Restaurant Review: Yama

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Ever since I moved to Morgantown, there has been a single restaurant that I will always hold above the rest.  That restaurant is Yama.  I am a complete sucker for Japanese food, and Yama is all about Japanese food.   They don’t specialize in high-end cuisine.  Yama is all about mom’s home cooking, washoku style.

The owner and head chef is known only as Yama-san, a smiling, older gentleman on the other side of the window, always busy cooking something tasty.  When you step into Yama, he will be the first to smile and greet you, and he will be the last to thank you for your patronage as you leave.  You place your order at the front desk, and pay with cash, and cash only.  This particular trip I was looking to have something cool and refreshing, as it was 80F outside (in March!)  I chose my old standby, the spicy tuna roll.  I also ordered up some takoyaki and some miso soup to sip.

The waitress brought me  glass of water and my miso soup, then my entree and appetizer shortly after.

Let’s start with the tasty, tasty miso soup.  Yama is where I was introduced to miso and their miso soup will always be my favorite.  It’s made with shiro miso in a dashi base, with silken tofu, wakame seaweed, and scallions tossed in.  It’s always piping hot when it gets to you and is designed to sip straight from the bowl.  The waitress refilled my soup a couple times while I was there, on the house.  Delicious stuff and full of antioxidants.  I like to make it at home.

Next is the takoyaki.  Takoyaki is street food in Japan.  It is like American hotdogs that you get from a food cart.  That’s not to disparage takoyaki, because it’s delicious, but it is very much street vendor food.  It is made with a batter, with scallions, benishoga, and tempura bits, poured into oiled half-sphere molds over high heat.  Pieces of cooked octopus are then dropped in and the batter is rolled in the mold until it cooks into a golden brown sphere.  It is served with Kewpie mayo, Bulldog sauce, more benishoga, and aonori.  It might sound exotic, but it’s really not.  I highly recommend it!  I like mine with lots of sauce.

Finally, let us discuss our entree.  I adore Yama’s spicy tuna roll.  Much of the spicy tuna rolls in Morgantown are made with shredded tuna rather than whole chunks, as Yama does.  The shredded tuna version tends to be mushy and lacking, but Yama uses firm, whole tuna in his rolls.  It is rolled with cucumber, with tobiko roe mixed into the rice.  It is then topped with a delicious spicy mayo.  Absolutely wonderful.   Yama serves a lot of it, too.  Each plate averages about ten to twelve rolls, which is easily a meal on it’s own.

Absolutely delicious!  And the color is gorgeous.  I apologize for the less-than-stellar iPhone picture, but my dSLR threw a fit in the low-lighting.

There are many more things I love about this restaurant.  They have a pretty large menu given how small the restaurant is, with authentic ramen, soba, udon, donburi, and appetizers.  They also have ice cream desserts, namely mochi ice cream and green tea ice cream, my personal favorite.  Everything is available to-go upon request.

I have and always will give Yama an A+, and will return as often as I can!

Yama on Urbanspoon

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Restaurant Review: Naticakes

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I kind of fell out of the habit of doing restaurant reviews, because lately when I’ve been out to eat, it’s been with a group of friends.  I don’t want to be bothered when I’m entertaining or being social.  However, I was out and about in the (abnormally) glorious weather the other day and was walking around Suncrest Town Centre when I decided to pop into Naticakes.

Naticakes bills itself as a frozen yogurt bar, and is a satellite location to their main store in Lexington, Kentucky.  The chain is named after young Natalie Wynn Carter, a lovely little girl whose smiling face is on their about page and is peeking in various photos throughout the store.  Sadly, young Natalie passed away at 23 months old of a blocked coronary.  Her aunt, Nicole Sloan, was inspired to raise money for the foundation started in Natalie’s honor, and decided the best way to do it was to sell cupcakes.  It took off from there to include frozen yogurt, and became a smash hit, raising one million dollars for the Natalie Wynn Carter foundation to benefit children all over the world.

It’s an inspiring story, and I can certainly get behind stuffing my face with tasty frozen yogurt for the benefit of little kids.  (I’m sure they’d approve of my method.)  I stopped in, asked the manager on duty if he was okay with me snapping pictures, then went to work.

