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Sichuan Garden (Brookline, MA)

A few weekends ago, Carol and I went down to Brookline, MA on an expedition to meet up with some of my fellow Fraternal Order of Moai colleagues for some exploration of some of Boston’s cocktail bars new and old. One place we were looking to explore was a relatively new addition to Brookline: Blossom Bar. Nominally replacing the previous Sichuan Garden restaurant, it sounded like a nice place to start our wandering, since they opened at 11am. Well, it appears our intel was wrong; Sichuan Garden is still alive and well in restaurant form, their cocktail bar distinctly doesn’t open until 5pm; at 11 am they are still just a restaurant without cocktails. While slightly disappointing, I was quickly soothed by the fact that the food menu looked good. Really good. So once our posse arrived, we ordered up a bunch of appetizers and food to sustain us on the rest of our trip through Boston.

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First Branch Coffee (South Royalton, VT)

This fall, a new coffee shop opened up on Chelsea Street (the west side of the South Royalton Square): First Branch Coffee. Focusing on small 30-pound batch roasted coffee, they’ve been focusing on quality coffee drinks and pastries, and have been a nice addition to the Royalton-area restaurant scene. Interestingly, I’m not going to be writing about their coffee or pastries, although I’ve actually had, and enjoyed, both. The real culinary attraction at First Branch is what’s going on in the back half of the house, since First Branch is also the home of the tasting room of Upper Pass Beer Company. From 4 to 9 pm on Tuesday and Friday, and noon to 4 on weekends, Upper Pass (owned by the same folks that run First Branch Coffee) runs a tasting room for their rather nice selection of beers brewed by Chris Perry and Andrew Puchalik, who I’ve known for several years through the local homebrewing community (and for years, Chris was one of the bartenders at nearby Worthy Burger, another of my Royalton favorites, and I particularly like their Cloud Drop and Modern Pants IPAs. But on most weeks, their weeknight openings are themed and have light food service; Tuesdays are Taco Tuesdays, and Fridays are Flatbread Fridays

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Firebox (Hartford, CT)

Last month, after a day spent with friends in Connecticut, since we were already in the Hartford area, we decided it was a good opportunity to stop and check out the local food scene. Our destination was the old Billings Forge complex, a rather large red brick Romanesque Revival industrial complex that originally held the Billings and Spenser company (inventors of the modern drop forge process, and the Spencer Repeating Rifle). Since the mid-20th century, most of the complex has been housing, original a housing project, and then more recently redeveloped as a mixed income complex. But parts of the complex retained their industrial nature for decades, only recently getting converted to other uses, in this case, two restaurants: The Kitchen which provides a light cafe and job training, and Firebox, a local restaurant focusing on farm-to-table cuisine showcasing central Connecticut farms. We decided after reviewing menus to catch a late lunch at Firebox

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Florence Pie Bar (Florence, MA)

A rather lot of our travel has us passing through Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, and as I mentioned a year ago in my review of The Copperline in Chicopee, MA, the area has a quite an interesting combination of rural towns, college towns, and mill towns, and that’s led to a rather nice selection of quirky little restaurants. In this case, we wanted a light breakfast on our way down to Connecticut, so we stopped off in Florence MA (just west of Northampton) to check out Florence Pie Bar.

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J. J. Hapgood General Store and Eatery (Peru, VT)

There are a lot of little corners of Vermont that I haven’t done much culinary exploration in, simply due to the fact that I seem to pass through those parts during the wrong time of day. Peru, VT is one of those little towns that I’ve driven through probably a hundred times (it’s on Route 11, one of my preferred east-west routes through Vermont), but it wasn’t until I had my parents visiting in September that I finally had a reason to stop and check out downtown Peru, which is just off of Route 11 (the highway diverts about a 1/10th of a mile around the downtown), and, arriving right before noon, we found ourselves at J.J. Hapgood General Store and Eatery in downtown Peru.

