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On the Hunt, with Greg Barbera: China Wok

Ours is a community with a voracious appetite. But food comes at a cost. My goal here is to go on a food safari, setting my sights on the delicious and delectable options often overlooked around town. As a single dad of two growing boys, I consider myself a frugal foodie. I like to maximize my investment to get the most out of a dollar. Ten dollars will be my tipping point. The days of the $5 lunch are long gone but I believe there’s still affordable food—be it a sandwich or late night tapas—available to us. Outside of setting my sights on what’s out on the range, I also hope to tap into our other side. The gatherer. Armed with little more than a five-dollar bill, I will visit the area’s farmer’s markets scouring the booths for earthen bounty. I am not a trained chef; every thing I have learned is through observation and experimentation. But I have a will and a way and a limited budget, so let’s go hunting…

ChinaWok_FThe term take-out is synonymous with Chinese food. No international cuisine is more commonly referred to as such. “You wanna get Greek take-out?” Never heard it. “Say, let’s get some Mexican take-out!” Nope haven’t heard that either.

But Chinese take-out immediately calls up visions of chopsticks, fortune cookies and those iconic white, pint boxes. Generally, Chinese food establishments aren’t franchised and are often family-owned. Which means one Chinese restaurant does not taste like the next.

China Wok is located in Timberlyne Shopping Center off Weaver Dairy Rd. I literally stumbled upon this hidden gem one day. I had set out to go to Food Lion to pick up a few things. But I wasn’t dead set on what I wanted for lunch. I was hungry and knew I wanted something. So off to the market I went. As anybody knows, this is a dangerous state of mind to be in when walking into grocery store: famished and without a game plan.

I parked and started walking toward Food Lion when I noticed China Wok nestled right next to it. So I went over and browsed the menu on the window outside. I quickly fixated on one menu item that seemed to stand out from the usual General Tso, Kung Pao and chow mien: Thai Style Fried Tofu with Bean Sprout ($8.95).

I have a soft spot for Thai food so I ordered it. I have back to China Wok probably a half a dozen times since and have not felt the need to order anything else.

The base is crunchy bean sprouts, topped with julienned fresh ginger and carrot, with lemongrass and basil tossed in. And, of course, the fried tofu. The serving size (which comes with fluffed white rice) could easily feed two or provide leftover lunch the next day. The ginger adds a pleasant kick but is slightly muted by the lemongrass’ citrusy mint characteristics. Photographer Sonnie Plakotaris quipped, I could possibly eat this everyday and never tire of it.” Really, this dish is that good. It’s simple, fresh and served hot off the wok. Do yourself a favor and try it. There’s a reason you see so much foot traffic at China Wok during lunch.

All photos by Sonnie Plakotaris

http://chapelboro.com/lifestyle/food-dining/on-the-hunt-with-greg-barbera-china-wok/

On The Hunt, with Greg Barbera: Spotted Dog

Ours is a community with a voracious appetite. But food comes at a cost. My goal here is to go on a food safari, setting my sights on the delicious and delectable options often overlooked around town. As a single dad of two growing boys, I consider myself a frugal foodie. I like to maximize my investment to get the most out of a dollar. Ten dollars will be my tipping point. The days of the $5 lunch are long gone but I believe there’s still affordable food—be it a sandwich or late night tapas—available to us. Outside of setting my sights on what’s out on the range, I also hope to tap into our other side. The gatherer. Armed with little more than a five-dollar bill, I will visit the area’s farmer’s markets scouring the booths for earthen bounty. I am not a trained chef; every thing I have learned is through observation and experimentation. But I have a will and a way and a limited budget, so let’s go hunting…

I have lived in the area long enough to remember when that iconic brick building sitting on the V-island between Main Street and Weaver Street in Carrboro housed Spring Garden, which if my memory can recall was a Greenboro-based pizza joint with an array of beers.

Today, The Spotted Dog, which has been there since opening in 1998, occupies the location. Their focus is on fresh, healthy food and they pride themselves on locally-sourced and house made fare. I can’t remember that last time I had been there and yet suddenly I found myself in need of lunch on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s an eclectic menu for sure, especially for vegetarians who can sample some of the South’s most traditional dishes in accordance to their diet. Veggie BBQ ($8.95), Black-Eyed Pea Cakes ($13.25) or the cleverly named Chik-Faux-Lay ($9.25), which consists of crispy soy chicken on a bun with lettuce, tomato, red onions and mayo (just like that other place) are good representations.

spotted1

I had the Crab Cake Sandwich ($9.25). Born and raised in Maryland, it is terribly difficult to not order blue crab when I see it on a menu. My choice was close to my self-imposed ten dollar cap, but it was crab what can I say? It arrived spiked with a pickle on top of the bun. I love it when chefs give the food some love. As often discussed, if it doesn’t look good, chances are it won’t taste good. Accompanied with lettuce, tomato and a remoulade sauce, it was not overly bready, pretty crabby and laced with a touch of bourbon and spice. It was served with in-house made potatoes as a side. Well-done Spotted Dog.

