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AJ’s Cafe | Columbus, OH

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AJ’s Cafe (Facebook / @AjaysCafe)
152 E. State St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 223-3999
Open Mon-Fri, 7:30a-3p; Sat, 11a-5p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

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We were very sad when Taj Mahal Indian Restaurant closed last fall; it was a favorite stop for Indian food, and a regular place to take out-of-town visitors. (It’s since been replaced by the also-good Mughal Darbar.) One of our favorite things about Taj was being greeted by Ajay Kumar. Ajay’s family owned the restaurant; his father started it over 25 years ago, and it was one of the first Indian restaurants in Columbus. Ajay shared an especially warm welcome and a friendly handshake, and we were especially sad to lose that when the restaurant closed.

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Fortunately for us (and the rest of Columbus, I guess), Ajay has worked his way back toward opening his own cafe – AJ’s Cafe downtown. While it’s not exclusively an Indian restaurant, he’s still up to a lot of good things, he’s still offering the welcoming smile, and some Indian flavors have naturally crept onto the menu.

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The cafe is in a good-sized space at the corners of State St. and North Fourth St. (formerly the C-Town Market). It’s a couple blocks east of the Ohio Statehouse, and is easily visible while jetting up Fourth (Fourth is one-way, but State is two-way). There’s plenty of metered parking lining the streets.

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As you might expect from a downtown cafe, the focus is on simpler grab-and-go items. Expect to see quickly-made hot sandwiches and wraps + pre-made cold sandwiches. This is in addition to assorted bagels, drinks and some locally baked snacks.

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Ajay serves Upper Cup Coffee from nearby Olde Towne East.

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He also makes a ginger spiced chai, a hot concoction of black tea, milk, and spices like ginger and cardamom.

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On our two visits to the cafe, we tried both breakfast and lunch dishes. Ajay was especially proud to show off a house-made potato salad, which is seasoned perfectly. I love me some potato salad, and this was up there with some of the best I’ve had.

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We combined some breakfast and lunch (there’s got to be a word for that) with the zen wrap and the lentil and spinach soup. The wrap mixes rice, spinach, lentils, sliced carrots and apples, and a tamarind-cilantro vinaigrette. It’s a nice refreshing combination – I think it needed a little more vinaigrette. The soup is rich but light-bodied and little lemony. Both dishes are vegan, too!

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The bacon and egg wrap is just what it sounds like: a wrap with scrambled eggs, cheese, and bacon. Simple but well executed.

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A good example of the Indian flavors making their way onto the menu is the raja wrap. It features tandoori chicken, rice, red onion, jalapenos, and a cilantro chutney familiar from the Taj Mahal days. Other good Indian examples are the CTM wrap, made with chicken tikka masala, and the spiced chickpea wrap. I’m hoping that Ajay can continue to distinguish his cafe with these flavor profiles.

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If Indian food isn’t your favorite (and why isn’t it?!), the cafe offers lunch classics like a corned beef reuben, a turkey meatball sub, a tilapia sandwich, and the Bourbon St. Philly with spicy chicken.

AJ’s Cafe obviously has competition downtown, but it’s close to some crowded buildings, and there’s enough interesting dishes to set it apart from nearby options. And you can’t beat the warm welcome from Ajay and his crew! If anything, we’re glad to have the chance to see him on a regular basis and experience his hospitality again.

Aj's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Shipwreck Grill | Buxton, NC

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Shipwreck Grill (Facebook)
46618 NC Highway 12 (map it!)
Buxton, NC 27920
(252) 995-5548
Open Sun-Thurs, 7a-3p; Fri & Sat, 7a-9p
Accepts cash & debit/credit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.

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One morning on our Outer Banks trip, Mrs. Breakfast w/Nick and I headed out for breakfast together. After stopping at the Gingerbread House Bakery for a quick celebration (it’s the site of the first BwN review), we traveled back up north to Buxton for a full breakfast at the newer Shipwreck Grill. Shipwreck Grill is ideally positioned right at the bend of Highway 12 on the Outer Banks, where the island takes a 90 degree turn to the west, thus creating The Point, an interesting spot where both southern and eastern waves collide. Shipwreck’s location was previously occupied by the Island Perks Diner, and it’s easily visible to catch passing islanders.