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2nd & High (Cleveland, OH)

While my Death March trip to Cleveland mostly involved revisiting (and taking friends to) old favorite hangouts, we did get to explore a bit. And we discovered a few little hidden gems. Like just two blocks away from Cleveland’s Public Square, tucked in just behind a parking garage around the corner from Quicken Loans Arena, there’s a small bar with some not-too-obvious signage: 2nd & High (which is also it’s location). But behind the subtle signage on a quiet back alley that many have probably walked right by, lies a bit of a secret: a surprisingly good Poke Bar.

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Health Check: Black Pig (Cleveland, OH)

Way back in 2013, I did a review of a relatively new addition to the Ohio City dining scene: Black Pig, which had been newly opened by chef Mike Nowak (who had previously been executive chef at several other Ohio City hot spots, including Bar Cento and Market Garden. Since that visit, a lot has changed with Black Pig. For starters, they’ve moved, from their relatively cozy location on W 25th to a substantially larger location on Bridge Ave that used to hold the revered Parker’s restaurant (meanwhile, their old location was taken over by neighbor Nano Brew, providing them a much-needed increase in space). With the move, they ended up retooling the menu a little bit; the focus is still definitely on “New American Cuisine” using locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, particularly focusing on Ohio’s beef and pork products, but shifting a bit more towards a more regular menu; my two previous Black Pig visits had custom chef’s tastings, and while they’ve still got an impressive “Tasting Menu”, it’s generally now just a prix fixe menu with periodic seasonal updates. And with the substantially enlarged space, Black Pig does a lot more “Private Dining” events than they used to as well. But I continue to hear some really good word of mouth about Black Pig, so I figured that ending this year’s Death March there would be a great opportunity to check in on how they are doing.

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Health Check: Wonton Gourmet (Cleveland, OH)

I’ve got a number of reviews here that are, in the grand scale of the internet and blogging, well, ancient. For example, way, way back in 2009 I did a review of Wonton Gourmet in Cleveland, and while I’ve had many, many trips back to the Cleveland area, I haven’t actually been back to Wonton Gourmet in almost a decade. But with this year’s Cleveland “Death March”, not only was I revisiting Cleveland, but we were literally walking right by Wonton Gourmet at lunch time, so I decided it would be a good place to stop, take a break, and see if Wonton Gourmet was still as good as I remembered.

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Yours Truly (Cleveland, OH)

For our actual “Death March” in Cleveland, we started out at Shaker Square on the far East end of town on the border with Shaker Heights. Both the area and Shaker Square itself are pretty interesting: it was one of the United States’ first “Shopping Centers”, designed to mimic Europe’s town squares while integrating some relatively high density housing, transit (trains at the time, now buses), and provide a gateway to the suburbs, and a bit of an open space that serves nicely for the weekend farmers market. Built in a Colonial style, it’s definitely a little dated, but does provide a nice insight into what early 20th century urban planning looked like, and there’s now a theater and a bunch of smaller shops and restaurants around the square. One of these is a joint with a reputation for a good breakfast, Yours Truly, which also served as a nice gathering spot for our hiking crowd.

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Sokolowski’s University Inn (Cleveland, OH)

My regular readers know that once a year, I gather with several of my friends and we do a “Death March” in which we spend an extended weekend at a different metropolitan area exploring the food, drink, and cultural scene, culminating in a ~20 mile walk through the city to explore all the neighborhoods. We’ve done a lot of cities, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, London… this year was Cleveland. Okay, I can hear a lot of you already asking, “Wait, what? Cleveland?!” But you heard me right. Yeah, Cleveland had some rough years of post-industrialism, burning rivers, and general rust belt blight, but as I learned with many business trips to the area in the ’90s through recent years, Cleveland is actually one of the country’s most underrated cities, having cleaned themselves up quite nicely, and the city has a plethora of great attractions, ranging from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to some great parks, some great breweries, and excellent restaurants both old and new. While much of the culinary coverage of Cleveland focuses on the newer places, we started our visit in the city with a trip to one of the old stalwarts of Cleveland ethnic dining: Sokolowski’s.

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