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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review: Cup of Joe

Located in Cedar Falls’ thriving downtown Main Street is Cup of Joe.  Eccentric and proud of it, this eco-friendly coffeeshop is lined with repurposed 50’s style tables, sofas, and chairs.  A green-certification award displayed on a shelf above the brews means that Cup of Joe has taken numerous steps to reduce waste including its use of colorful, mis-matched Fiestaware.  Socially conscious customers have fair trade options to select including flavored teas from Republic of Tea.

The staff is as perky as their strongest brew and quick to remember customer names and their regular drinks and treats.   Upon my first visit, employee Sarah took the time to introduce herself, ask my name and make me feel welcomed into Cup of Joe.  My next visit, and hundreds of customers later, Sarah greeted me by first name and asked if I wanted another double soy latte with sugar-free vanilla.  After punching my card where I can prepay 7 drinks and get an 8th free (large soy with flavor ~$5), she hand delivered my coffee over to the table I had made camp at.  No matter what time of day or night I visit Cup of Joe, the excellent customer service is consistent.   And not only is the customer service exceptional, but they are some of the hardest working baristas I have ever seen, constantly cleaning and restocking.  

The retro style décor pairs well with ever-changing art for sale featuring local artists.  Local musicians showcase their talent with live jazz every Thursday and varied artists on Friday and Saturday nights.  Eclectic customers range from the young artist searching for inspiration to the weekday retiree reading the Waterloo Courier.  Nearly half of the clientele on any given day or time is devoted regulars and the other half are those just discovering or passing through downtown Cedar Falls. 

The staff is friendly, the culture is open-minded, and the owner is socially responsible with visible business practices that reflect those values.  Product choices suit the customer wishing for a simple basic brew to more diverse needs such as organic, vegan, low fat, or Coke in a glass bottle special requests.  My favorite go-to-drinks include: delicious sugar-free vanilla double-soy latte, sugar-free vanilla-raspberry Italian soda, and hot apple cider.  You really can't go wrong with any of the sweet treats but my ultimate favorite is their no-bake cookie.  The clinking of spoons scraping saucers to get every last morsel of baked-good attest to the deliciousness of bakery goods sourced from an independent local baker.  I choose to keep coming back to Cup of Joe because, to me, it is the embodiment of happiness in the Cedar Valley.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: Kickstand Espresso Bar

Kickstand Espresso Bar (at Belmond & Clark)
Kickstand Espresso Bar is the one of the few independent coffee shops in the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago and is the only one with a hint of quirky personality.  It was the brainchild of the owners of Dollop and Noble Tree.  Located near the busy Belmont train station there is plenty of opportunity for me to sip on my java and people watch.  The owners were brave to place their shop across from the 24 hour coffee king Starbucks, which I must admit, has a slightly better location for the avid coffee-drinking-people-watcher.

Beautiful latte art at Kickstand!
But what Starbucks does not have that Kickstand does is Chicago running through its veins.  Metropolis coffee is brewed along with local food and pastry suppliers including Hoosier Mama Pie Company and Southport Grocery and Café.  The selection is somewhat limited but what is available is quality, generous in portion, reasonably priced, and most importantly delicious.  I enjoyed a perfectly chewy chocolate chip cookie that was more than I could eat (and that's saying a lot)!

My baseline order that I use to gauge quality at the coffee shops is a soy latte with sugar-free vanilla.  The Metropolis beans were ground right after ordering and the flavor was deliciously strong.  Kickstand seems to be a little lighter than Starbucks and Caribou on syrup flavorings, which allows the latte lover to truly appreciate the flavor of the bean.  The foam (which any true latte devotee can acclaim is the best part!) was the perfect depth and artistically adorned with heart latte art crafted by the barista.   Need your coffee to go?  The to-go cups are simply beautiful with a blue Kickstand hand-stamped logo on a plain white paper cup and Metropolis-proud sleeve.

Re-purposed soda crate espresso bar and bowling alley floor table.
An old mosaic tiled floor, re-purposed furniture and décor, old-school radiator heat, and two antique bicycles hanging on the walls create a funky, hipster-loving atmosphere.  The espresso bar was fashioned out of old soda crates and the low top tables out of an old bowling lane.  The lighting is urban chic with industrial or (non-functional) wire shades.  Walls are “wainscoted” with re-purposed Ace Hardware yardsticks.  Seating is somewhat limited although I have never had difficulty finding a seat during afternoon hours.  High-tops, tabletop, espresso bar, and window seating are available but due to the extreme high traffic in this area, outdoor seating is not available.  (If you are looking to enjoy your java alfresco, the nearest option is Broadway’s Intelligentsia a few blocks over and down).