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Like many buildings on the OBX, it features a weathered wooden siding.

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The interior is split into several different rooms. Counter service is offered in the entry room. Shipwreck provides coffee, tea, snacks, and to-go meals, a must for busy visitors traveling up and down the Banks.

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In a side room to the right is a small bar with stools.

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To the left is their enclosed patio, a popular commodity on OBX restaurants.

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The breakfast menu is full of seafaring terms: The Landlubber, the Torpedo Burrito, you get the picture. It leans more toward the meat-eaters side of things, although it’s adaptable.

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We started with an iced chai, which was a little heavy on the ice.

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I’m a sucker for a benedict, especially when there’s seafood involved, so I went straight to the crabcake benedict. Unfortunately, this is how it looked when it first arrived, with ham instead of crabcakes. Our server was apologetic and hurried some crabcakes over to us, although judging by the tables around us, that wasn’t the only mistaken ingredient.

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Overall, it was a fine example of a benedict, although not stellar. The poached eggs were overdone, so no runny yolks, and the hollandaise leaned more to the foamy and buttery side that I preferred.

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We also gave the shrimp and grits a try. The grits needed more butter or cheese (or both), but the shrimp were cooked and seasoned properly, and it comes in a fairly generous portion.

I think Shipwreck Grill is another worthy addition to the island’s breakfast scene, even if it’s not completely mind-blowing. Some seafood dishes and the big screened in porch make it a handy stop if you’re exploring the OBX.

Shipwreck Grill on Urbanspoon

Revisit: The Flying Melon Cafe

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During our recent Outer Banks trip (you can read part 1 and part 2 of the culinary highlights), we spent a day on Ocracoke Island. Mrs. Bfast w/Nick and I refer to it as one of our happy places. It’s a small village on the southern end of a long island that’s mostly National Seashore, which means a casual vibe, small town feel, and unspoiled beaches. Last year, we discovered the newly-relocated Flying Melon Cafe on the day of its re-opening, and on our return trip this year, we were eager to bring the rest of the family along to experience their brunch.

On arriving, I noticed the above framed note on the wall. Very cool!

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Overall, we had another superb brunch. They were able to accommodate our large group, and food came out quickly. The brunch menu highlights southern flavors and seafood. Here, for instance, we see a shrimp po-boy with hand-cut fries.

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Or my grillade and grits. Grillade is a New Orleans preparation of seasoned and seared (usually) beef, often ladled with a rich gravy on a bed of cheesy grits.

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New Orleans-style French toast, aka battered and fried French toast. More like a donut, and therefore awesome.

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Even Flying Melon’s take on a NYC specialty is well done, with house-smoked salmon and bagels.

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Or what about these dense sweet potato pancakes?

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Flying Melon gets high marks for their plating, too. Take a look at the shrimp mash, with potatoes, shrimp, sausage, poached eggs, and hollandaise.

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Even their basic breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and toast was well done!

photo 3And finally, the fried green tomato BLT. Just beautiful.

I guess this ranks as a “Sorry, just had to share!” post, but no apologies here. We’ve enjoyed our visits to Flying Melon (as well as nearby Dajio Restaurant). It’s a colorful and welcoming breakfast that utilizes the best ingredients they have around. If you’re traveling the Banks and visit Ocracoke (which you should!), make Flying Melon a brunch stop!

 

Travel: Dining on the Outer Banks – Part 2

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And we’re on to Part 2 of our Outer Banks culinary adventures! (Read Part 1 here.) One morning Mrs. Breakfast With Nick and I ventured south for breakfast, just the two of us. After our first pick wasn’t open during their stated hours (boo), we crept along Highway 12 and found ourselves at the Gingerbread House Bakery. It’s a distinctly-shaped structure in Frisco, serving lots of baked goods and some excellent pizza. It’s also the site of the VERY FIRST Breakfast With Nick review, over seven years ago. (You’re welcome to follow the link to the review, but be kind. I really didn’t know what I was doing then.)

