Thursday, January 28, 2010

The best chef...outside my kitchen of course

I haven't posted in a while as I am busy doing research for a wonderfully exciting details yet, but soon.  I can just hear the excitement is building in all of your minds.  But enough of that...I was talking about chefs.  I don't in any way consider myself a "chef" but I do feel that I am a decent cook.  At least my wife claims the food is good, either way, skill or false praise my ego remains intact.  As a lot of this blog talks about food, I am always interested in finding new places or new ways to experience some of the great culinary treats from the Boroughs.  I was talking with a friend, the Supreme Chancellor of Beer, about upcoming local events and he mentioned that he is helping to sponsor Worcester's Best Chef this weekend.   Worcester isn't the Boroughs obviously, but Worcester's best chef...that could be fun.
And then I found out, that last year Worcester's best chef was won by Northborough's own chef Anne, from Yama Zakura with her Tuna Tataki.  Now we are back in the Boroughs and I love Yama Zakura, in fact I could write a whole blog on the unique dishes they create, but I'll save all those tasty details for another time, let's focus on the event this weekend.

Worcester's Best Chef
Sunday, January 31st
4:00 to 8:00 PM
Presented at Union Station

I am proud to see the Boroughs showing their talent in this competition.  For those interested check out  They have listings of the chefs involved, the fun items for the night, and how to order tickets.  Ticket's for the event are $50 but there are some discounts available. This event is a fundraiser for the Culinary Arts College Scholarship program at Worcester Technical High School.  I think it looks like a lot of fun, and talking with Matt (the chancellor) he says it is a great time.  To date I have no reason to doubt him.

Short and sweet this evening.  My research on some other great Boroughs items should wrap up this weekend, so look for a new blog on Sunday.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A tale of two Karaokes - Part 2 - Cheng Du

Although the karaoke side of my night at Havana House was not the highlight of my week...I still had karaoke burning inside, just aching to get out.  I was in search a local place to slaughter a song or two.  As I was driving down rt9 I noticed the Cheng Du sign announcing karaoke from 10 to 1 Saturday night.   In my three years in Westborough I have yet to try Cheng Du so my wife and I decided to invite some friends and have dinner at Cheng Du and stay for the karaoke.  I think this may have been my best decision this week.
Let's start with the dinner...we all loved it.  Great food, great service, and I don't feel like it put a pinch on my wallet.  I really enjoyed the chicken chow foon and the kung-pao shrimp.  It was great Szechuan/Mandarin diner, there is really no other way to put it.  Mr. Tang, the owner, stopped by to say hello and check on our meals.  Overall the service was great, always a waiter was filling the water, checking to see if we needed more to drink or clearing empty plates out of our way, and the food was delicious.  And the best way to follow a great dinner is to to sing a little that is just what we did.

The bar area at Cheng Du was packed just after 10 as the karaoke began.  We were lucky to find a table to sit at.  The setup works well for karaoke, one screen to read from and a big screen with videos in the background that everyone can read from.  It was more conducive to a karaoke show then some venues I have visited.  The guy running the karaoke did an awesome Elvis impression and filled a few songs in the beginning as people put in their selections with his own vocal stylings.  I labored a bit on this blog to find some way to describe the night and I just kept coming up lame repeated phrases...packed bar, lots of I took a decided to show you some samples instead.  I love my Flip camera, but in the low light it does get a little grainy so the video is not perfect.

I hope you enjoy, and I plan on visiting Cheng Du for a performance of my own sometime soon.  I hope to see you there.

A tale of two Karaokes - Part 1 - Havana House

I loves the karaoke.  :-)  I can't sing in any way, shape, or form, but I do love belting out poor renditions 70's, 80's, or 90's hits, hanging out with friends, having a drink, and generally enjoying the spectacle that is local karaoke.  Two of my friends are karaoke DJs in Cambridge and I have spent a few late nights at Charlies Kitchen in Cambridge enjoying the fun, but until last week I had yet to partake in any Boroughs karaoke. 

It all started last Wednesday I invited a couple of friends to watch the Celtics game at Havana House in Northborough.  When I checked online to see how late they are open, I noticed Wednesday night is karaoke night at Havana House.  Before we get into the karaoke, I want to highlight Havana House. 

I know several readers are not super fans of cigar bars, but I love Havana House.  It is not a smoky dingy bar.  Havana House is a relaxed comfortable hang out where you can enjoy a cigar.  I discovered it several years ago while living in Marlborough.  I used to have a hot tub on my deck and sitting late in the evening in a 104 degree hot tub, drinking an 18 year McClelland, and smoking a nice cigar was the ultimate in winter relaxation.  Some evenings weren't conducive to out door hot tub relaxing and I was lucky enough to find Havana House.