The first thing I noticed about this location is the lovely decor.  The inside is awash with light, cheery colors and upbeat wall hangings.  The tables and accents are very kitschy, all in distressed cream colors.  It was charming and inviting, to be sure.  Even the table I ate at was a door painted and roughed up, then put on legs!  It was pretty neat.

Naticakes of Morgantown boasts an impressive selection of frozen yogurt readily available on tap.  They’re labeled with kitschy signs and the middle handle is a swirl of the two on either side of it.  Very neat!

In the name of research I grabbed a bowl of got a nice swirl of pomegranate raspberry and mango.  Peculiar flavors for frozen yogurt, no?  I then headed over to the toppings bar.

Modest with a wide variety of ingredients, ranging from junk food like Swedish Fish and cake chunks to more healthy toppings such as fresh pineapple and blueberries.  I sprinkled some coconut flakes on mine, with some granola, strawberries, and blueberries.

The awesome thing about Naticakes is your final cost is done by weight.  No gouging when it comes to toppings.  Just plop your bowl of fro-yo on the scale at the end of the line, and they figure the cost from the weight of your cup.  For a substantial cup of frozen yogurt with some toppings, my bill came to roughly four dollars.  Not bad!

Have a look at these colors!

Even the yogurt is cheerful.  The topping ingredients were so fresh too.  Look at this blueberry!

All in all, it was absolutely delicious.  The mango and pomegranate raspberry swirl complimented each other nicely.  It was the perfect amount of sweetness, without any sort of chemical flavors or taste of refrigerant that you occasionally get at soft-serve machines.  Just simple, delicious fro-yo.  The toppings were fresh and tasty.  Overall, this is probably the best bowl of frozen yogurt I have ever had, and I love me some fro-yo.  I want to return as soon as I can to try their other flavors, and I absolutely plan on doing so.

Naticakes is a unique break from the normal fast food places in Morgantown, and a healthy competitor to Cold Stone Creamery.  I would encourage anyone I know to visit and try everything.  It is also my understanding that this store will soon boast an assortment of cupcakes sometime in February, sticking with the original spirit of Naticakes.  I look forward to it!  A+ establishment!

Naticakes on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Review: Lavender Cafe

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Of all of the restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, one shines among 5-star restaurants and upscale eateries.  It is a very humble restaurant, burrowed into a rundown building on Beechhurst Ave in Morgantown.  That restaurant is Lavender Cafe.

Lavender Cafe is a Taiwanese restaurant.  It is the only Taiwanese restaurant in town, and in the few short years it has been around, it has been an amazing success story.  It replaced a small Chinese takeout place, and completely remodeled the inside, painting the walls bright colors, putting in nice tables and chairs, and rolling out a large and diverse menu.  In a town with multiple greasy Chinese takeout places, Lavender shines like a beacon, providing tasty Asian-style dishes without the grease and careless put-together.

The menu is a mix of American-Chinese (like General Tso’s Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork), real Chinese, some Japanese, some Korean, and some Taiwanese cuisine.  They also offered a variety of bubble teas.  Later on, after enjoying great success, Lavender Cafe expanded into the neighboring unit and opened a modest sushi bar.  The restaurant is consistently packed.

Mat and I have been going to this restaurant roughly since they opened.  We watched the restaurant grow in it’s success, then expand both it’s store front and it’s menu, and eventually offering delivery through phone and DubVMenus.com.  We have eaten there so much that we are greeted warmly by the staff, and they often stop at our table to chat.  They know our favorites and preferences.  We always feel welcome there.

The food is always piping hot by the time it reaches us, and the plating is artistic and makes the meal appear even more delicious.  They will bring side plates for you and those you are eating with, if you would like, so you can share.  The food is perfectly spiced, and there was never a dish I’ve eaten off their menu that was badly done.  I didn’t always like the taste of the meal, though that is no fault of the restaurants, merely my own palate.  Ingredients are always fresh.  Prices are reasonable.  Everything is perfect.

