Novel Research

No, not hey hey it’s novel to do research (which it kind of is).

More like, researching to write a novel. These are the things I need to know about: Pig Farming in the late 40s and early 50s. Women in the military in WWII, what they would have been doing in France. Women’s health and birthing politics in France in the early 50s. The rest of it I know about: bad romantic choices, guilt, and too much working.

Here are the characters so far:

There have to be children and other lovers.

This story will honor my grandma, my dad’s mom. She was a before-her-time kind of feminist, but would never have called herself one. She was proud and smart. She was someone to admire.

The Pig’s Ear Pub

The Pig’s Ear is a study in contradictions. It is over on Westminster Drive near Sheetz, the Econo Lodge, and The Loyal Plaza. It is a down-home style place with all the good feelings of a small, locally owned restaurant—complete with black and white, historic Williamsport photo prints on the walls—that sits in one of the most homogenized areas in our town. I assumed it was an English Style pub, but it is not. The best notion I have of the food is that it is Cajun Influenced. Soul Food meets Bar Snacks.

When my girlfriends invited me to Jon Mackey’s Quizzo at the Pig’s Ear on a Thursday night, I expected a less bar-like atmosphere. With the requisite neon Beer ads adorning the walls, a gauche hanging Miller Light bottle, Yuengling clock, and a pool table; the elegantly designed menu that is chock full of lovely eats was surprising. The offerings range in price from $4-$15.
Spanning two visits, I sampled a variety of sandwiches and appetizers. My dinner companions all gave me a bite. I’ll start with the highlights. Top three: Pig’s fries, Wedge Salad, and Crab Dip. These are pretty common things on a pub menu, but Pig’s Ear spins them right.

The Pig Fries were white potatoes and sweet potatoes mixed up, all dressed up in Cajun Seasoning and served with a little dipping cup of their Horseradish Aioli. The Aioli is perfect in its ratio of horseradish to mayo, and it stands up, too. So there’s got to be a little boost in there—maybe some sour cream? Anyway, they came out piping hot (and did both times), and the Cajun spice with the sweet potatoes and cool zest of the Aioli sent me on this joy ride of flavors. I was delighted.

In restaurant salads, temperature is all. Do not ask me for $9 and then bring me some wilting lettuce with spare toppings swimming in oil. The Wedge salad was ice cold veggies with room temperature dressing and bacon. A massive wedge of iceberg with an exact proportion of tomatoes, bleu cheese dressing, bacon and red onions arrived on a UFO of a square, white plate. Every bite had every ingredient, and the Blue Cheese Dressing was divine: a mild, creamy base with generous, large chunks of blue cheese. Best part was the price, $6.

The Crab Dip is uncanny, and also priced surprisingly at $9. An unbelievable portion of real lump crab, sweet and buttery, baked in a shallow casserole with cheeses and seasonings that, while I am unable to discern which they were, were a brilliant combination. The crab dip did not lack where others do—relying on the crab and cream cheese to carry them—it was rich and flavorful and comforting, scooped up with salty tortilla chips, and the chips did not war with the dip, threatening to overcome its decadence: it was a union. The minor disappointment in our first portion of this delight was that the tortilla chips appeared to be store-bought. Our second foray into crab divinity came with house made chips.

In other excellently rendered items, the slow-cooked meat sandwiches were incredible. The pork sandwich comes drizzled with this herbed aioli, the Chicago style beef with au jus is not too peppery, and not too dry.

The flash fried shrimp were tender and sweet and butterflyed, an accomplishment when deep frying.

The Italian deli sandwich has a pile of meat in it that is, again, just right. But I was not fond of the roll. With the slow cooked meats, the juices settle into the bread and the heftier, drier bread is perfection. With the cold cuts, I wanted a moister roll. Still, I do not condemn the sandwich.
Everyone at The Pig’s Ear is friendly, but our service was not the best. Of course, the servers appeared to be a bit busier than they expected to be, and even though they were harried, they were friendly and gracious and adequate.

The dining area is kind of awkwardly arranged around the billiards, but it works for the Pig’s Ear: it keeps with what seems to be their charming tradition of identity crisis. The sandwiches and fries are served in these vaguely modern black baskets with handles that double as the perfect rest for the soufflé cup of sauce or dip that comes with almost everything. The plates are big, modern, clean-edged circles and squares. The tables are clothed in white, there are white napkins, and white, paper placemats. The furniture is painted black wood, and the booths have black vinyl. The walls are a rustic shade of red.

So to the Pig’s Ear, I award five capers for simply excellent, well priced food, four capers for atmosphere that, while incongruous, is welcoming, and 3 capers for service. Overall, a four caper place. I’ll look for you there.

Franco’s Lounge

Before Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Community Arts Center, our cadre that had dwindled to a pair appeared for our reservation at Franco’s Lounge downtown on West Fourth. It was my first time. I was pumped. I’d heard such great things, especially about the duck tenders.

I am fond of appetizers, and generally would prefer to make a meal of them. Smaller portions, bigger flavors. My like-minded companion and I ordered a spread of appetizers, deciding on four. Of course, the duck tenders with raspberry sauce were the first selection. Then after much sighing and discussion that we would prefer to order all, we chose the fried pickles, the Tamari grilled shrimp and the Tomato and Pesto Bruschetta.

The fried pickles were astonishing, the Tamari Shrimp was deliciously smoky, perfectly done. And since Franco’s is legendary, and since most folks I’ve talked to have only fine things to say, it is with reservation and a bit of sadness that I report my first experience with Franco’s was more than a notch below expectation.