In my travels I have yet to find a place that matches Havana House.  It is unique, in a great way; to describe Havana House in a word I say awesome; big screen tv's, relaxing comfortable leather couches, pool tables, chess boards, a cozy bar area, and a bar staff that is fun and casual.  Becky the owner has set up a place you will want to visit again and again.  The cigar selection is extensive and they are meticulous about the humidor so the cigars are always fresh.  I am not a "smoker" but I do enjoy a cigar now and then.  Havana House never seems overly smoky to me.  They must have the bought the best smoke eaters available and it makes the experience that much better. Add to the relaxed atmosphere and the great cigars the bar is pretty extensive as well.  A wide selection of both beers and liquors stock the bar.  There have been a couple of times that I was looking for top shelf scotch that Havana came up a little short, but for the most part they do a great job.  If you are looking to catch up with a friend, watch the game, or meet up with the guys and celebrate, Havana House is a great place.

On to the karaoke...Havana house does karaoke every Wednesday and Friday.  My first experience with Havana House karaoke was December 30th.  As I said I called a couple of friends to see if they would like to watch the Celtics game...unfortunate game to watch but hanging out with friends is still a good time.  We knew it was karaoke night, but till this visit I had no experience with karaoke at Havana House.  Thinking back I seem to always end up at Havana House late on a Tuesday or a Sunday so in the past we missed the karaoke festivities.  The bar was pretty quiet in this night and the singer selection was limited.  The few regulars did keep the evening of song going and they all had really great voices, but it was, like the bar itself, a relaxed evening more then anything else.  It didn't have the karaoke atmosphere I am used to.  There was applause after each song and a few cheers now and then but it was not the energy level I have experienced at other karaoke events.  It was still fun, and in the background as I watched the game and chatted with my friend it was amusing at times.

I can't say that I am rushing to Havana House for the karaoke, but I will be back to enjoy a cigar.   The other patrons and staff are very welcoming.  It's jsut the type of place you can comfortable visit regularly...a great Boroughs location for those who want to have a cigar and relax.  And in the future if I get dragged into a song or two, I won't fight too much.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Efforts at the Northborough Friendly's (Westborough Friendly's)

So I have to start out by correcting a misprint in my November blog about the "Northborough Friendly's".  The restaurant I am talking about it located at 303 Turnpike Road (in front of the Walmart).  I thought the town line ran right in front of the Friendly's, actually it runs between the Walmart and the Friendly's so in reality this Friendly's is also in Westborough.  I don't think anyone was confused on what I was talking about but I did want to correct.  According to the Friendly's website, this location is labeled in Westborough and the Friendly's at the intersection of rt30 and rt9 is the Westboro Friendly's.  That is a whole different discussion so I'll leave that alone for the moment.

Back to my reason for today's blog.  As I said, on November 13th I wrote a blog describing some less then optimal experiences at the Westborough Friendly's.  That post had a ton of hits including, Vinny Miele, district manager for the Friendly's in this area.  Vinny publicly invited me to discuss some of my experiences and I took him up on his offer. We had a good discussion about the service he looks to provide to the area.  And I was very frank on where I felt things were lacking.  I am proud to see the management at Friendly's taking the time to listen to public opinion and looking for improvements within their establishments. Thanks to the internet we have a voice.

Vinny made some staffing chances at the end of last year and invited me to retry the Friendly's in mid December.  I had dinner at the Westborough Friendly's on December 18th and met the new general manager, Andrew.  As you would expect my service that night was stellar.  I have managed a couple of restaurants in the past and if you know there is someone important in the establishment you make sure all the extras are in place.  Vinny was at the restaurant helping that night as well and several of the managers and staff checked repeatedly to make sure I had everything I needed. 

I tried to keep an eye out on the other tables that night.  My wife and I ran into a friend that night who also reads this blog.  Unfortunately her experience was not the same as mine...missing silverware, and very slow to take the order.  But the mixed bag of service that night was still and improvement over the experiences I mentioned in the previous blog.

So being the thorough person I am, I decided to revisit the Westborough Friendly's 3 more times before I write this blog and make a final decision.  I wanted to be just another customer and evaluate the service without being recognized.  

December 23 - Dinner - I made it through the whole meal with my kids before I was recognized...Andrew did see me as I was leaving and stopped to say hi.  Just me and my boys.  Service was reasonable, not super fast but not obviously slow.  There were no crayons that day, I guess they ran out, but nothing else of major interest positive or negative.