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The Gingerbread House fully embraces their name. To the point that the fences (which are brown) are topped with gingerbread men cut-outs, and the building itself (which is also brown) is dotted with colorful candy.

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We considered this our breakfast pre-game, so we simply ordered some espresso and a couple donuts. (We stopped later for a full breakfast elsewhere – post to come soon!)

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The crew at Gingerbread must run long hours, if they’re working early enough to serve fresh baked goods, while staying open late enough for the dinner crowd.

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If the lines for apple uglies at the Orange Blossom are too long, you’ve got some great donuts one village over at Gingerbread. These are really hard to beat.

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Happy Seventh Anniversary to Breakfast With Nick! Here’s to many more years of good meals and great fun.

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At home, another annual family favorite is a simple crab dip, with cream cheese, lots of fresh crab, and cocktail sauce. Mrs. Breakfast With Nick’s grandmother doesn’t trust the store-bought sauce, so she makes her own.

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Part of the fun of staying in a big house with the family is getting to cook for each other. A couple mornings we made crepes for the fam.

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We learned an easy recipe from our friend Andy at Wild Goose years ago, and it’s served us well.

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Even though we don’t have fancy crepe pans, we’ve learned to use ours just fine.

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For fun, we plated up a couple crepes and iced coffee in the style of Symmetry Breakfast. Symmetry Breakfast is an instagram kindred spirit in London; he plates and photographs his breakfast every morning in a beautiful symmetrical manner. I tagged him in the photo, and he approved.

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This year for the first time we ordered steamed crabs. One of the local shops uses their own spice mix (the guy there scoffs when you mention Old Bay). I had to recall my last trip to Maryland, to be sure I was dismembering the crabs for maximum crab meat.

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For our last dinner on vacation, we ordered out from the Dolphin Den in Avon. I can never stay away from fried seafood platters, and theirs is top notch: fresh fish, clams, oysters, crabcake, scallops.

All in all, another good year of eating on the OBX! Who else has been? Where or what do you like to eat?

 

Travel: Dining on the Outer Banks – Part 1

In June our family made the annual trek to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Those of you who have followed the blog for a while may know it’s a long-standing family tradition, and we look forward to it every year. In addition to all the beachy fun, we enjoy the food the islands have to offer, as we visit old favorites and see what’s new each year. So without further ado, here are some of the culinary highlights of OBX 2014!

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On a tip from a reader last year, we finally discovered Duck Donuts, a relatively new donut chain originating in Duck on the northern Outer Banks. Over the past year Duck Donuts has expanded into nearby Virginia, too, and they seem to be holding steady on the OBX. They use the brilliant model of selling one base, a slightly sweet and spongy cake donut, then dressing that up with frostings and toppings.

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This lets them easily assemble larger orders for the visitors coming and going around the island.

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Frostings include everything from strawberry, lemon, vanilla, chocolate, peanut butter, and beyond.

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They even have an excellent maple bacon donut, with a sweet maple frosting and bacon bits that aren’t too soggy or too crunchy.

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We discovered this year that they offer a little kid’s meal, with a single donut + a drink served on a Duck Donuts frisbee. It even comes with a wet nap!

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But enough about donuts. (I never thought I’d say that.) On the islands we’re really in the mood for seafood. A string of rustic seafood markets dot the islands, hawking the day’s fresh catches. We make regular stops for crab, scallops, clams, shrimp, and fish. My mother-in-law has perfected a crab cake recipe. Because they’re homemade there’s very little filler and the seasoning is spot-on.

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We also crowded the scallops into a pan for a quick sauteed before they were devoured by the masses.

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Besides Duck Donuts, our favorite island pastries are the ridiculously giant apple uglies from Orange Blossom Bakery in Buxton, NC. I swear, these glorified, calorie-ridden apple fritters get larger each year.

Over the past years, the service and organization at Orange Blossom had been declining. Customers were frustrated by long waits, the service was a little surly, and they never seemed to have enough product. This year, however, things seem to be improving – maybe there was a change of ownership?

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Because there’s such a large group of us, we take turns making dinner each night. Mrs. Breakfast With Nick and I made a perennial favorite: shrimp and grits, with lots of tangy cheese mixed in with the grits, a rich topping of sauteed veggies (and a little bacon), and fresh shrimp.

