and help!  The place is very small to begin with, basically an attachment space to Ace Hardware next door.  Actually, the first time I stopped by (last week) they were closed but my initial reaction was, “That’s it?” referring to the size of the restaurant.

Many of the tables were full and there was a line of people waiting for pick-up orders and also waiting for a table.  Some put their names down and decided to come back in twenty minutes or so.  They seemed to have a hard time cranking out all the orders for takeout and for the dine-in service.  Also, staff members were fulfilling multiple roles and working very hard.

When I got there I still waited 5-10 minutes for my order to be finished even though I had called ahead of time.  That gave me a chance to talk to other people waiting for their orders.  The guy ahead of me said that he’d been there a bunch of times and everything is great.  I couldn’t wait to see for myself.

I left the restaurant with BBQ wings, a pulled pork dinner, a brisket dinner, sides of collard greens, garlic mashed potatoes, and honey butter cornbread.  I know I say this a lot but holy smokes.  No really, holy smokes.  Everything was terrific!  My favorite were the BBQ wings.  They were coated in a dry rub, not fried, and smoked, then slathered with a fantastic BBQ sauce.  The meat on the wings were plump, juicy, and cooked perfectly.  Delicious.  I also loved the garlic mashed potatoes.

There are so many more menu items to try, I am sure I will be back.  Ribs are next on the list.  I’m already looking forward to eating leftovers tomorrow.

Their soft opening period started a short while ago and their grand opening is not until March 24th, 2013.  Until then the menu could change frequently.  It already has from the time I looked them up this morning to just now.

482 S Main St
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 358-9828

1249 Wine Bar (Waterbury)

I stopped by last week for a glass of wine and dinner after work since it’s very close to one of the offices where I work.  Since I was alone I sat at the bar.  A quick glance through the drinks list revealed many intriguing martinis, cocktails, beers and, of course, wine.  I knew right away what I wanted when I saw it:  a glass of Dr. Loosen riesling.

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Trying to decide on dinner wasn’t hard either.  Even though a red wine likely would have been more suitable to pair with it, or perhaps a beer, I got the 1249 Burger since that’s what my heart desired at the moment that I ordered.  I also liked that it came with a salad.  If it had come with fries I would have been tempted to keep the fries and not switch it out for a salad, but I appreciated this built-in healthier side.  I placed the order with Greg, the bartender, who also got me the glass of wine.

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While I waited for the burger and salad an orange creamsicle shooter and a  pickled beet and creme fraiche amuse bouche was brought out to me.  I enjoyed both and thought it was a nice touch.  Last time I was here we also had some great shooter and amuse bouches.  That is one of my favorite things about this place.

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When the burger came I was initially alarmed by the size of the bread that the meat was sandwiched between.  At first I thought it was too much bread, but after my first bite I realized that it was of the crunchy on the outside but fluffy on the inside variety, making it look bigger and more dense than it actually is.  Few things are worse than a burger with bread so big that it draws the attention away from the star of the show – the meat patty.  The burger was pretty good overall.  Far from being the most flavorful burger I’ve had but I found it to be satisfying.  The salad was dressed in garden variety balsamic dressing.

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One thing I like about this place is there is a wall with shelves of wine that divides the bar area from the dining room.  The slight separation (it’s not completely blocking off the dining room, but enough to distinguish the two areas) was done tastefully.  The bar area had filled up by the time I was midway through dinner and the scene was very lively but it never got too loud since there is only so much room.  There are no bar tables, only the seats available right at the bar which isn’t very big.

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A good time at the bar coupled with the excellent dinner I had in the main dining room a number of months ago will keep me coming back for more.

1249 W Main St
Waterbury, CT 06708
(203) 756-1249

The Spot – Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (New Haven)

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We had friends visiting from out of town this weekend and had planned to bring them to the original Frank Pepe next door but the line was really long even at 1:30pm so we headed here for lunch instead.  There was a line but it seemed be a lot shorter than at the other place.  We waited about 20-30 minutes.

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Inside was loud and  lively, every table was taken.  There was an interesting mix of patrons including college kids walking around with bottles of Coronas, people coming for some pizza after a run or a workout, and large families who appeared to be regulars.  After we were seated a waitress came right away and took our drink orders.  Since three out of four of us wanted Cokes she suggested we get a pitcher instead of individual glasses since it’d be cheaper.

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We ordered a large cheese pizza and a small white spinach, mushroom & gorgonzola pie.  I wanted the white clam pizza (had it before from the original location and loved it) but no one else in my group did.  The pizzas we got were quite good, especially the spinach, mushroom and gorgonzola.  I look forward to my next visit!

