Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Celebration Food: Osteria Sfizio

I've been doing a fair amount of celebrating recently. I've had a birthday come and go and new job prospects on the horizon. Between those and a trip home, I've had several charming chances to eat at lovely restaurants. Unfortunately (for this blog), many of them were in Kansas.

Before departing for the Sunflower State, though, I had a glorious birthday dinner at Eugene's newest sit-down Italian restaurant, Osteria Sfizio in the Oakway Center. It's taken the place of the wine/sandwich deli that used to be there, but the new place is nothing like the old. You walk in to a restaurant full of cozy wooden tables, with a half-square bar that offers, from one side, a view of the kitchen (and from the other, a view of their substantial bar). We made reservations; the night we were there, a weeknight, wasn't too crowded, though, so I wonder if they're always necessary. They can be made online, which is pretty handy.

This was a several course meal for us.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Romantic Year: Midtown Marketplace

For one brilliant year, nearly my entire job was to sit in coffee shops and write. Every day, I'd wake up, pack my little computer into my gigantic bag, and trek down from my house to find a place to settle for the day. Over and over, that place wound up being Midtown Marketplace.

Now, I'm not a regular anywhere. I don't know until I wake up what food or drink will sound good during the day, and even when I'm standing at a familiar coffee counter, there's not much chance you'll know what I'll order. Still, three or four times a week for nearly a year, I showed up at Midtown -- sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon -- to get a large mug of black coffee, no room, and a pastry.

Why this place? Why that coffee? Only the heart and the tastebuds can really answer, but my fingers will give it a try. They brew a rich, hot, dark coffee has just the faintest taste of dark, bitter chocolate. Their pastries are locally made, sometimes in house, I believe, and the buttery croissant shell around the hard bar of chocolate in the pain au chocolat was enough, most days, to sustain me through a morning of writing.

If I was hungrier, I sometimes turned to the cousin of the coffee counter, the Bistro. They have omelettes and waffles, eggs Benedict or Pierre, fruit and granola, and a few other standbys. The prices are a little high for a no-service restaurant, but that's because the ingredients aren't your typical coffee-shop fare. The Chevre omelette I liked best came with roasted red peppers, spinach, that cheese, toast, potatoes, and an $8 price tag. A burger and fries at lunch will run you $9, but the meat and lettuce are local. When it's done, you'll hear your name bellowed across the whole hall in a voice that's trained by years of service to carry.

It's a big place, after all. Midtown Marketplace is one long, open building. The front has street-facing windows onto Willamette and a bundle of benches lining the walls with seating for thirty more at tables in between. The coffee shop squats in the middle of the building, and traffic can flow around it on either side back to three separate seating areas: a U-shaped area of padded benches and tables around an indoor fireplace; a more open area across from it with more tables (and a valuable outlet for laptops); and the back bar, which has high tables and the highest concentration of outlets in the place.

Midtown used to be the home of three separate entities: the Coffeeshop, the Bistro, and, in the back, the Bel Ami lounge, which opened at night and served drinks and dinner. Sometime in the last few years, Bel Ami died, and there was a brief, glorious interlude where one could arrive for coffee at 2 and transition to martinis at 4 (er, of course, I mean five, because, ha ha, who'd drink alone before 5?), all from the same fireside chair. Think about it! Pastries, free wifi, and a damn good Manhattan, all in the same place? Throw in a bowl of fries -- and oh, they did -- for $4, and you can see why I nearly settled down.

Those days are somewhat over. Coffee and bistro both close at 3, and staying in your seat beyond that feels much like trespassing. There's a new wine bar/store that's opened in the long northern side of the building. It sells wine by the bottle and has tastings, though not on a particularly set schedule and not in conjunction with the rest of the building's services.

Our affair was brief, but sweet. We've both moved on, though not, in my case, terribly willingly. Yet I remember Midtown fondly, and I hope someday soon -- perhaps this Saturday -- we'll meet again.

