Kenya in Morgantown

Kenyan Cafe's unassuming storefront, friendly ordering counter and cozy dining area.

When I go to Morgantown, I like to spend some time with a friend who lives there. He knows the good spots in town, so it’s also a great way to try new places. So when he asked what I would think about going to Kenyan Cafe an inspired “HELL YEAH” came out of my mouth. I really wish that there was an Ethiopian restaurant nearby, and as I had never had Kenyan before, I wondered if it was going to be similar.

The restaurant itself is in a small strip mall right next to a Middle East grocery, which in some ways is an advantage but I doubt I would have known the restaurant was there if my friend hadn’t taken us. There is a bit of an unassuming storefront with simple lettering and with a little African flair of a giraffe and savannah silhouette.

I was impressed at the beginning when walking in, asked if it was my first time there and being given three samples of their teas. OH MY! It is amazing tea! If you even have a passing interest for flavorful teas, you owe it to yourself to try what they’ve got going on here. They had three made up: ginger, red and masala. Each was delicious, hearty and complex in flavor. I am not sure if they were pre-sweetened, but if not the flavors alone make it so they really don’t even need any additional sweetness outside of the brewed pot. Favoring all things ginger, I had my first menu selection. They offer their teas both hot or chilled, and I got the chilled variety. It almost tasted like really good chai tea to me and when I eventually ate my meal it was an excellent flavor complement to the spices in the food.

Matoke (look at the tasty plantains), Kenyan Cafe hot sauce and a samosa.

If I lived in Morgantown, I would stop by this place just to get tea on occasion. It is just that good.

Since this was my first Kenyan cuisine experience, I was not sure what to order. There are a variety of vegetarian options, and they state that most of their foods are organic. The first option looked good with the plantains, so after a little bit of realization that I didn’t know enough about Kenyan food to make an informed decision – the Matoke was the order that came out of my mouth. I am not entirely sure if I pronounced it correctly.

My friend and I went to the dining room and I was impressed with its bright colors and various African decor. Although the painting above our table had a lion pouncing on a gazelle, who was on its back displaying its testicles. That was a bit of a strange detail for the artist to pay such close attention to, but it was authentic, so I guess it works.

I also ordered samosas to see how they were, and was glad I did so when I saw there was a bottle of restaurant brewed hot sauce. I immediately added it to my plate when it arrived and dipped a samosa in it. The samosas were basically vegetable pot pies in a pocket. I ended up liking them better without the hot sauce, which was a little bit vinegary. The gravy inside was slightly different than pot pies I am used to. Normally I make pot pie with a onion sort of sauce, but this sauce was reddish – possibly containing a mix of saffron and peppers. But I am not entirely sure.

The Matoke was amazing, but before I talk about it, I will mention the kale to the side. It was about as fresh as could be without being picked from the ground immediately before preparation. As soon as our orders were in, one of the cooks grabbed a big bunch of it out of a cooler and started chopping. It was perfectly al dente and the spices added to it were muted and an excellent contrast to the main dish.

I initially forgot about the plantains in the dish and thought I was eating yellow potatoes. Like the kale, the vegetables were al dente and flavorful. Slightly spicy and resting in a stew like sauce. It almost felt like I should be eating it with rice, but the kale fit in just as well and is probably much more healthy than plain rice. The entire dish was very comforting yet exotic and I was highly impressed! (Click here for a picture of my friend’s dinner – a lamb stew I think it was)

After eating, we wandered the Middle Eastern grocery and picked up a couple things and began a quest for dessert. If I had thought about it at the time I would have ordered some of their unique dessert items at Kenyan Cafe, but we had already walked out and suddenly a beer sounded like a good thing to grab. So Morgantown Brewing Company became our next destination.

Chocolate Mess and BEAUTIFUL samplers from Morgantown Brewing Company.

Morgantown Brewing Company deserves a more thorough review. I have been there once before and liked what I tasted, but their biggest draw is their freshly crafted beers. A sampler is a must if you like beer. I enjoy seeing how each establishment puts the beers out, and MBC places them on a placemat-like menu so you remember which beer is which.

I may need to pay more attention when I do a full review, but I love all the beers I tasted and was happy I had left a growler at home because I would have been hard pressed to choose only one to bring back with me. The cake was a perfect complement to the darker beers. My friend was convinced that the cake was the same one that was sold at a few different establishments throughout the city, which makes some sense. Baking and cooking are such incredibly different skills, I am sure a number of restaurants collaborate with local bakeries to get their desserts and breads.