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163 Wooster St
New Haven, CT 06511
(203) 865-7602

Libby’s Italian Pastry Shoppe (New Haven)

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We stopped by here today after pizza, walked past the wrought iron gates, waited in a line about 8 people deep and tried to decide between gelato, cannoli, espresso, or all of the above.  When I got to the case that held all the desserts I noticed many flavors of cannolis including hazelnut, pistachio, peanut butter, coconut, and chocolate.  Also for sale were slices of carrot cake, red velvet cake, and an assortment of Italian pastries and cookies.  The guy in line ahead of us ordered a couple of espressos with lemon peel (sounds gross but he swore it is very good that way and it was how he had it in Europe).

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My friend and I decided to get gelato.  Flavors available today included vanilla, hazelnut, pine nut, cappuccino, and black raspberry.  I got half hazelnut and half cappuccino.  We both found the texture to be more like a soft ice cream (not soft serve ice cream, but soft hard ice cream, if that makes sense) then gelato.  It was not nearly as thick and creamy as we had expected it to be compared to gelato we’ve had elsewhere.  I was not crazy about the hazelnut as the flavor was very weak (the only real hazelnut flavor coming from the little bits of crushed hazelnut in the base), but the cappuccino was great.  I’d get it again.

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CASH ONLY

139 Wooster St
New Haven, CT 06511
(203) 772-0380

Fromage Fine Foods & Coffees (Old Saybrook)

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Another little gem on the shoreline!  Holy cow (and goat)!  This place is remarkable.  I had no idea that they sold more than cheeses until we stopped by for the first time a couple of weeks ago.  My jaw dropped in awe over all the products they sold in addition to their variety of a hundred different cheeses, some local, some from nationally known creameries, and some international.  Browsing through the store I was overwhelmed by all the products.  Truly a gourmand’s dream.

I walked around taking it all in:  the section of pastas and sauces, the cured meats, foie gras, truffle butters, pates, the rows of mustards, oils, vinegars, salts, peppers, teas, cookies, too many things to name.  The coolest salt and pepper holders caught my eye and struck my fancy.  Neat looking bags, from lunch bags to grocery totes, were also hung around the store ready for a buyer.  A set of espresso cups would have gone well with the new espresso machine I just got for Christmas.  In the front of the store were lots of gift baskets, all marked down in price now that the holidays have drawn to a close.  Prices didn’t seem to be too bad.  As an example, the truffle butter here is a dollar more than other places I have seen it, while the same box of Maldon sea salt flakes I just bought at Sur La Table (Canton) costs a dollar less here.  As the name of the store implies, they do sell coffee here too, at the back of the store, and some baked treats.

On to the cheeses.  There was such a huge variety it was hard to choose.  They are all laid out in the middle of the store in rounds, wedges, blocks, and each cheese was labeled.  The display as a whole is a cheese lovers paradise.  I asked for a recommendation for a harder cheese for us to try since my guy isn’t fond of soft cheeses and the person who helped me gave an excellent recommendation of the Midnight Moon (a firm goat’s milk cheese aged at least for one year that had a lovely nutty and buttery flavor and a beautiful smooth and slightly grainy texture that aged cheeses tend to have).  She graciously and skillfully cut me a few slivers to sample before I purchased and I was sold!  If I had more time I would have sampled and bought a few more cheeses.  All of them looked great.  I cannot wait to come back!

Check out their cheese checklist!

873 Boston Post Rd
Old Saybrook, CT 06475
(860) 388-5750

Fusion Bakery & Patisserie (Middletown)

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With the start of the new year and the possibility of a beach getaway in the not-so-distant future, I started my healthy eating diet today.  That all came to a screeching halt when I decided, on a whim, to stop in at Fusion for some cupcakes.  It was (pretty much) on my way home from my boyfriend’s house and I had wanted to try it for a while.  Today seemed to be as good a day as any other especially since it is my one week anniversary since turning 30, but really, who needs an excuse to eat cake?

I popped in an hour before closing time and it appeared many of the items were sold out.  That didn’t turn out to be an issue at all as I found plenty of things that I wanted.  Per usual, I ordered a red velvet cupcake in addition to a small cherry cheesecake, a Guinness cupcake, and a gluten-free chocolate cupcake.  I ate the first two items in the store and took the other two home for later.

I was the only patron in the bakery at the time so I sat at one of the many tables and savored each bite of the cherry cheesecake and the red velvet cake.  Both were very good. A few words about the red velvet cupcake:  it’s made with only a small amount of red food coloring and gets most of its color from beet juice, a natural coloring agent.  I’d read about this before but had never used it in my own baking of red velvet cupcakes even though I have been  planning to since my last batch.  Now I’m even more inspired.  The reason they don’t use beet juice exclusively is that “some of it can evaporate and leave the middle of the cupcake a grey-ish color”.