Window seating ripe for people-watching!
Now, it is time for the nitty-gritty need-to-know details.  Although patrons receive 90 free minutes of wi-fi it is quite slow and will test your patience.  Speed is not a virtue at Kickstand either, but quality of product and craftsmanship allows me to gracefully overlook this flaw.  Staff does not ask to punch your loyalty card (buy 9 get one free) so it is all-to-easy to forget to get credit for your purchase.  However, if you forget your card and remember to ask for a punch they will let you combine your cards.  And the final crux of why my café dollars sometimes migrate to Starbucks: fairly short coffee-shop hours from 7am to 9pm.  Overall, however, this funky independent java house produces a high-quality product from local suppliers that is reasonably priced AND has an eco-conscious philosophy that keeps me coming back.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: Kit Kat Lounge

The Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club is located on Halstead in the Lakeview community in Chicago.  In an area of Chicago saturated with sports-themed beer-drinking bars, an establishment with flair and a full martini list was welcomed by me. 

Front room of the Kit Kat Lounge
The atmosphere is glitzy and fabulous with chandeliers hanging from the fleur de lis papered ceilings.  The lighting sets the mood for social fun and meet-ups.  Five projectors display glitzy Old-Hollywood movies such as Sigfield Follies and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 

But the real entertainment begins after 7.  Every 20 minutes a stiletto-wearing female-impersonating diva comes out to lip-sync a current hit and work the crowd.  This creates a fun and interactive atmosphere since performances are right amongst the crowd.  My choice for seating is along the bar, but tables and comfortable outdoor seating is available. 

Jane Mansfield scallops and Audrey Hepburn steak frites
The food at Kit Kat is excellent in both taste and value.  I enjoyed the Jayne Mansfield: a dish of sweet scallops.  I found it to be the perfect portion of three large scallops, truffle polenta, roasted spring onions, and an artichoke puree.  My friend’s go to entrée is the Steve McQueen: a mushroom-crusted sirloin served with blue cheese fondue pomme pave (think cheese and potato lasagna-yum!) and glazed baby carrots.  Other tasty choices include appetizer choices of Chicken Satay and the Bacon Truffle Mac’N Cheese (an absolute must for mac’n cheese lovers) and the Audrey Hepburn steak frites entrée.

The pink Kit Kat signature martini
There is an extensive martini menu to satisfy any preference and the website does not reflect all of their signature choices.  Gin, vodka, and tequila martini options are endless.  I have worked diligently this summer to try as many as I can and hope they continue to make new seasonal martinis so my quest is never finished!  Topping my list of Kit Kat favorites include The Kit Kat (of course!), Kit Kat Passion, Kit Kat Black, Pomegranate, Girl Scout Cookie, and the Porn Star.  What sets the Kit Kat martini experience apart from other bars is the unique garnishes and fabulous service from bartenders like Simeon who have consistently gone out of their way to make the Kit Kat experience one that keeps me coming back.

Porn Star Martini
This is a gay bar in Lakeview that also attracts parties of all orientations because of the live entertainment and wide martini selection.  There are almost always one or two bachelorette parties going on when I stop in on my usual Monday night.  Saturday nights can be very busy and there is a two-hour table limit. 

Kit Kat Lounge bar seating
Specials run Monday through Friday, but Monday through Wednesday nights are when the best deals are to be had.  The entire food and drink menu is half-off on Mondays, excluding steak.  Tuesday is half-price martinis and tarot card readings by Therese Murphy.  On Wednesdays the martinis are half-price and entrees are buy one get one free making the Kit Kat Lounge a great mid-week date destination.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review: Spyhouse Coffee Shop

Spyhouse Coffee Shop in Midtown area of Minneapolis was everything the independent coffee shop frequenter could ask for.  The red brick exterior and intriguing name lured me in among the variety of coffee house offerings along the strip.  Organic, and locally sourced bakery goods sweetened the glass case at the ordering counter.  As I scanned the blackboard of brews available I was enticed by the Syphouse Carmelita Latte. 

Seductive as its name, the Carmelita was a delight.  I chose a seat along the old bar in a comfortably backed bar stool that embraced my frame inviting me to sit and stay for a while.  The ambiance is a bit mysterious with dim lighting, antique or repurposed décor, and a variety of seating options. 

The crowd varied slightly but overall the population was collegiate with impending finals and young professionals.  This shop will appeal to the coffeehouse aficionado with Spyhouse’s variety of brewing methods including drip, hario pour-over, café solo, and French press.  These options will allow you to choose the perfect blend at the perfect strength and at the perfect price.  

Patrons can feel good about their purchase because of Spyhouse’s selective supply chain relationships.  Choosing a handful of local and US roasters who are independent and quality-committed shows Spyhouses’s commitment to the art of the brew, the local economy, social responsibility, and farm-to-roaster fair business practices. 

I would recommend Spyhouse in Uptown for a casual meet-up or afternoon of blogging.  The Carmilta Latte was delicious and did not disappoint.  The baristas were knowledgeable and hard working.  The atmosphere had all the character a devout coffeehouse customer would expect.  The business practices leave customers with a clean ethical conscience. All evidence indicates that Spyhouse Coffee Shop is worth the Saturday afternoon investigation!  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Restaurant Review: Woolley's Steakhouse

Woolley’s Steakhouse is nestled snugly in the hotel center of Bloomington, Minnesota located in the southern metro area of Minneapolis.  They have an excellent website offering online reservations, but beware the online menu seems to need updating to reflect slight dish changes.  The menu varies slightly depending on seasonal choices made by Chef Peter Christenson who studied at New York’s Culinary Institute of America.