Hours: Coffee and Bistro: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; The Winehouse: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Fridays: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Location: 1591 Willamette Street

Monday, September 6, 2010

Coffee for a certain crowd: The Supreme Bean

Strange as it may seem, coffee snobbery in Eugene is usually practiced in places bearing a decidedly shabby-chic decor and a cultish clientele. Not so at The Supreme Bean, a coffee shop that also serves lunch, dinner, wine, and beer next to the palatial Willamette street Market of Choice. The Supreme Bean says it all right there in its name: they aim to make coffee that's superior, in quality and -- it should be noted -- in price, in an atmosphere devoid of the usual coffee shop traffic.

The place is small but has plenty of tables for groups of two and a couple for up to four people, as well as a bar facing the window that overlooks a patio/sidewalk beyond. Out there, a few umbrella-shaded tables provide a chance to people watch (fascinating, at the intersection of Market of Choice and Ben & Jerry's) or to keep an eye on your car in the vast, steamy parking lot beyond. On Fridays and some weekends, there's often live music outside (or in, weather depending).

My general experience of The Supreme Bean has been positive in most respects. Their house coffee (20 oz: $2) is strong but not exceptionally bitter, and they're one of the only places I can think of in the wider Eugene region that bothers to make leaf patterns or swirls in the foam on a latte. (Whether a latte should have any foam is apparently a debate for another city, because they all do, here, except at Starbucks). If you dine in, your coffee comes in big, colorful mugs with saucers and a spoon (invaluable!). I tell you, I love a good saucer. They serve and sell a variety of loose-leaf teas (try the genmeicha, if you like rice), coffee by the pound, and various coffee-related materials. I've spent several longing moments staring at the travel presses they used to sell by the front door.

There's also food available, the most notable of which is the crepe. There's an honest-to-goodness crepe maker, one of those flat black jobbies that I have occasionally lusted over at Williams Sonoma, and from it springs crepes that can be topped with fruit, cheese, vegetables, or even meat. I've had a very good apple-cinnammon crepe here, and a really tasty blue-cheese apple treat, once upon a time. There are a few staples, but there's usually also a seasonal offer or two on the menu. Right now, berries are king -- strawberries, if you can get them, are a great topping, with fresh whipped cream. There are also panini and usually treats from Sweet Life Patisserie available, as well as a quiche of the day.

My two snags with The Supreme Bean are more indicative of my own station in life than anything specifically critical about the store. The crepes, and coffees, are expensive. I've easily spent over $10 to get a crepe and a cup of coffee to go with it, and I never quite feel like it's worth it. What you pay for, though, is more than just the food and drink; you pay for the atmosphere, which is tailored to welcome a certain type of crowd. What type? Well, older and affluent, I'd say. Generally, the place is pitched toward two-person parties who meet in the middle of the day (so: likely retired) for a cup of coffee or a quick bite but don't intend to stay much beyond finishing it. The Supreme Bean has self-selected its crowd through its products (European drinking chocolate, anyone?), pricing, and decor, and also through passive touches like requesting that students/people using the wireless internet not linger.

Maybe I'm oversensitive to this because, when I was a student, I used to go to The Supreme Bean pretty regularly, valuing its mid-morning quiet to get some writing done -- until I specifically heard the owner telling a friendly customer about the steps she was taking to limit the overtake of her coffee shop by the studying hoards. That's fine; it's actually a sensible business decision, in a town where you're likely to see a group camp out at Starbucks for 3 hours, soaking up free wifi on the strength of a single coffee purchase. It's just made me less likely to return to the store.

I think there's certainly room in the Eugene market for a place like the Supreme Bean to not only survive but thrive, as it is clearly doing. This is a safe space for those who want upscale coffee in an environment that reflects what they're able to pay for it, without the inconvenience of a grubby counter or the sheer commercialism of Starbucks. It's also a willing contributor to the community. Last month, they played host to a benefit event for CASA, and they seem to always have a new event coming up. That's good, local coffee.

Location: 2864 Willamette Street, in the SouthTowne shopping center next to Market of Choice (and Ben & Jerry's)
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; Friday and Saturday until 8 p.m.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Daniel's Taco Cart: Take your chances

There are two experiences to be had at Daniel's Taco Cart, which on Friday and Saturday nights, after 10 PM, moves from its Hwy 99 location to be parked in the lot between the Daniel's restaurant and Franklin. The first experience is transcendent. It's "I can't believe I paid 4.00 for this"--and the burrito is fresh and hot and tastes like fresh produce and well-marinated meat. It's huge, and you feel like quite the late night value diner.