The Bruschetta was what they call peasant bread thickly sliced and topped with sauce and cheese and it was served warm. To me, this is bread pizza or cheese bread. Bruschetta is generally thinner toast served with cold meats, tapenades, and/or veggies. The much praised sauce that came with the “bruschetta” was nice, but didn’t blow back my hair the way I wanted it to. Also, there was not enough pesto involved in the dish to merit pesto as part of its name.

The duck tenders, however, were true stinkers. Dry and spongy and, to my mouth, inexcusably flavorless, especially when we were presented with about eight small, slender tenders that cost $9. The portion of raspberry sauce was generous and flavorful—a nice fusion of sweet and spicy—but could not excuse the general unpleasantness.

Having made my living in restaurants for two thirds of my working years this far, I am often loath to complain about anything. The duck merited a mention to our server. Instead of whisking away the platter and replacing it with a better prepared one, our server explained to us that “that’s how the tenders are supposed to be,” and asked us if we didn’t like the raspberry sauce.
She said she would “talk to [someone]” about it, but when she unceremoniously cleared our table and presented our check, there was no evidence that that had been any talking.

Here are the things that are excellent: Franco’s tap beers, the atmosphere, and half of the food
we ate. The draught selection is diverse and exciting, spanning IPAs to Wheats to Lambic. The place is tiny and intimate and simply lovely. Our server was friendly enough, but did not handle our dissatisfaction with any sort of grace; nor was she especially attentive.

So to Franco’s, I give 2.5 capers for food, 2 capers for service and 5 capers for atmosphere. That makes Franco’s a 3.17 caper stop. I will try again, but probably not soon.

The James Food Review

The way The James hides in a cozy concrete corner downtown epitomizes the enveloping homeyness I associate with Williamsport. The Pine Street facade is unassuming, and any
evidence that The James is inside the Holiday Inn is delightfully subtle.

The atmosphere is lovely—low amber lighting and sturdy, cherry-stained tables are arranged in an open space in the main area of the restaurant. Even so, the feeling is intimate.

The menu comes in two pieces. The main page has soup, small plates, toasts, pasta, large plates. The smaller page has sushi: cut rolls, hand rolls, sashimi, and salad. Perhaps providing two separate menus is meant to explain the lack of continuity in the menu since, aside from three of the large plates (Asian Lacquered Ahi, Miso and Mirin Glazed Salmon, Pancetta Wrapped Hamachi) that invoke Japanese flavors, the sushi feels out of place.

The offerings are a mix-up of Japanese fusion; Italian fusion with a preponderance of tomato, mozzarella, and pasta; and some American superstars like a Bacon Cheeseburger, Cowboy Steak, and Cobb Salad. The small plates include Roasted Crab Dip, Panzanella, and Jumbo Hot Wings.

After our server took the order, we were presented with a plate of bread and seasoned oil. The oil itself was nice, but heavy with dried oregano, sage, crushed red pepper, and basil. It was odd to me that the herbs were just plopped into the oil as opposed to being infused by heating, then strained and garnished. The bread was not extraordinary. It was a tad stale around the edges and lacked salt. Our bread course foreshadowed the rest of our meal, which fell a notch below expectation.

I ordered the Chicken Agnolotti from the pasta section. The description read, “caper and Limoncello cream sauce”. What arrived were four large agnolotti swimming in cream sauce with capers, oddly sans garnish. The capers were briny and sharp in just the right way, but the sauce lacked its purported Limoncello component. The agnolotti were filled with plain, shredded chicken which was not seasoned. The pasta was made in-house but lacked the fresh and tender lightness I expected. The dish, taken as a whole, was boring.

My date ordered the Chipped Tenderloin Toast, which consisted of sautéed beef chunks nestled in a long French roll and a sauce that invoked gravy via cheese. The beef had a nutty, browned flavor, but the cheese-gravy was uninspired. The roll was nice: the crust crisp and the dough chewy, but the real treat of this plate was the eggplant fries. These were strips of eggplant, battered and deep-fried and served with ketchup, which I found to be unnecessary. The delicate tang of the eggplant was not overcome by the batter or by old frying oil. They were perfectly crisp. I liked them so much I opted not to finish my dinner and had a side order of the fries (which were surprisingly inexpensive at $1.50).

While the fare was moderately priced, in the $9 to $24 range with a side salad costing $3, I found the website’s claim of “fine dining in a casual atmosphere” to be a bit off. The food we sampled was satisfactory but not exemplary, certainly not on par with other fine dining. One does not have to dress or make reservations.

Fortunately, there is more to a dining experience than the food. Our server was pleasant and quick and our food was served extra-hot. We both ordered the Brown Ale, which was lovely. The restaurant was comfortable and pretty; the luminaries and hanging lights were shaded with natural pulp paper. The dinnerware, though incongruous with some of the atmospheric elements, were these beautiful, heavy, white, elongated rectangular vessels. The flatware had a nice heft and squared edges that matched nicely with the plates.

While some restaurant reviewers award stars, I will use capers. Out of a five-caper system, I will use the average from three categories. For Service, I give 4 capers for the superb speed and food temperature. For atmosphere, I give 3.5 capers, owing to the paradoxical elements but general comfort and prettiness. For the food, there can only be 2.5 capers. Overall, then, I award The James 3-1/3 capers.