This 25-year-old establishment boasts about their beef, fish, and service.  Of those three claims to fame I will credit them with attentive staff.  We were quickly greeted and seated in at a table along the parameter of the restaurant.  Our server was amiable, professional, and anticipated our every dining need throughout the evening. Wait staff assigned to other tables kept their eyes open for service needs and reflected a strong team atmosphere among the service staff at Woolley’s.

Woolley's Dark Berries Martini
Being the devout martini drinker that I am, I had to try the Dark Berries martini.  This intoxicating potion included a blend of acai, blueberry, black berry, red grape, raspberry and strawberry flavors with the essential Grey Goose base.  My traveling companion ordered his traditional classic martini cleverly named the Dirty Goose that was garnished with three plump blue cheese stuffed olives.  At $8 and $8.50 for our starter drinks, respectively, we were perfectly pleased and started our dining experience off to a promising start.

Woolley's Chicken Caprisi
Committing the cardinal sin of the steakhouse, we ordered entrees other than steak.   We did our research before coming to Woolley’s and knew they touted their seafood menu as proudly as they did their steak selection, so we weren’t afraid to stray off the beaten path.   The menu offered a wide selection for a traditional American palette. I choose the Grilled Salmon priced at $25 and my companion chose the Chicken Caprisi at $18. 

Springtime in Minneapolis

Although the plating of the Grilled Salmon reflected my vision of springtime in the cities, its ability to please stopped at its vibrant coloring.  The salmon was dry and clearly was not fresh or had been pre-cooked to the point of crispiness on the outer edges and overall dryness.  For a restaurant that advertises their culinary skills in seafood, this plate left me disappointed!  The bed of root vegetables including carrots, beets, celery root was a delightful complement but could not make up for the substandard salmon.  The Chicken Caprisi was not the prettiest plating but offered a taste far more pleasing than the salmon.   For overall quality of food compared to pricing, this experience left us feeling shortchanged. 

Woolley's Grilled Salmon
We decided to cut our losses at Woolley’s and pass on the traditional dessert choices.  Rather, we moved up to the bar determined to end our night with a delicious dessert martini.  Service at the bar has potential for improvement.  The bartender was skilled but lacked the charisma to captivate Woolley’s patrons.  I finished the night with a Mocha-tini with Absolute Vanilla, Bailey’s, espresso and a coffee bean garnish.  This was an average drink to punctuate the (at best) average experience at Woolley’s.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Meeting the Challenge: Incorporating Fitness During Travel

With the promise of spring in the Midwest, I readily accepted Angela from Pretty in Orange’s April challenge.  The challenge was simple enough: up your movement by walking more.  Walking is one of my favorite physical activities and I have been eagerly awaiting springs arrival so I could move my fitness outdoors.

Sadly, spring has eluded us with accumulating snow as little as a week ago.  Lucky for me, I know not to trust April in Iowa.  I packed my bags and caught a flight to:
·      Clearwater Beach, Florida
·      New Orleans, Louisiana
·      Memphis, Tennessee, and
·      Playa del Carmen, Mexico
I welcomed the sunshine and change of scenery but was determined to avoid the out-of-this-world eight-pound gain I managed to accomplish in my December travels.  Angela’s challenge seemed to fit in perfectly with my personal determination!

Walking is a simple way for travelers to explore their surroundings while keeping up with their fitness with just a pair of walking shoes for equipment.  While in Clearwater Beach I appreciated the beautiful white sands by enjoying morning and evening strolls along the coastline.  At full resolution of my fitness goals, I also took advantage of the fitness center by logging an hour every day between the treadmill and resistance equipment. The French Quarter lured me into a maze of wrought iron and fleur-de-lis adorned historic streets while being mesmerized for hours at a time by the crystal chandeliers hanging in the antique and art galleries.  Beale Street’s blues had me pacing downtown Memphis ultimately finding an amazing band that commanded my body to move to the beat.  A day trip to the Mayan ruins and the search for the best fresh salsa in the Yucatan was an authentic Mexican quest that got me on my feet with a sense of adventure.

A similarity among all locations was that our accommodations were located within walking distance of nearly everywhere we wished to venture.  Beginning the morning with a leisurely walk to the coffee shop began the daily goal to adding more walking into my regime.  Additional walks to and from happy-hour and dinner helped put a dent in the calories we had consumed.  Live music drew us in and wooed us to dance along.  The ocean beckoned its land locked friend to let her feet kiss the surf for miles on end.

As my vacation season comes to an end I can look back with a sense of accomplishment and self-discipline.  This was the first year of my twenty-eight years I have incorporated fitness in my travels.  Incorporating more walking into my leisure-life was as natural as it was fulfilling.