I am fond of the Shrimp Wonton Noodle Soup, which is apparently Taiwanese.  It hits the spot in the cold West Virginia winters, and it comes in generous portions.  It is made with firm egg noodles, baby bok choy, and wontons made with shrimp and pork, all in a rich broth.  I snapped a picture at Lavender the last time I was there.

Mat is fond of the Assorted Meat and Vegetable Hot Pot.  This dish is one of their finer masterpieces.  Your entree arrives in front of you still sizzling in an earthenware pot.  The veggies are still crisp and delicious, while the meats are cooked to perfection, all in a rich sauce that compliments each portion of the dish.

I apologize for the crappy iPhone pics, but I don’t normally carry my camera.

The only problem with Lavender Cafe is the parking.  Lavender Cafe shares parking with the neighboring Papa Johns and Campus Cuts.  The parking lot is small to begin with, and on nights where Lavender is boasting a great night, parking can be scarce.  The idea of parking elsewhere is a scary thought in Morgantown, with tow trucks prowling like wolves.  The staff say you can park behind the building, but parking there is not clearly marked, and it makes me anxious to park there.

All in all, I highly recommend Lavender Cafe.  The dishes are superb and reasonably priced for generous portions.  The restaurant decor is relaxing and cheery, and the staff are all very welcoming.  This is the place to go.

Lavender Cafe on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Review: Todai – Fairfax, VA

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Last month Mat and I went to Fairfax, Virginia to see Mastodon, Deftones, and Alice in Chains in concert.  (It was awesome, by the way.)  While there, I wanted to try every restaurant.  Unfortunately, we were only there for a weekend, and there are a lot of restaurants in Fairfax and Washington, DC, so we only got to sample a few.  One of those restaurants was Todai, a sushi buffet located in the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax.

When doing my research about this restaurant, I discovered that it’s not a very large chain at all.  They are a smattering over locations in the United States and some in Asia, but compared to other major chains, Todai is not a big league player.  This made me even more curious, as large chains often lose something, whether it be presentation, flavor, or uniqueness, in the pursuit of cost cutting and attempts to make it palatable to everyone.  I asked Mat if we could go (since he is the driver and all) and he said we’d go before we left town.

So, after packing up and checking out of our hotel, we drove over to the Fair Oaks Mall and headed into Todai.  It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  It’s a oblong room with the buffets against the back wall.  It’s impressive though.  Along with sushi and sashimi, Todai also boasts a dessert island, a salad section, a soup section, and a hot food section.  We were seated and our server took our drink order, and we were free to go.

I picked out some hot food and some sushi my first go around.  I must say, my first plate of food was rather scrumptious.  My gyoza were still nice and hot, and the dipping sauce provided complimented it very well.  The sushi I had picked up from the extensive choices laid out was still firm and tasty.  The rice was still fluffy, not hard from having been laying out for too long.  And the sushi does go fast, which is quickly replaced.  Behind the buffet were four sushi chefs hard at work.

I tried a little bit of mostly everything, with a few exceptions (such as rolls with cream cheese, as I don’t much enjoy sushi with cream cheese).  I sipped some very tasty miso soup while I did.  I quickly got stuffed on tasty sushi.

I did run into a minor problem, which is no fault of Todai’s.  In my effort to try something new, I picked up some nigiri sushi of a variety I had not tried before.  I took a bite, and it did not agree with me at all.  My stomach lurched, and I discretely spit the sushi into a napkin, then drank a ton of water.  It was enough to cause my body to completely revolt, and I could not fathom eating more.  I’ve never had anything like it happen, and I can’t remember what it was that I ate that caused this, but again, this is not fault of Todai, rather just my reaction.

The bill for lunch on a Monday was very reasonable.  Considering, between us, we sampled pretty much every roll, and plenty of the hot food, and our comparable bill in a made-to-order sushi restaurant would have been considerably more.  The dinner prices are stiff, though, so if you can make it to lunch I recommend it.

If, for some reason, I was in Fairfax again, I would not hesitate to go back to Todai’s.  The service was great, and food was good, and the layout was well done.  I’d love to go back sometime.