Photographer Sonnie Plakotaris, a vegetarian, ordered the Curry Quinoa Burger ($8.95). A Lunch Special, the house made burger is comprised of organic quinoa, currants, garbanzo beans, flax and sunflower seeds. Then served on a bun with organic greens, cilantro and a vegan curry mayo. So good was this burger that Plakotaris searched for a recipe online mid-meal with visions of making her own at home. The curry mayo complimented the burger well. And, “cilantro makes everything better,” she said. I agree as it is one of my favorite and most widely used green herbs.

spotted dog greg

Speaking of green, The Spotted Dog recycles everything: paper products, cardboard, cans, bottles—even cooking oil. They also compost their food waste generating “little trash,” according to their website. Adding, “which is a good thing when you are located on an island!”

All photos by Sonnie Plakotaris

http://chapelboro.com/columns/on-the-hunt/on-the-hunt-with-greg-barbera-spotted-dog/

Something for Everyone at City Kitchen

University Mall’s newest culinary addition dishes up refined American cuisine with an Old World flare

bar21

City Kitchen is aptly named.

Because when you eat there, you feel like you are somewhere else. Like DC. Or Chicago. Or New York. You feel like you are in some other city not in a mall in the bucolic, southern part of heaven known as Chapel Hill.

So there’s your “city,” brought on by equal parts ambiance, equal parts Old World simple elegance.

And then there’s a kitchen—open like yours or mine—that has something to offer, something to eat for everyone; something for the kids, for your grandmother and for your discerning brother-in-law from out of town.

City + Kitchen = City Kitchen.

Billed as an “authentically American Brasserie,” City Kitchen is located in University Mall in the spot formerly home to Spice Street. Like Spice Street, City Kitchen is part of local restaurateur George Bakatsias’ cluster of fine dining establishments known as the Giorgios Group. Cosmetically speaking, a few structural changes have been made but it is still similarly structured like Spice Street—open dining room, outdoor bar and garden, plus the Wine Cellar room and private seating options.

rainbow troutWith seating for 140 inside and another 100 plus outside, they serve simple food made elegant. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to appeal to the masses,” said Executive Chef Younes Sabouh. From Marrakesh, Morocco, he is French-trained in the culinary arts. He came to the U.S. as a private chef then worked at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in Durham and The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary before joining the City Kitchen staff seven months ago.

The restaurant hosts events, like the recent Moroccan Night, and a future French tasting is on the horizon. They also are available for weddings and private parties as well as off-site catering. This is a place that seeks to do it all and have cast a mighty wide net.

wok ribsChef Sabouh’s goal is to refine southern food. Which is where, on the center of the menu, he gets to flex his skills. The iconic fried green tomato appetizer ($11) is encrusted in a basil cornmeal and served over smoked goat cheese with a pumpkin seed relish. It is familiar yet different. And, ultimately, delicious. What does he do with standard fare like ribs? He coats them in a cola-sriracha glaze with roasted garlic, lime and cilantro and fries them in a wok ($10). Familiar, yet different. Salmon ($22)? Served on purple sweet potato, kimchee, soy and a curry glaze. Rainbow trout ($21)? It is smoked in-house then topped with a fried oyster and served over a mix of crab meat and barley, garnished with brussels sprouts and celery root and plattered on a clam and red pepper broth. Again, an entrée that’s familiar on many menus in the Southeast, yet presented differently. And, undecidedly without a doubt, the trout was my favorite dish of the night.

chanterelles_short_ribCity Kitchen isn’t necessarily changing the game—they are merely accentuating it. Micro greens and purees are the unsung heroes here. It is a subtle nuance that transforms an average entrée into a salivating and satisfying serving. Chef Sabouh’s strength is in his dedication to building relationships within the local community (he recently partnered up with Jillian Mickens of Open Door Farms to provide them with micro greens). On Wednesday there’s the Farmer’s Plate special which is a dish culled from ingredients he scored at the farmer’s market located in the mall’s parking lot or the one over in Carrboro. My short rib came adorned with chanterelles (wild mushrooms you can’t commercially purchase) that he got at a recent farmer’s market. “When I saw them,” said Chef Sabouh, “I told him ‘I will take them all!’” demonstrating his excitable purchase with an animated dual-arm scoop.

For the finicky or less adventurous, City Kitchen offers brick oven, flat bread pizzas, Caesar salads, burgers, grilled chicken breast and sandwiches like pastrami, turkey club and tuna. Of course, for the kids, their own menu just in case, with all meals including an ice cream sundae for dessert.

quinoa risottoFret not vegetarians, there’s options available for you as well. The daily appetizer special was goat cheese fried briwats ($10) with fresh figs, arugula, mint and a honeycomb dressing. For an entrée try the spring vegetable quinoa risotto ($15), which features the grain-like red quinoa, asparagus, leeks, haricot vert, carrots, fava bean, green pea broth and shaved pecorino cheese.