The other experience, sadly, is also "I can't believe I paid 4.00 for this," and it's a tepid burrito served with inexpert attention to little details, like what kind of meat you wanted on your burrito. It'll still be huge, but somehow, you'll feel less like a daring and clever bargain hunter. You feel like you're sorry you weren't drunk before you got this burrito (if you're me, that is, and don't reserve your late night food outings to go with nights of booze...)

I'd been planning this review for a couple weeks, but the last two weekends I've been there, quality had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. I can't really tell you that these are the best, and cheapest, burritos in town, now. What I can say is that there is a roulette wheel of quality there, ranging from Excellent to Truly Mediocre, and that I will continue to take my chances there on the occasional Saturday night.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ultimate hangover breakfast: Caspian Restaurant

So you walk into a restaurant called "Caspian Mediterranean Restaurant," and you see Mediterranean-ish food on the menu. What do you do? Probably the wrong thing: you order it. In so doing, you've already messed up. There's a right way and a wrong way to order at Caspian, and if you walk in expecting the restaurant to live up to its name instead of its decor, well, do you also think the Original Pancake House was the first one ever?

Caspian is a campus diner that does good business as exactly that: a diner. American to its core. Skip the exotic parts of the menu and focus on the things you'd order if the name was "Bob's" or "Tex's" instead of The Caspian. In so doing, you'll notice there's a double cheeseburger special available, with fries and a coke, for about $6. It will be made quickly on a grease-covered grill, possibly by a man whose name I don't know but whose prison sentence I've heard tell about and who makes (from all reports) a very mean, tasty burger. When he finishes cooking your meal, he'll probably go outside to smoke again. Feel free to join him.

Not feeling like lunch? Good, because the burger and reasonably crispy fries are all I know to recommend. Breakfast is where it's at here. Standard diner breakfast, the kind that sounds good first thing in the morning but better at midnight, after you've spent the evening investigating the campus-area bars. (Let's face it; after much time at Taylor's or Rennie's, Caspian looks like a dream come true). What do I recommend? Several taste sensations: first, the pancakes. They're made with real buttermilk, and sometimes, they're a little sour. That's the price you pay -- oh, wait, no, the price you pay is $2.95 for two large pancakes soaked in syrup and butter. They're available to go, and if you take them to class, everyone's going to want them.

Next, if you're a meat-eater, try the Bacon Maple French Toast. It's three thick slices of French toast covered in syrup, butter, and crumbles of actual bacon. I've yet to see someone order this only once.

The egg dishes are also pretty good, and here you can even get away with trying a Mediterranean variety. The Greek scramble, which comes with olives and feta, about a 1/2 pound of homefries, and toast, is a salty, greasy masterpiece that can take on up to a case of PBR in your stomach and win the battle handily.

The atmosphere here can leave something to be desired, sure. You have to fetch your own sodas and waters, find your own silverware, and bus your own table. If you sit downstairs, you'll have a constant stream of students trooping past, and you'll most likely sit at a table no one's yet had a chance to clean. Upstairs, it's quieter, usually, though further from the sodas. Never mind; drink the water. You probably need it.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Location: 863 13th Ave

Caspian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thanks for doing the dishes: Cafe Yumm

Let me answer for what may not even be a burning question at your house: Is it possible to like Cafe Yumm without loving their namesake Yumm Sauce? Yes, my friends. It is.

Let's back up and talk about the sauce: It's an "egg-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, and low sodium" sauce that, if the Internet's imitation recipes are correct, consists mostly of hummus ingredients, curry, and a lot of nutritional yeast. The combination is stunning and strong, as it's meant to be: it's a sauce that's supposed to be the star of whatever dish it tops, be it plain brown rice or a bowl full of beans and spices and relishes. It comes on almost anything you order at Cafe Yumm, because they know that it's what makes their otherwise easy-to-fix-at-home dishes something you'd leave your house for.

Yet here I am, someone who doesn't dig the special sauce, and I still get a Cafe Yumm craving from time to time. Why?

Mostly, it has to do with avocados and a little dish called the Chilean Zucchini Yumm Bowl.