The Food Guy, Steven Keith Eating his way through the state, plate by plate

In the ‘Chain’ Gang, Longhorn is a Cut Above

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I’m all about raising awareness and support of solid, independent, locally owned restaurants, choosing to spend my dining out dollars at such places the vast majority of time. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good quality “chain” restaurants out there.

lobster filetJust like most people, we occasionally find ourselves inside one of these national behemoths and I’m here to tell you: All chains are NOT created equally.

Most are cookie-cutter concepts offering average tasting, oversized portions served by unenthusiastic (yet tragically over-blinged) servers – dreading their next summons to sing “Happy, Happy Birthday” to a squirming toddler.

But some are good, really good, and I’ve always put Longhorn Steakhouse in that category. I recently stopped in to try out the restaurant’s new winter seasonal menu and was reminded just how top-notch this place is.

bacon cheese dipI know what you’re thinking, folks, but hear me out.

The creamy Vermont white cheddar and applewood-smoked bacon dip, flecked with green onions and served with crispy pita triangles, was dreamy. My broccoli Asiago cheddar soup was rich and flavorful, but not overly thick and heavy.

The Blue Ridge wedge salad was your typical combination – crisp hearts of romaine, plump tomatoes, bacon, crumbled blue cheese, red onions and blue cheese dressing – but all were very fresh.

My steak was spectacular.

The tender, juicy center-cut filet topped with lobster and tangy lobster hollandaise over fresh steamed asparagus was not only top-quality beef, but was also served at the perfect medium-rare temperature I requested. (A true rarity, which is why I rarely do the chain thing.)

cheese soupThe pecan praline sweet potato casserole with coconut topping served with it was decent – not at all overly sweet – and the Black Forest cherry lava cake I ended with was a fine finisher, although it was missing its promised molten center.

All items above are part of the restaurant’s special seasonal menu, which will change again within the next few weeks, but there are some shining stars on the regular menu as well.

I’m telling you, the food was strong from start to finish.

  • IF YOU GO: Longhorn Steakhouse at 91 RHL Blvd. (between Dudley Farms and Trace Fork shopping centers) is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. For more information, call 304-744-4112 or visit www.longhornsteakhouse.com.

Fazio’s: Still in Love After All These Years

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A birthday celebration took us to Fazio’s this past weekend for what was another stellar meal.

We don’t go there very often, yet every time when we do the experience is so good we’re, like, “Why don’t we come here more often?”

In a world where independently owned local restaurants come and go (or survive despite mediocre reviews) Fazio’s has stood the test of time with exceptional food and service. I’m not saying it’s the best restaurant in town, but I can count on one hand the places that are so consistently good that I never think twice about making a reservation there.

Fazio’s is one of them.

On this recent visit, folks at our table ordered traditional pasta dishes (cannelloni, chicken basil, cacciatore) along with steak and seafood entrees. No surprise everyone left happy.

When Good Food and Good Design Meet

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Fans of good food (and design) will drool over this new coffee-table book.

“Menu Design in America: 1850–1985,” is a beautifully illustrated, fascinating history of what we ate while dining out in the 19th and 20th centuries. And there’s as much focus on menu aesthetics as there is their content.

The book features menus from cruise ships, railroad dining cars, zeppelins, famous nightclubs and, of course, restaurants that went on to become national institutions. Through their progression, we see how U.S. restaurants evolved from serving mostly European-influenced dishes, to developing uniquely American creations before venturing into ethnic cuisine.

Very cool.

Capitol Roasters Rolls Out New Sandwiches

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Since I work from home, I occasionally pack up ye’ ol’ laptop and head out to one of my many branch offices to break up the monotony of the day. These are cozy spots where I can settle in for a few hours, sip coffee or grab some lunch and, of course, scam free wi-fi.

For me, these places are lifesavers. You simply know them as Capitol Roasters, Taylor Books, Panera Bread, Books-a-Million, First Watch and the like.

So I popped into Capitol Roasters (corner of Quarrier and Summers streets) the other day and noticed they’ve offering a few new sandwiches on the menu. In addition to their always tasty wraps, soups and larger-than-life baked treats, I’m especially fond of their fantastically flat paninis and other warm and melty sammiches.

And now there are a handful of new ones to try:

  • Alaskan Salmon Melt — Flaked, wild-caught Alaskan pink salmon with lemon, sprices and smoked mozzarella cheese on ciabatta.
  • Chicken Athena — Pulled chicken breast with feta cheese, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomato pesto mayo and smoked mozzarella on focaccia.
  • Florentino — Oven-roasted turkey breast with baby spinach, marinated artichoke, roasted red pepper, basil pesto mayo and havarti cheese on focaccia.
  • Chicken Chutney — Pulled chicken breast with cracked pepper, topped with creamy gorgonzola spread, apple-pear chutney and buttery havarti cheese on ciabatta.
  • Get Roasted — Tender roast beef with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and cheedar on ciabatta. 