Todai on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Review: No. 1 Super Chinese Buffet

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Mat and I always gripe about how Morgantown, for all its Chinese food places, has no decent buffet.  I mean, there are okay ones, like Great Chinese Buffet, at the Mountaineer Mall, and then there are “meh” places like Evergreen Buffet at The University Town Center.  Nothing we rave about, though.

Over by Ruby memorial, the Suncrest Towne Center was built (a new commercial development near the hospital, and currently houses a strip mall, a McDonalds, a Hilton, a Sonic, a HUGE Kroger, a bank, and a cardiology and oncology building, and plenty more is springing up). Mat and I took a walk to see if we could figure out what was going in the various lots.  We know a second Jimmy Johns is going in, then there is Carmona’s, Ledo Pizza, a US Cellular, a Korean nail place….and a Chinese buffet.  Jackpot!  It opened on the 16th.  We penciled it into our schedules, especially since they advertised in the Daily Athenaeum, the WVU student newspaper, that they would be knocking 15% off your total as a grand opening special.

So we pulled up on Thursday, and walked in.

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Restaurant Review: Carmona’s Cocina

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After going out to grocery shop (always a joyous occasion in my book) Mat and I were walking back to the car, discussing dinner plans when I glanced over yonder at the new Mexican restaurant that had just opened up on the new strip, next to Ledo Pizza.  It’s called Carmona’s Cocina, and I’d been eyeballing it ever since the sign went up.  I remarked to Mat that we should give it a shot.  He paused, agreed, and we put the groceries in the car to walk across and get some chow.

The first thing I noticed about the restaurant was the interior.  It’s nice!  It has a rustic feel to it, with a number of tables surrounded by pleather and wood chairs.  It looked like someone built these chairs by hand, made with left over wood and branches.  Sounds weird, but it’s rather charming.  The interior was decorated with paintings and artworks of a (dher) Mexican theme, but instead of the typical pictures of a Mexican man in a sombrero strumming a guitar, there are elaborate scenes of Mexican society, children playing, desert scapes, and so on.  There were even some really neat statues of what appears to be upper-crust aristocratic women, but upon closer inspection, they’re skeletons!  I love anything about Dia de los Muertos, so I was tickled pink by these accents.

However, I was kind of expecting a full-service restaurant.  This place, while charming and kitschy in a cute way, had a set up almost exactly like Chico’s Fat or Qdoba.  That is, walk up to the counter, order something, they make it, wrap it, and put it on a tray for you.  You get a drink, fill it from the fountain, and go eat.  I was kind of disappointed, but I vowed to continue my quest for chow.

Mat walked up and got a burrito with steak.  The girl behind the counter was very nice, and explained anything on the mu and answered out questions with a smile.  When she started to assemble Mat’s burrito, he paused and asked if he could get black beans instead of rice.  She replied they only had re-fried beans, so Mat opted out of the beans all together.  He got a fountain drink along with his meal.

I ordered a shredded chicken chimichanga, which is basically a burrito, deep fried.  I got rice and re-fried beans on the side, along with some lettuce and sour cream, to go with my chimichanga.  The meals can with (plastic) silverware wrapped in a napkin, and a little bag of corn tortilla chips with salsa.  Nice touch!  I whipped out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures.

And now for the taste test.

I was disappointed.  My chimichanga was overbearingly salty, and I’m a salt fiend.  I love salt.  It goes on everything.  But this chimichanga was too salty, even for me.  I ate about half, even trying to see if I could mellow it out with some sour cream (which didn’t work.)  Ultimately I asked Mat if he wanted it.  He offered to let me try his burrito, and it was okay.  A lot better than my chimichanga.  He tried my meal, and after chewing for a bit, said he understood why I thought it was rather salty.

I got a to-go box, and Mat and I made our way out.  We agreed that Carmona’s Cocina was simply another burrito joint.  It looked promising, but it simply didn’t measure up.  Hell, I vastly prefer Qdoba to Carmona’s, especially because Qdoba makes a mean veggie burrito, but that’s another review for another time.

I give Carmona’s Cocina two and a half stars.  One star for atmosphere (I wish I had taken my camera to take pictures), one star for pretty good service, but only half a star for lackluster cuisine.

Carmona's Cocina Mexicana on Urbanspoon