If you are lamenting the loss of Spice Street’s sushi bar, you need not worry. Sushi is still on the menu with various rolls, sashimi, and nigiri available. You won’t have a problem satisfying your sushi jones here.

My host for a night of endless sampling was jack-of-all trades Sales Director Emma Dunbar. A native of England who has been in the United States for 12 years and the Carolinas for five, she formerly was a regional trainer for Zoe’s Kitchen. The food industry is in her blood. “It has to be,” she said. “It’s surely not the money or the hours,” she said with a laugh. It was Dunbar who invited me to come sample some fare. “The food will speak for itself,” she told me over the phone.

And that it did.

chocolate stoutBy the time dessert came, I was worried. Worried I wouldn’t have any more room in my belly. The lemon meringue arrived ($8). Cornbread, olive oil jam, lemon cream and a dollop of ice cream on the plate. It’s inviting, and like all the food I had eaten that night, attractive in its presentation. Chef Sabouh explained it succinctly: “You eat with your eyes. It’s the first impression that counts.” You look, you smell, you eat. You fail on the first two, you probably won’t succeed on the third. There was something in the ice cream. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’d been eating blind all night as they say. In other words, the food was chosen for me I did not choose it. The magic to the ice cream? Honey rosemary.  Tasty. Also served was the chocolate stout—a torte served with cocoa crumbs and a Duck Rabbit Milk Stout ice cream ($8). I’m a beer man, I approve!

The desserts, like the rest of the sampled food, are familiar, yet different.

It’s been 16 months since Spice Street slipped away and gave root to City Kitchen. Here’s to hoping they’re here to stay. With a knowledgeable staff and stellar food, they are well on their way.

Photos by Sonnie Plakotaris

http://chapelboro.com/lifestyle/food-dining/something-for-everyone-at-city-kitchen/

On The Hunt, with Greg Barbera

Ours is a community with a voracious appetite. But food comes at a cost. My goal here is to go on a food safari, setting my sights on the delicious and delectable options often overlooked around town. As a single dad of two growing boys, I consider myself a frugal foodie. I like to maximize my investment to get the most out of a dollar. Ten dollars will be my tipping point. The days of the $5 lunch are long gone but I believe there’s still affordable food—be it a sandwich or late night tapas—available to us. Outside of setting my sights on what’s out on the range, I also hope to tap into our other side. The gatherer. Armed with little more than a five-dollar bill, I will visit the area’s farmer’s markets scouring the booths for earthen bounty. I am not a trained chef; every thing I have learned is through observation and experimentation. But I have a will and a way and a limited budget, so let’s go hunting…

OTH_bought_croppedRose with the sun on Saturday August 3rd in order to get to Carrboro’s Farmers’ Market before the masses. I took a quick peek in the fridge and cupboards before I left and made a mental note of what I had at home.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant were in large supply — so I couldn’t avoid picking up an “ugly ‘mater” and two small orange peppers. I browsed the stalls, then settled on two ears of corn, a cucumber and a roll of fresh baked bolillo bread.

I left with sixty cents change on a $5 bill.

Back in the kitchen, I boiled the ears of corn (after breaking them in half into smaller pieces). I tossed some butter and garlic on the roll and made toasted garlic bread. The tomato and cucumber I washed, then sliced thin. I had pita bread and hummus leftover from the previous night. I spread the hummus on the pita and then loaded it up with tomatoes and cucumber, then topped it with lettuce and Greek dressing. I stuffed the peppers with leftover taco meat (flavoring it up a bit with roasted corn, garlic and red onion). I christened them STP — short for “stuffed taco pepper” because I am clever like that, ya know?

*You can stretch out these simple ingredients but using the corn cobs to make soup stock. As for the tomato and cucumber, diced them up. Then mix with olive oil, red onion, lemon juice and mint for a refreshingly light Moroccan style salad.

STP

OTH_made_framed-Preheat oven to 350 degrees

-Rinse and core out peppers then place to the side

-In a skillet, I sautéed garlic (same clove from my recent trip to Chapel Hill’s Farmers’ Market), red onion and some kernels of corn I stripped off the tip of one of the cobs in sea salt, pepper and olive oil.

-Added last week’s leftover taco meat to the skillet and toss to mix.