If this lineup is anything like the last, you’re in for a treat. And if you want a little heads-up before you try them, check back here often for my take on them …

I guarantee I’ll work my way through the new menu in the coming weeks!

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If you happen to be down the Huntington way — or don’t mind a drive for some seriously awesome food — you should check out Chili Willi’s “Spring Fresh Seafood Weekend” menu.

The hotspoknown for hot (as in great, not necessarily spicy) Southwestern cuisine has also been offering some special dishes featuring seafood from right here in West Virginia or along the East Coast. This week’s fresh catch:

  • Wood-grilled West Virginia trout with smoked tomato-chiptole butter, served with garlic mashed potatoes and wood-grilled asparagus.
  • Pan-sauteed Boston flounder with an apricot-chipotle glaze, served with pepita rice and wood-grilled asparagus.

 Sounds good to me!

IF YOU GO: Chili Willi’s, 1315 Fourth Ave., Huntington — (304) 529-4857, www.chiliwilli.com.

Love the Sweet Taste of … VINDICATION!

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 So, if you’re a regular reader of mine, you know I have a pretty severe aversion to chain restaurants.

 But you also know I’ve been known to praise The Olive Garden a time or two, even though just last week I wrote about how crazy celeb chef Anthony Bourdain — a man who will eat anything — ranks an Olive Garden meal as one of the five worst things he’s ever put in his mouth. (Joining the likes of fermented warthog and other creepy-crawlies, so that’s pretty incriminating.)

Ye ol’ Garden’s “love it or loathe it” debate always blows up my inbox, but I was particularly pleased when just this week A RESPECTED LOCAL FOOD WRITER (someone with “foodie” cred, so there) wrote to confide that he/she, too, loves The Olive Garden …

“I LOVE OLIVE GARDEN, TOO! We both know what we’re talking about when it concerns food, how it should be prepared and who did what how, so I guess we’re both qualified to recognize good when we taste it.”

TESTIFY!

“They do a superb job for a chain and we’ve never been disappointed.”

Picture me grinning, like the cat who ate the canary.

So I Kinda Love “The” Olive Garden, What of It?

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I know I’m supposed to be a serious food writer and all, but I kinda dig the Olive Garden. (And fans do say THE Olive Garden, even though “the” is not part of its name.)

Once the butt of many a chain restaurant jokes, the Olive Garden back in 1999 teamed up with the Culinary Institute of Tuscany in an effort to reinvent itself.

Yeah right, I thought, and was horrified when my editor at the time asked me to go review the new menu for a restaurant critique. “Olive Garden?” I squealed – this is before I became a fan, thus no “the” – “At the mall!?”

But I reported for duty, skeptical wife in hand, to sample some of the new wares. Wow! This was not the Olive Garden I remember.

We started the evening with delicious new appetizers, ended it with impressive baked desserts, and filled the middle with delicious gourmet entrees and nicer quality wines. Amy still talks about the pork loin we enjoyed that night – and it’s been more than 10 years.

Now I seriously don’t go back that often, but I’m always pretty impressed when I do. I think it’s one of the rare national chains that actually keeps getting better instead of resting on its “lowest common denominator” laurels. I adore the Braised Beef and Tortelloni (sliced short ribs tossed with cheesy pasta, mushrooms and a basil-marsala sauce) and just this week I sampled the delicious Vino Bianco Pork Scaloppini featuring pan-seared pork cutlets served with asiago cheese-filled tortelloni tossed with roasted portabella mushrooms and green onions in a white wine cream sauce. (That last one’s only being offered for a limited time, so rush in if interested.) And I usually manage to sneak a bite from other plates that are just as tasty.

Sure, there’s too much fat and cream and salt. And it’s really unnecessary to shred cheese over EVERY SINGLE THING they bring to the table, as they are want to do. The garlic breadsticks aren’t all that – and I think it’s socially criminal that they offer them to overweight Americans in unlimited quantities.

But I can say no to a tsunami of cheese, stop after one breadstick and actually enjoy my meal. Which I do, every time.

Welcome to the new “Food Guy” food blog!

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Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to the new “Food Guy” food blog!

If you’ve followed my weekly food column in the Charleston Daily Mail for the past 10 or so years, you already know I’m pretty obsessed with cooking, recipes, restaurants, wine — pretty much anything food-related. Or maybe I just like to eat. Either way, I figure I’m not alone, so I hope you’ll check back here often so we can share our love of all things yummy together. I’ll still be writing my weekly column for the newspaper, but this here blog is where I’ll start sharing cooking tips, restaurant updates, new food finds, random rants and more on a more frequent basis. And I look forward to hearing what you have to say, too.

So welcome, food friends! And let the discussion begin!!