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There’s great coffee on the islands, too. We regularly visit The Dancing Turtle in Hatteras, Uglie Mugs in Avon, and both Live Oak Coffee and Ocracoke Coffee Co. on Ocracoke. Here’s an artistic shot of my espresso on a post with some dead leaves in the background.

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Most restaurants offer lots of fried seafood, and we regularly take them up on the offer.

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One of our favorite stops for fried seafood are the volunteer firefighter’s fish fries. Many of the little island villages host them on a weekly or monthly basis. We especially like the fish fry down in Hatteras Village. The meals usually come with hush puppies, cole slaw, and maybe baked beans or potato salad. Some of these events have been going on for decades. The little old ladies in Hatteras have been doing it for over 50 years, and they’ll wink and tell you theirs is the best on the Outer Banks. Hard to argue when they’re unloading freshly caught fish straight into the fryers.

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As a craft beer aficionado and beer tour guide, I’m always on the lookout for local brews, so we were especially happy to discover the new Pangea Tavern a block from our house in Avon. The little pub has a large screened-in dining room, so you can enjoy the ocean breezes free of mosquitos (which generally aren’t too bad anyway). The real star of their drink menu is the list of 15 North Carolina beers on tap.

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Even better is that they offer beer samplers, so we tasted North Carolina’s takes on pale ales, saisons, amber ales, milk stouts, IPAs, wits, porters, and more. In summary: North Carolina is doing it right.

That’s all for now! Stay tuned for Part 2 shortly.

Sidney’s Cafe & Bistro | Elizabeth City, NC

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Sidney’s Cafe & Bistro (Facebook)
507 E. Main St. (map it!)
Elizabeth City, NC 27909
(252) 331-1944
Open Mon-Wed, 7a-5p; Thurs & Fri, 7a-9p; Sat, 7a-3p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 8 a.m.

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Every June we’re fortunate to make a family trip down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We look forward to it all year, and enjoy a step away from major civilization onto the barrier islands for a couple weeks of reading, playing on the beach, and eating our way around. But the eating starts well before we hit the bridges crossing Pamlico Sound. We typically drive the longest leg of the trip in one day, stopping over in Elizabeth City. We reward the long day’s drive with fresh fried seafood at Quality Seafood. But we also fuel up the next morning, and this year we did our research and discovered Sidney’s Cafe & Bistro on Main Street.

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I got the sense early on that they were a small cafe, and we were coming with a big group, so we called ahead to make a reservation. They were able to accommodate us, although we got the sense that we were pushing the limits of their small kitchen. To their credit, though, the coffee kept flowing and the food rolled out pretty quickly.

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The menu is not extensive but it covers all the bases, and it includes diverse offerings like eggs benedicts, pancakes, frittatas, and burritos.

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A big group means we get to sample nearly everything on the menu. I personally went for the eggs benedict (hint: if it’s on the menu, chances are I’ll order it). All the components were very well done, including the freshly shredded cheddar cheese. Light hollandaise but still very good; I’d be happy if I could make a hollandaise like that. The portion sizes didn’t feel huge, but they were appropriate for the price point, and certainly flavorful enough to keep everyone satisfied.

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From the kid’s menu: a nice-sized pancake and a well-seasoned sausage patty, which seemed to be made in-house.

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vegetable omelet with potatoes and toast. Loaded with veggies.

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And because we’re in the south, someone had to order grits, so there were multiple bowls of the soft, buttery goodness, topped with shredded cheddar.

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Even with a small kitchen, the two-person crew did everything well, including a la carte orders of eggs.

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Solid biscuits and gravy. Soft and warm biscuits, fairly chunky gravy, although everyone quickly noticed the presence of anise in the gravy. We’ve never had that before, and while it certainly wasn’t bad, it was enough to make everyone pause a moment after tasting it.

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An order of blueberry buttermilk pancakes. As good as you could ask for. Thin but fluffy, dusted with powdered sugar, and with a side of nicely done bacon.