The layered chocolate cake was their “Featured Chocolate Cake” and I think was called the Chocolate Mess. It did indeed have a lot of different chocolates and was messy, but it brought out some of the flavor notes to the Coal City Stout, and I was happy to eat it mostly when I was drinking that sample.

It is too bad Morgantown is a bit of a hike, and pretty hard to bike from downtown Charleston. They’ve got some good food going on there, and good beers to go with it!

Kenyan Cafe on Urbanspoon It’s better than the score listed here. Be adventurous and check it out!

Morgantown Brewing Company on Urbanspoon Also underrated. I need to make it out to MBC again for a full review, which gives me an excellent excuse to try another sampler (or two?).


Fancy Hot Pockets?

This is what I would look like if my head was a cupcake. Why is their logo not a fruitcake? One of life's questions answered at the same time another takes its place.

Some times I just choose poorly. I may have said this before. In a way I don’t blame the eatery for my poor decision making skills when under pressure, but in another equally valid way I do blame the quality of food when it just fails to impress – or begins to seem like a parody.

I really wanted to love Frutcake. It seems “hip.” It seems like a cool place to hang out and drink coffee. It also seems like a place that would be open more often than it is. I understand that they are focused on making pastries and coffee, so their “peak” time seems to be mornings and early afternoons. But there are so many things that seem obvious to add on to their appeal and their overall business.

First off is their coffee menu. Some places get the idea very well. The idea being that menus do not have to read like a rations list. They can be creative, colorful and have more choices. Frutcake has choices, don’t get me wrong, but they are varieties rather than creations. By that, I mean that it lists mochas, lattes, regular coffee, espresso. If there were some adventure involved, they could come up with “coffee combo” of the day, week, month – any sort of theme that fits. An Irish Cream Mocha for March, say. Maybe a Pumpkin Latte for October. There is some attention paid to the pastries, but it seems like coffee is an afterthought, and in my mind coffee should never be an afterthought.

Second is their pastries are pretty expensive. This might be justified if they were large and filling, or had unbelievably unique and compelling ingredients. But they are standard sized and the ones I tried were relatively standard in flavor mixing. A chocolate mole cupcake would have been amazing! Or a mango onion breakfast pastry. Heck go wild and have a curry saffron cookie. Any of those combinations would deserve a $4-$6 price tag. The experience of eating would be well worth the cost of admission.

Third, their coffee is not that flavorful. I would be willing to forgive a plainly listed series of coffee drinks if the execution was really amazing. Perhaps it was their soymilk used, but I get soymilk in my coffee drinks all the time, and theirs seemed burnt and overly bitter. Their syrup flavors, while adequate, were not displayed well. It seems like the ordering is up to the customer fully, and once the order is given it just has a hard time living up to the standard of tastiness.

Finally, the pastries I did try were given fancy names. Well one of them was. It was a name I cannot for the life of me remember, and it was not interesting enough to jot down the name of. The other was named “Cherry Danish.” Heck, I take it back. Neither really had fancy names, and neither was that tasty. The Cherry Danish was dry, had more pastry than filling and was overly flaky. Perhaps it was better right out of the oven, but it’s hard to imagine that being the case.

Quick admission – I sometimes get a bit spacy when writing. Or just living through life normally for that matter. I just had this complete distraction where I eventually remembered the name of the other danish thing after searching for it on Google. It was a kolache. If you click on that link you will see that the fancy name also makes for a fancy pastry. Frutcake did not manage to make kolache that look like that. I got a potato cheese version (they had another with meat in it) on a recommendation of the very friendly woman behind the counter. It was while I ate it that I realized the secret:

Don't they look like hot pockets? Although when I cut them in half, molten cheese did not eat its way through the plates, which was unfortunate really.

Frutcake loves hot pockets. Neither pastry melted the thin layer of skin at the roof of my mouth, and neither needed to be incubated in a strange silver colored sheath, but they were hot pockets all the same. The kolache was as I remember hot pockets to be. Not enough of a memory to bring up trauma, which I think seems to be likely with a hot pocket dinner, but enough of one to feel slightly scammed.