The other two cupcakes were also quite enjoyable.  The Guinness was nice and moist and there was only a trace of the Guinness flavor but it was very good.  The frosting complimented it well.  The gluten-free chocolate was great flavor-wise but was a bit dry.  Not something I wouldn’t get again, though.

In addition to the cupcakes, cakes, cookies, breads, brownies, creme brulee, truffle tarts, lemon tarts, macarons,  etc., Fusion also carries a large assortment of Lake Champlain chocolates.  There’s also a beverage case that sells Avery’s sodas as well as other drinks.  If you’re craving something sweet, Fusion is your kind of place.

100 Riverview Center
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 344-9024

Beachland Tavern (West Hartford)

I gave Beachland Tavern another shot recently and had better experience than the one I initially reviewed.  I came with my roommate to get some beers, wings, and a salad during the time of the college football playoffs.  It was wild in there!
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We sat at the bar and got a few Goose Island brews.  We ordered wings that were coated in a combination of buffalo hot sauce, barbecue sauce, and a gorgonzola sauce.  Very tasty.  I also ordered a cobb salad.  This was huge and delicious.  The grilled chicken tasted fresh and was cooked perfectly, there were large amounts of crisp bacon, ripe slices of avocado, egg, tomatoes, and lots and lots of gorgonzola cheese.  Almost too much, but more is better than less in a situation like this.  The gorgonzola dressing went very nicely with this salad and was addictive with a slight hint of garlic.  This salad is easily two to three meals depending on your appetite.We also enjoyed an ice cream sundae and that was fine.
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Overall it was a nice time.  The bartender was great, the atmosphere lively, the food and drinks satisfying.  I’m glad I came back and I see myself coming by more frequently, especially since it’s close to my apartment.

1128 New Britain Ave
West Hartford, CT 06110
(860) 263-7167


Paperback Cafe (Old Saybrook)

Today was our first time at Paperback Cafe.  We almost went for lunch a while back, over the summer, after attempting to go to Liv’s for lunch and finding that it was a dinner only establishment – but we were there too late and Paperback was about to close.  I am so glad we ended up back here today.

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We came for lunch a little after 1pm and the little restaurant was packed!  Every table was full so we had to wait, but only for a few minutes.  Afraid my hungry boyfriend might want to go somewhere else instead, I quickly said, “it must be busy for a reason.  Let’s just wait a few minutes.”  Right away I noticed a comfortable, cozy atmosphere, almost kind of like you’re eating in your own dining room at home.  I appreciated the books and pictures lining the built-in bookshelves and the large map of the Long Island Sound on a large wall.  While we were waiting I admired other peoples plates and noticed that the salads looked big, fresh, and delicious.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying their food – a good sign!

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Shortly after we arrived we were seated.  When I opened the menu my jaw dropped.  An entire page of Paleo menu items?!?  Holy smokes, I had never seen that before anywhere!!!  If you follow my reviews, I obviously do not adhere to a full-on Paleo diet, but I have been trying to incorporate more of it into my life mostly with my own cooking (there’s a whole backstory to this but I will spare you).  As it turns out, the owner of the place is a Crossfitter (I’ve been obsessed with doing Crossfit for about a year now and the Paleo diet and Crossfit go hand in hand).  There are both breakfast and lunch dishes that are Paleo and many, if not all of them, looked great.
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The rest of the menu was tempting too.  I ordered the Four Play Salad, because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t like a little Four Play?  Seriously, though, I was attracted to the variety as it came with their signature chicken salad that had cranberries, apple and walnuts, tuna salad, egg salad, and seafood salad, all on top of the house salad.  This was enormous.  The chicken salad and seafood salad were terrific, while the egg and the tuna salads were good, but all of it got a little heavy in my stomach from all the mayonnaise.  My boyfriend ordered the sausage and vegetables stir-fry off the Paleo menu and he liked it but the portion was on the smaller side.  It was about a third the size of my salad, no joke, so he inhaled his dish then helped me with my big salad.

If you’re into sweets they’ve got those here too!  Right when you walk into the place you are faced with the sweets case that today had pumpkin pie, lemon meringue pie, a chocolate cake and cheesecake creation, brownies, several types of cookies and seven layer bars (these looked amazing!).  I could not help but notice the Paleo Banana Zucchini Raisin bread and had to buy one when we were leaving.  The owner had made it himself.  At $8 for a small loaf, it’s definitely pricey but worth it.  So Incredibly moist and flavorful, I might go as far as to say that it is better than any banana bread I’ve ever had.

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I cannot wait to come back here to try many more things off the their menu.  Hopefully next time I come the Paleo banana bread will be available again.  This place is awesome!

210 Main St
Old Saybrook, CT 06475
(860) 388-9718