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A spicy breakfast burrito loaded with sausage, eggs, cheese, and veggies. Held together perfectly; packed a big punch.

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And the French toast with a side of sausage. Soft but not mushy.

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Our entire crew left Sidney’s satisfied and impressed. Even with their small kitchen they handled the big round of orders, and there wasn’t a single complaint amongst the group. The bonus is the beautiful little cafe space, with a side entrance along an indoor arcade. The cafe itself is situated in the little downtown of Elizabeth City, which has a lot of potential to be sweet tourist spot.

Bonus connection to Ohio: the owner is from Sidney, Ohio originally, thus the cafe’s name!

Sidney's Cafe & Bistro on Urbanspoon

Mrs. Breakfast with Nick: BLTs and Brussels Sprouts

Part of me always feels like BLTs are cheating a bit. I mean, they’re deceptively simple, easy to make, and not ALL that bad for you. But SO delicious! When I saw that there were some bright red ripe tomatoes and some local Bibb lettuce in the Green Bean Delivery box, I realized we were only BACON away from a BLT, so we pretty much had to do it.

Having produced BaconCamp Columbus for a number of years, Nick and I have tried A LOT of local bacon. All of it is good, most of it is great, and a few are out of this world. Weiland’s bacon is one of those treats that we get once in a while, beautifully thick cut and perfectly marbled.

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My trusty helper was all about showing off his kitchen skills. He said he wanted me to caption this picture “Long Bacon” as he inexplicably tore one in two. We’ll go with it.

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As you can tell, we like using our cast iron skillet to make bacon, and we mess it all up – no careful strips, no flat pieces. Just separate each piece, lay in the pan, and stir with tongs. I know I’m going to catch flack on this, but we just love the caramelization you get with the cast iron, and I have no patience for flat bacon cooking.

I will say, though, when I want to make a lot of bacon for family and friends, or events (we cooked 30 pounds of bacon on the mornings of BaconCamp… in my kitchen… and another 30 at the event itself!), I use parchment paper on rolled aluminum trays in the oven. Doing more than a few pounds in the cast iron skillet builds up a nasty layer on the bottom of the pan that interferes with the cooking process after 2 or 3 rounds.

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While it’s cooking, slice the tomatoes into thin slices. Aren’t they beautiful? Who is READY for tomato season!? We have 15 tomato plants in the garden ready to burst!

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Cook the bacon until it is right before your preferred doneness, which, in our case, crispy dark edges with softer parts, but little light fat areas. I usually pull it out of the pan onto a plate with napkins to let it cool, and it will keep cooking on the plate. (Be sure to save the bacon fat! Let it cool, strain it, and put it in your freezer. You’ll thank me later, when you remember that you have it and that you want to make eggs in it and they are delicious.)


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BONUS RECIPE!

So, even though these aren’t from the Green Bean Delivery box, they were in my fridge… so, I threw together my favorite way to make brussels sprouts. When I have time, or when I make Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, I roast the sprouts after tossing them in olive oil in a 400 degree oven for 20-30 minutes. They get beautifully dark and crispy. Today, the natives were hungry and impatient, so I decided to steam them by cutting them all in half, adding an inch or so of water in our microwave steamer, and putting it in for 6 minutes.

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After they come out, bright green and tender, add a handful of blue cheese crumbles, some dried cranberries, cracked pepper, sea salt, and a few shots of balsamic vinegar or balsamic vinegar sauce (which is usually thickened with corn syrup). If you have REAL aged balsamic vinegar, you lucky devil… now invite me to dinner.

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Toss it together, and you get a beautiful sweet salty green side dish in no time.


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Oh! I also whipped up some peanut-butter celery sticks with sea salt, using the great celery that was in the Green Bean box. I’m assuming you can figure out how to do this, so I won’t insult you with a recipe… but trust me that the sea salt is worth it.

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My boys like to eat “picnic-style,” which involves this ridiculously huge wooden tray I’ve had forever. I set everything out on it, and then they can build their meal at the table. We had made a few loaves of bread that day, so it was a perfect fit.

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The finished meal! We toasted the bread a bit, added mayo – and kept it simple. It was a perfect summer dinner!

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