I kind of feel bad for giving Frutcake such a critical review. I really wanted to like them. The owners also are responsible for Tricky Fish and Bluegrass Cafe – both of which are excellent eateries! It seemed like a place to hang out (even if they are almost never open when I try to visit).

I went twice to see if my first experience was just a poor one. But as I wrote this review I realized that neither experience was good. I got a orange latte the first time, a raspberry mocha the second. Both are slam dunk coffees – not much can be done to mess them up. Yet both were bland.

Frutcake, I want to love you, but I am afraid that perhaps the name of your establishment is ultimately apt. Candied fruit sounds awesome in theory – looks great with all the color and glossiness – but when you sit down to eat it, you end up regretting it.

Frütcake on Urbanspoon This score is pretty high. Definitely higher than I would rate it. Perhaps other people chose well? Maybe I should have tried one of their more traditional pastries? I would rate it around 70%, and I feel kind of bad about that. I’ll try you again another time Frutcake – maybe it will be better a third time?

Uncreative Headings & Harding’s

Why do homestyle restaurants often have these advertising placemats? I wonder if there is a law on the books?

I could not for the life of me think about a simple way to categorize my trip to Harding’s Family Restaurant the other day. I went there for a working lunch with some colleagues and we talked about work things and silly stories that often get told during work meetings. There was truly nothing that I can put my finger on that stood out from the meeting. Well, outside of one of my lunchmates deciding to make a hat out of his paper placemat, being offered $5 to wear it all the way out of the restaurant and back to the office. He agreed, and I now regret that I failed to take a picture. Why, oh why did I forget something like that?

Unfortunately, the food I ate was also pretty forgettable. I think that Harding’s caters to a certain group of diners who are looking for homestyle comfort food. And overall, in my culinary experience, homestyle often fits as comfort food due to fond memories of eating such dishes at good times in life.

Taking that cue, I decided to go all New England in honor of my eight years living in the Boston area. It was obvious that Harding’s is doing nothing more than emulating the food there. I went from being a ovo-lacto vegetarian to a pescatarian because New England has such good fish, and is so good at preparing it. Harding’s New England Scrod was far from decently prepared. It was dry and over a rice pilaf that was lacking in flavor. It was coated with a lemon pepper sauce that was similarly needing a bit something more than what it gave. It was filling, and the garlic toast that came with it was okay, but overall it was like I said before – forgettable.

The New England Clam Chowder was also boring. It could have been taken from a can, and in fact as I ate it I wondered if it was. Not that canned soup is bad – I could eat such things if need be and be okay with it (although I prefer to cook my soups from scratch whenever possible).  I expect more from a restaurant, and with clam chowder I would like to have extra creaminess and spices that stand out. Not even the crumbled saltines could help it. Why there were not oyster crackers included was another issue.

Underspiced New England Scrod, Clam Chowder the envy of canned soup everywhere, and Wilted Lettuce Salad - soupy dressing at bottom unpictured.

Wilted Lettuce Salad. What is at all appealing about that name? I am not sure, but I was intrigued by the very unappealing sounding name mostly due to the fact that its unappealing name meant it had to be delicious. I was wrong. It was again forgettable. I had it without bacon, and I cannot imagine that it having bacon on it would have made it that much better. It was overly vinegary, and the vinegar dressing formed a pool at the bottom of the plate that made it more like lettuce soup than anything else. The dressing was warm, so perhaps that was the appeal? I was even unimpressed with the simple shredded lettuce. At the very least some decent mixed lettuce could have been used.

Overall, I did not hate the place. It has a lot of variety of homestyle dishes that were nice. It was filling, and I can see the appeal to plain comfort food. It was a pleasant atmosphere and has a country style gift shop at the entry way that I am sure causes many children to beg. I just wish homestyle could be a bit more flavorful, a bit more exciting, a bit more memorable.

Heck, this is such a blah adequate restaurant, I was not even inspired to come up with a better title. It seems somehow zen to have a matching uncreative headline with a bunch of uncreative food, so I am okay with it.

Harding's Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon I think the score could be a bit lower. Probably more like a 70-75% for me. Just adequate deserves a C grade.

Ellen’s Got More Than Ice Cream

Ellen's Homemade Ice Cream has a nice sign, and pretty home-style like decor on the inside to match.

