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Reflecting on 5 years of fine fare

I just passed my five-year anniversary as restaurant critic at The Journal Gazette and wanted to look back on what has easily been my most rewarding and challenging experience as a journalist.

I have had the privilege of visiting many fantastic restaurants, have met hundreds of wonderful people working at those restaurants and have corresponded with hundreds more who are avid restaurant-goers and fans of Dining Out.

I can only hope the next five years are just as good.

My dream meal

So, what would my fantasy team of courses to represent the past five years include?

For starters, it would be the fried green tomato appetizer from Marko’s on 2nd in Decatur. I first tried this dish in May 2005 when it was offered as a weekly special, and it soon after became a menu staple. Chef Mark Graves coats the tomatoes in a traditional cornmeal batter, serves them over creamy grits and then drizzles rich tasso ham gravy over it all.

The soup course would be the baked French onion from Liberty Diner at 2929 Goshen Road or 1040 Coliseum Blvd. N. The caramelized onions and the perfect amount of salt, pepper and spices create a somewhat sweet but still hearty broth that is so good I sometimes dig past the melted mozzarella on top – usually the best part of French onion soup – to get to it.

If I was allowed to choose a salad bar for my salad course, it would be Trolley Steaks and Seafood’s on Dupont Road. Chef Paul Meredith stocks his bar with the usual fresh fixings but also has goodies such as artichoke hearts and bleu cheese crumbles.

If I had to choose a prepared salad, it would have to be the classic chop-chop from Catablu with its mix of chopped lettuce and cabbage, uniformly diced carrots, cucumbers and Parmesan cheese chunks, and a variety of other veggies including garbanzo beans.

Coming up with a main course was extremely difficult. The bone-in fillet from Eddie Merlot’s in ’06 was great, and so was the New York strip from the Village Inn in Roanoke in ’05 and, just a couple of months ago, the pasta Bolognese from Joseph Decuis across the street from the Village Inn was to die for. But the most memorable entrée had to be the Trolley Bucco from Trolley Steaks and Seafood. I first tried this dish in August 2005, and I still order it regularly. A behemoth of a smoked pork shank with an intimidating bone jutting out of it is steamed first to ensure it is tender and fall-off-bone good, then flash-fried to crisp the exterior before it is rested upon a mound of real mashed potatoes and covered with a succulent beef demi-glace.

For dessert, I ask for a moment of silence to honor the White Chocolate Symphony from the late Park Place on Main. This white chocolate mousse was served in a ginger-almond candy shell with fresh strawberries, a few blueberries and raspberry and lime sauces coloring the plate. It was one of the most reputable desserts in Fort Wayne and deserved every bit of praise it received.

To go with that Symphony, I would also have one of the excellent coffee creations I used to get daily at Ground Level, which had three locations in Fort Wayne before fading away a few years ago.

Favorite places

So, which place would I rate as the best over my five years? Well, I have to name two.

For a more upscale, special-occasion type of evening, Marko’s on 2nd easily gets the nod. I have said many times that I have not been to a finer establishment in northeast Indiana.

The Southern fusion cuisine that chef Mark Graves produces is unique, original and eclectic while still having that comforting down-home kind of feel to it.

For my everyday meals, it is Liberty Diner. Owner George Smyrniotis and his wife, Elena, are wonderful hosts and the service is always top-notch, the variety of food is vast and the quality of that food never falls short.

Still in mourning

I have already mentioned Park Place as a place I dearly miss, but the place I pine for more than any other is JT’s Soul Food.

This tiny carryout place at Hanna Street and McKinnie Avenue was home to the best chicken wings this critic has ever had the pleasure of eating.

Owner James Thomas’ wings were coated in a zesty breading that lightly covered each wing but added a ton of flavor.

I always had mine naked even though his vinegar-based hot sauce wasn’t at all a bad idea.

He also made some mean cornmeal-breaded catfish and an awesome sweet potato pie.

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan every Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m. on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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