December 31 - Lunch - Here I was just another customer but I got the same waitress I had on the 23rd.  Kudos tothe waitress for recognizing a regular.  She said hello, mentioned the last visit and the kitchen seemed to be running quicker.  The restaurant was pretty empty so service was quick and there was no wait, but I noticed more servers available then I had remembered in my last trip.

January 9 - Lunch - We were greeted right away at a packed restaurant.  There were only two tables available when we walked in, and we were seated immediately.  This was the test I was hoping for.  Can they deliver fast accurate service when it is busy?  I am happy to report today's experience continues the trend of better and better service.  Lunch today was almost back to the service level I remember from years ago and expect at Friendly's. It took 4 minutes for a server to visit our table.  Definitely reasonable in a packed restaurant.  After ordering, our meals took 17 minutes to be delivered.  A little longer then I remember from past years but still acceptable on all accounts.  Our server was friendly and the couple of extra requests we had were accommodated promptly. 

I give a lot of credit to Vinny and Andrew as they seem to be turning this location around.  I can't say it is perfect yet, but when the kids ask for Friendly's I no longer eliminate this location as a possibility.  In the last four visits I have seen marked improvements each time.  I hope to see this positive trend continue at the Westborough Friendly's.  Continuous improvement requires feedback.  I know Vinny checks this blog so please feel free to post comments with your experiences.  I will continue to keep an eye on this as well.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Not Your Average Dinner and a Movie

Our favorite sitter is in town, along with the other college students on winter break, and we are taking full advantage.  In fact we have been "out on the town" 4 times in the last week. Movies and dinners are fun, and getting out without the kids is important sometimes. Last night my wife and I had plans to go out with another couple, unfortunately they canceled so we had to shift plans.  Last minute plans in the Boroughs on a snowy day are somewhat limited.  We decided dinner and a movie would be fun.  We got a chance to see "Avatar" and "Up in the Air" earlier this week, so next on the list was "It's Complicated".  Sitter arrives at 6 and the movie starts at 7:40.

Our first thought was to stop by Chipotle and sneak something good to eat into the theater, it worked great for Up in the Air, but there was no need to rush tonight.  There was enough time for appetizers at one of the great local restaurants.  We decided on Not Your Average Joe's.

This was the best decision for the evening we could have made.  I have long been a fan of Not Your Average Joe's in Westborough.  Another casual, kid friendly restaurant that serves great food.  I spent a lot of lunches last summer at NYA Joe's and got to know Seth Caplan, the general manager.  Beyond the bread there is a lot to like about NYA Joe's in Westborough.  But tonight I found something new.  NYA Joe's can help save you money.

As I walked in I was greeted by Seth.  I mentioned we were stopping in to have appetizers before a movie and he asked if we had bought our tickets yet.  Maybe I am the only one who didn't know this, but you can buy movie passes for the Westborough cinema with your meal at Not Your Average Joe's...and they cost $7.50.  I know it is only a total of $6 savings for my wife and I but it felt great.  I was ecstatic and it set the tone for a great evening.

I also found out that if you bring your ticket stubs into Not Your Average Joe's after the movie, they will give you a 15% discount on your after movie meal.  I have to add these as others reasons I love NYA Joe's in Westborough:
  • I think I mentioned the bread before... but just to reiterate, I love the bread.
  • Across the menu, the entrees are great.  And it seems Seth is constantly refining the menu, adding new specials and creating new dishes.   I used to stick with a few basic items when I went out to eat.  Over the past couple of years I have been trying more specials, and 90% of the time I have been pleased.  Last summer I tried the Chicken Oscar when it was a special.  NYA Joe's Chicken Oscar is amazing, and has now become one of my favorites. 
  • Here is the most important point.  Service.  This is what this blog is all about, finding great experiences in the local area.  I have been to NYA Joe's at least 15 times over the past two years.  I have never experienced poor service at the Westborough restaurant.  It didn't matter is I was there for lunch, dinner, or late night...a full meal or drinks and appetizers at the bar.  I consistently have a great experience.  From the hostess to the servers, the bartender to Seth himself, it is obvious that everyone cares about my experience when I am there.  I had been putting together a short video for the Taste of the Boroughs event about Not Your Average Joe's in Westborough.  Here you can hear it from Seth, his staff, and patrons directly.

As for our evening, after appetizers we had a great time at the movies.  A true local date night made not your average with the help of Seth and the team at Not Your Average Joe's in Westborough.