I had a great time at a friend’s birthday party last night. Not so much that I was tempted to wear a toga like some of the party goers, but enough so that I was a bit sensitive this afternoon. It was such a beautiful late winter day, I had to get out and bike around regardless. It was a bit chilly to start, but the brisk air mixed with bright blue skies helped me feel better than an asprin would have.

No matter what, any time I go out on the town to find a place to eat on Sunday it’s going to be a challenge. Many places are closed on Sundays, so I wander even more than usual on these days. There is a little Lebanese grocery, Middle East Market & Deli, at the bus station I have ridden past several times. I thought I might try it out, but despite the advertisement of falafel and other Mediterranean cuisine choices, they did not appear to have a working restaurant.

But it was like Snoopy’s doghouse. The outside of the store looks a bit shady – bars on the windows, paint flaking away, inability to see inside. Once you go inside the place is bright, cheery and looks almost brand new! Maybe they are renovating and will eventually have the restaurant up again. I sure hope so, cause I would love to try some good Lebanese food.

I did get a few ingredients to make my own falafels, and was a bit disappointed that mostly the store was like a 711 with one aisle of Lebanese imports. I was tempted to get a hookah for the hell of it, but didn’t really have a way to carry it with me along with the big bottle of olives and falafel mix I purchased so I’ll have to go for that later.

The bottle of olives is outstanding. I got black, and other than there being a strange plastic barrier to get past, I managed to have a few this evening while writing this review. The hot pepper sauce will have a future in some dinner concoction I might throw together, and I look forward to trying the eggplant dip, falafel and pita bread.

I mention this place primarily because I initially went there thinking I would have something off a menu, but I am highly supportive of international groceries of all kinds. The diversity in food and spice selections is so important to make unique and tasty things that I wish more people would demand such businesses.

Mmmmm! Grilled Cheese! Ooooooo! Espresso Sundae!

With there being no active restaurant, I had to consider other options. Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream has been a place I had considered in the past, but the one time I visited last summer they did not accept electronic payment. I almost never carry cash, so it has been hard to visit. Luckily this time I had cash with me, so I went inside only to discover that they now accept credit! They add a 5% charge above the total cost if you pay this way, but it is nice to see that they have this as an option.

Ellen’s has a modest menu selection of food combined with a substantial selection of ice creams, frozen yogurts and sorbets. During the week, there are daily specials of sandwiches, wraps and soups. They did not have as much in the food department on a Sunday afternoon, but I was still able to try a classic grilled cheese sandwich along with an Ellen’s Special Salad. I also ordered a Espresso Sundae, because what is the point of going there without getting ice cream?

Grilled cheese sandwiches are hard to mess up. Elegant in their simplicity, Ellen’s uses a whole grain wheat bread from Charleston Bread that is hearty and flavorful. So much so that the cheese is almost washed out from the wonder of the bread. They provided a packet of Grey Poupon mustard, and that made me feel obliged to add it to the sandwich. It was a nice touch.

Ellen's Special Salad. The special is in the sugared pecans!

The salad was filled with sugared pecans, dried cranberries, feta cheese and mesclun. A side of balsamic vinaigrette was included, and while the presentation was a bit basic (the salad came in a plastic container) it was a good mix of salady items. I found myself wishing Ellen’s plastic forks were a bit stronger, but then again I am sure not too many people eat their ice cream with forks. Fortunately, I am sure that sugared pecans are a divine gift so the wrangling with an inadequate plastic fork was bearable.

Then there was the ice cream. I got a scoop of coconut. It seemed like a good combination for espresso. The presentation was interesting. A scoop of the coconut ice cream was placed in a bowl, the espresso was poured over it, whipped topping was added along with some chocolate sprinkles. It reminded me a bit of a coffee milkshake that had not been blended. The ice cream was okay – coconut ice cream not made from coconut milk seems a bit of a wasted opportunity, and Ellen’s seemed to take the traditional milk approach. In hindsight I should have gone with vanilla or coffee ice cream. That said, the dessert was good. I wanted a coffee, and this satisfied both that need and the desire to have a bit of ice cream.

Now that I know that Ellen’s accepts electronic payment, I may be in a bit of trouble this summer. Time to get used to long bike rides to work off those calories,  I guess.

Ellen's Homemade Ice Cream on Urbanspoon How can you give ice cream a bad review? This rating seems just fine 🙂

Middle East Market & Deli on Urbanspoon I’ll have to re-review if the restaurant gets going again…

International Women’s Day, a Bridge and Vandalia Grille

Meet Me On The Bridge - a celebration of International Women's Day on Charleston's own Southside Bridge.

