Cora Cora (West Hartford)

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Taking advantage of the fact that we were both home on Monday as a result of the remnants of the Blizzard Charlotte / Snowpocalypse / Winter Storm Nemo, my roommate and I decided to go out for lunch.  We didn’t want to go far as the roads were still pretty bad. Lucky for us we’re not far from a handful of great dining options.  Cora Cora is among them and it my first choice.  I’d read about their lunch special and had been wanting to check it out.

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A review of their online menu revealed three course offerings ranging in price from $11.50 to $13.50, but their in person menu had one fixed price of $13.50 as their lunch special.  There were many different appetizer and entree options from which to choose, and also a choice of rice pudding, ice cream, or jello for dessert.  In addition, the lunch special includes a beverage with the options being several Coca Cola products and their specialty drink, “chicha,”  a Peruvian beverage with purple corn and pineapple.  It was fruity, refreshing, and had a hint of spice similar to cinnamon.

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All of the appetizer and entree options looked good to me but I finally decided on the Cora salad and the seafood fried rice (chaufa de mariscos) while my roommate ordered the ceviche and the sliced rib eye in house special sauce, red onions and tomatoes served on a bed of french fries, with white rice (lomo saltado).  We shared all of it to maximize the experience of trying all the dishes ordered and everything was terrific.  The salad was presented nicely and was dressed in a light orange vinaigrette. The ceviche, made with tilapia, was fantastic.  The meat for the rib eye was ordered medium and came out perfect with a hot pink center and was juicy and flavorful.  The fries + sauce + rice of this dish, when combined, was heavenly.

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One the menu it states that the portions are smaller so I was a bit concerned about how filling lunch would be, but we were both stuffed before dessert even arrived (and we both have impressive appetites).  We only had several bites of the warm rice pudding that we both ordered, but it was delicious like everything else.

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Coming here for lunch that day was a great decision.  We were incredibly pleased with our experience.  The service was excellent too.  We enjoyed our time here so much it made us wonder why we don’t come here more often.  From now on we will.  I have a feeling we’ll be here again very soon!

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P.S. – Dip the warm bread they give you (and if they don’t give it to you, ask for it) into the yellow dipping sauce that is meant for the cancha (the giant corn kernels).  Holy yum.  So good!

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P.P.S – Is it just me or does anyone else get the urge to pet or run your fingers through the fuzzy murals hanging on the walls?  Probably just me.

162 Shield St
West Hartford, CT 06110
(860) 953-2672

Sweet Maria’s (Waterbury)

IMG_1074If you’re in the Waterbury area and you’re looking to satisfy your sweet tooth, look no further than Sweet Maria’s. This place has it all, from cupcakes to full sized cakes, to cookies…you will not be disappointed. I stopped by on Thursday to check them out with cupcakes on my mind.

From the modest looking exterior you would not expect to walk into a white, pink and black, very feminine-themed bake shoppe (think: boxes of truffles with gorgeous pink tulle ribbon + bows). The atmosphere is unapologetically girly, bright, and fun.

Left to right from at the entrance: a case of cakes and cupcakes, some K-cups for the Keurig machine (I wish they had espresso but oh well), the largest selection of fresh baked delicious looking cookies I have seen anywhere, and then the sunny eating room with a Keuring machine, tables and chairs to match the decor, and gorgeous cakes on display.

Directly behind the cookies cake is an open view into the kitchen providing the opportunity to see the bakers working. That was great! The chocolate kahlua walnut bread was available for sampling and it was so good I had multiple samples of it. The guy behind the counter also let me try any cookies I wanted. I opted for a coconut macaroon and ended up buying a mexican wedding cookie, a snicker doodle, and a apricot thumbprint. The cookies have been voted best cookies in Connecticut time and time again. I can see why. I inhaled all four of mine before I left the parking lot.

Cupcakes of the day were: red velvet cupcake topped with red sugar, red velvet cupcake topped with coconut flakes, chocolate mousse, strawberry mousse, Chubby Hubby (peanut butter filling, peanut butter frosting with a pretzel atop a chocolate cupcakes), s’mores, and key lime. I brought home a red velvet without coconut, chocolate mousse, strawberry mousse, and Chubby Hubby.

All the cupcakes were good though different than ones from other bakeries. Instead of being somewhat dense and crumbly like the ones from many gourmet cupcake shops around the state, the ones here are much lighter, fluffier, and sponge-cakey – almost like the texture of cakes made from box mix. But, flavors were better than box mix cupcakes. I loved the creamy frostings – especially the cream cheese frosting that had the perfect tartness to sweetness ratio.  I personally prefer the texture of the slighty denser and more crumbly cupcakes though.

I was a big fan of the prices too. At many places $10 will get you two to four cupcakes. Here, I got four cupcakes and four small cookies for less than that. A great value considering how much I enjoyed it all. Other fun things about Sweet Maria’s: they have a Cake of the Month club, host baking classes, and even have some of their recipes on the website. Check it out for all these things and more, and to view some photos of their beautiful creations!

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159 Manor Ave
Waterbury, CT 06705
(203) 755-3804

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