-Grease up a baking dish

-Stuff peppers with meat mix then topped with parmesan cheese

-Bake for 30 minutes… then eat up. Yum.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/on-the-hunt/on-the-hunt-with-greg-barbera-3/

On The Hunt, with Greg Barbera

Ours is a community with a voracious appetite. But food comes at a cost. My goal here is to go on a food safari, setting my sights on the delicious and delectable options often overlooked around town. As a single dad of two growing boys, I consider myself a frugal foodie. I like to maximize my investment to get the most out of a dollar. Ten dollars will be my tipping point. The days of the $5 lunch are long gone but I believe there’s still affordable food—be it a sandwich or late night tapas—available to us. Outside of setting my sights on what’s out on the range, I also hope to tap into our other side. The gatherer. Armed with little more than a five-dollar bill, I will visit the area’s farmer’s markets scouring the booths for earthen bounty. I am not a trained chef; every thing I have learned is through observation and experimentation. But I have a will and a way and a limited budget, so let’s go hunting…

Med_deli_AOn a recent hump day I found myself hot and hungry. I was on West Franklin St. with not much time on my hands and few funds, when I spotted an old favorite—Mediterranean Deli.

Opened by JamilKadoura and his wife in 1992, the deli offers up authentic Mediterranean & Greek food staples like falafel, gyros, souvlaki and babaghannoug. The small deli expanded in 2008 and, more recently, added its own bakery. Good news for the gourmand-challenge: they have vegetarian and gluten-free options on the menu.

It had been awhile since I went to Med Deli (as it is affectionately referred to by locals), which is surprising since I have a soft spot for souvlaki. But today wasn’t going to be about souvlaki; today was all about falafel. Falafel—for the uninitiated—is fried, ground chickpeas. Sort of like the Middle Eastern version of the hush puppy but sometimes with a more spreadable texture. My order was served on a fresh, house-baked pita with lettuce, tomato and tahini dressing (made from ground sesame seeds). A complimentary condiments bar allows customers to “spruce-up” their order with olives, peperoncinis, tahini and tzatziki (cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, parsley) sauces and more. This is one of my favorite aspects of Med Deli because some people like it plain and some people like it “with the works.” And this provides options for both of those and every one in between.

Med_deli_BMy pita was amply stuffed. I added peperoncinis, olives and tzatziki sauce. The warmth of the fried falafel was counterbalanced with the crisp, cold crunch of the lettuce and tomato. It was a light and refreshing meal. Perfect for the hot summer day I was experiencing. Not wanting to stuff myself, I got a to-go box for the other half of the pita and added olives, peperoncinis, tzatziki and tabouli. For a total of $6.50 I got two meals out of my trip. So when someone tells you to try Med Deli, you’ll know it is the real deal and a good deal.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/on-the-hunt/on-the-hunt-with-greg-barbera-2/

On The Hunt, with Greg Barbera

Ours is a community with a voracious appetite. But food comes at a cost. My goal here is to go on a food safari, setting my sights on the delicious and delectable options often overlooked around town. As a single dad of two growing boys, I consider myself a frugal foodie. I like to maximize my investment to get the most out of a dollar. Ten dollars will be my tipping point. The days of the $5 lunch are long gone but I believe there’s still affordable food—be it a sandwich or late night tapas—available to us. Outside of setting my sights on what’s out on the range, I also hope to tap into our other side. The gatherer. Armed with little more than a five-dollar bill, I will visit the area’s farmer’s markets scouring the booths for earthen bounty. I am not a trained chef; every thing I have learned is through observation and experimentation. But I have a will and a way and a limited budget, so let’s go hunting…

Greg BarberaOn a recent rain-drenched Saturday morning I made my way over to the farmers market in the University Mall parking lot, set up between K & W Cafeteria and A Southern Season. I purchased Yukon gold potatoes, a Creole garlic bulb, a squash, a zucchini and a vine-ripened tomato — all for $5.

I made a German-style potato salad, summer seasonal veggie quesadillas and a caprese bruschetta. The important thing to take into consideration when tackling a farmers market is knowing what you have in your kitchen or cupboards. A little bit of planning and preparation goes a long way in this case.

Potato Salad

I cook to taste. In other words, I tend to wing it. A lot of recipes are based on volume (serves 4, 6, 10 etc.), so sometimes I have to adjust them to fit my needs. Am I cooking for one? Three? Seven? The following is my recipe for the Yukon gold potatoes. I bought mine by portion (not weight) in a pulp paper berry till.

-Boil potatoes in (salted) water until you can easily poke them with a fork (about 15-20 minutes)

-As potatoes are boiling, mix white vinegar, sugar, diced red onion and Dijon mustard in a bowl. I like mustard.

-1/6 cup white vinegar

-1/8 cup sugar

-Tablespoon red onion

-Three good squeezes out of a Dijon mustard container

-Sea salt & pepper

When potatoes are done, cut into cubes and toss with your dressing. Wanna get crazy? Top with chives, bacon bits or Fritos. Seriously, Fritos go with everything.

Greg Barbera

http://chapelboro.com/columns/on-the-hunt/on-the-hunt-with-greg-barbera/