Repeating stories to others can be compelling. It’s probably why ever since I was a child I have had friends who could recite entire sections of their favorite movies, television shows and sing entire songs from memory. Some stories are like eating at McDonald’s – popular, quick, cheap and not very good for you. I cringe to think about those entire sections of my brain that contain quotes from pop culture instead of things that might be a bit more useful.

The story I repeat today (before getting into talking about food) is one of those healthy stories that reminds me of the power we all have to make a difference and unite as human beings and work toward a better future. International Women’s Day (IWD) is officially one hundred years old this year. In the past hundred years, there have been events honoring women around the globe. In two countries that have been war torn for years – Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of the Congo – rape and killing of women has been a part of the many atrocities brought on by the horrors of war. In order to bring a sense of solidarity for women in both countries, women from both countries met together on a bridge that created one of their borders to talk about their struggles.

Awareness raising by meeting on a bridge may seem pointless to some people. After all, in two countries who struggle over violent war, how could such a small thing make a difference? In my mind it is because it humanizes the plight of those suffering. These women stood up to declare their humanity, their equality and their ability to resist such forces in a nonviolent manner. They shared their stories, their successes, their plans for safety and personal agency.

Today the struggle in these two countries was honored during “Meet Me On The Bridge” held at noon on Charleston’s Southside Bridge. Women, and men who support them, started at both sides of the bridge, met in the middle and expressed their desire to continue to work toward equality and dignity for all women.

I was happy to be able to participate in this event, happy to be out in the wonderfully beautiful late winter weather, and happy to show my support. I love seeing others working for such peace and equality, and I love being a part of such work!

Vandalia Grille's creamy tomato basil soup, the clocks on the wall, an ahi tuna wrap with sweet potato fries and a view of the bar.

After the event, I had the chance to go out with my friends and colleagues to Vandalia Grille. I love the restaurant’s setup. It sits almost like an extended hallway between two streets, entrances from both sides. It has a very homey atmosphere that is accentuated by the sort of decor I would expect to see on the wall of a friend’s living room. One wall had a bunch of cool looking clocks – all set to different times. It kind of made me wonder what the story was behind that collection.

It seems to me that Vandalia has changed their menu slightly from the last time I was there. I remember a folded menu. It’s not a bad thing, I just find it funny that so many restaurants are going for a two sided laminated menu on one piece of paper. It’s a trend I can somewhat get behind – after all I go out to eat in order to find something tasty, not read a novel.

Eventually I settled on an Ahi Tuna Wrap with Sweet Potato Fries. A few of my fellow diners got the creamy tomato basil soup, and after taking one look at it, I also added a bowl to my order. I was happy I did so – the soup was perfectly creamy with a good balance of spiciness from pepper, a slight amount of basil and lots of tomato goodness! The piece of baguette in the center had some mozzarella cheese, and it would have been great to have a few more slices just like it on the side.

When I got to the main dish, I was surprised by the two sides of dip offered on my plate. I could not decide if they were for the fries or the wrap, so I was forced to try them with both. One was a sweet honey mustard style, and it went great with the lightly battered, lightly sweet yam fries. I wish I knew what the actual difference was between sweet potatoes and yams. I really just called them yams right there so I didn’t have to say ‘sweet’ twice. I guess that is enough of a difference for the purpose of this review. The other dip was a spicy mayonnaise mix, so in hindsight I suppose it might have been for the wrap.

The wrap was surprising. It was like eating sushi in a tortilla, and that is a good thing in my book! The ahi tuna was well seared, and the fish had that just right melt in your mouth quality to it. There was a teriyaki sauce applied to the spinach and veggies inside, and the cashews that were chopped up in the mix gave a great overall crunch. The me says the dressing was cashew ginger, but I really think it was teriyaki. I could be wrong in this, but it doesn’t matter because I think it would have been delicious regardless.

Supporting women, having a lovely lunch, beautiful almost spring day – I think this counts as a mark on the “wonderful day” category of life.

Vandalia Grille on Urbanspoon I am shocked the score is this low for Vandalia Grille. Maybe it is marked down because they spell “grill” with an e. It should have a higher score. I would personally rate it in the low 90s.

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