Wednesday, April 14, 2010

MugShots and Coffee on the Corner

I've already detailed our love for tea. Well, the other side of me loves coffee. I'm not a coffee or tea person, I'm a coffee AND tea person. I am exclusively a cat person, but that's beside the point. Staunton has two great coffee houses (maybe more that I'm not aware of, and then there's Starbuck's, which I think is great too), and we tend to visit them between plays when we have a lot of time to kill.

Coffee on the Corner is located next to the Blackfriars Playhouse on the corner of Beverly & South Market streets. It has more of a college/Bohemian atmosphere than the more upscale MugShots. From what I've seen of the clientele, MugShots caters more to the central business district and tourists while Coffee on the Corner is geared toward the Arts District and Mary Baldwin. Inside, the decor is eclectic and the lighting is dark. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and will offer recommendations. They will also go out of their way to make sure you get what you want. My wife once ordered a coffee with amaretto but the barrista thought they were out, so she ordered something else. Well, he evidently searched around and found some more and made her original order. Everything I've had at Coffee on the Corner has been good. You'll occasionally see some of the ASC actors there, and we once saw Dave Matthews and his family enjoying a light meal there. Coffee on the Corner also offers free WiFi. I've not had food at Coffee on the Corner but everything looks great and quite tempting.

MugShots is located across from the Stonewall Jackson Hotel/ New Street Parking Garage on the corner of Greenville Avenue and New Street. I've had several of their house coffees and blends and all have been very good. I had a curried chicken salad sandwich here that was wonderful. They also serve Route 11 Potato Chips if you ask for them (they even have the elusive, breath-taking Mama Zuma's Revenge). They also offer an impressive selection of sweets and I have had two different scones; a cranberry orange & a blueberry. I'm a big fan of scones, and somewhat of a connoisseur, and MugShots' scones are as good as I've had. They have that wonderful, hard to describe, almost soda-bread like quality that sets scones apart from biscuits that so many people can't pull off. MugShots is nicely appointed, clean, and offers WiFi. The staff is also very helpful. My only wish is that they would install a sandwich/drink board on the wall rather than just small sheets of paper at the counter. Still, that's a small quibble for an excellent coffee shop.    

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Emilio's in Staunton

My wife and I had our 10th wedding anniversary dinner at Emilio's in downtown Staunton back in January and we ate there again this past week. Emilio's serves excellent, traditional Italian cuisine. As you walk in you are warmly greeted by owner Emilio Amato who will then assist in finding you a seat. The restaurant utilizes the entire building, is multi-floored, and has five nicely appointed serving rooms and The Pompei Lounge. On my first visit to Emilio's, a night that had a wind chill factor of 5, I had an excellent entree of butternut squash ravioli served in a sage cream sauce and a Caesar salad. My wife had the best manicotti either of us have ever tasted. You are also served bread, and butter is available, but we went with the olive oil already on the table. For dessert I had a fabulous toscanella and my wife had an outstanding tiramisu. Emilio's has an extensive dessert menu with many desserts you don't see all that often. They also feature a vast wine menu, but I didn't partake on either visit.

On my second visit we sat in one of the upper level dining rooms. I ordered a terrific entree of gnocchi alla bolognese and a Caesar salad and my wife had an exceptionally creamy fettucini Alfredo. The Gnocchi was incredible and the meat sauce was out of this world. I'm typically not one for meat sauces, but this one was beyond excellent. For dessert I had the torta crema Italiano and my wife had a very tasty cannoli. We had a wonderful server named Laura who was very attentive and answered any questions about the menu that we had. On our first visit to Emilio's we also had excellent service; I'm sorry that the name of the gentleman who served us escapes me.

I've eaten in several great Italian restaurants over the years and my two visits prove to me that Emilio's can stand toe-to-toe with any of them.

Staunton's Darjeeling Cafe

Friends and regular readers of this blog know that my wife and I have an affinity for taking tea. So, when my friend Jack Morgan suggested I stop in an see him at The Darjeeling Cafe I was all too eager. The Darjeeling Cafe is located on Beverly Street, on the edge of Newtown and not far from George Bowers. It is eclectically decorated with comfortable furniture and features a nice outdoor seating area. The Darjeeling Cafe will be moving deeper into the Red Brick District, near the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse this summer.

The Darjeeling Cafe has a great variety of teas from regions across the globe. I'm particularly fond of fruit teas, oolongs, assam, rooibos, parlor/Victorian style, and herbal blends. My absolute favorites are plum/cinnamon flavors and owner Mary Beth Harris suggested I try a plum tea that she sells. It was an excellent recommendation. It was a great pot of tea and no sweetener was necessary. My wife was feeling sick on her stomach and Mary Beth suggested an iced mint tea that really made her feel better and gave her a second wind for the rest of the day. The Darjeeling Cafe is one of those places where you sit back, start conversing with someone, and before you know it 2 hours has passed. It just has one of those nice, relaxed, eclectic Bohemian atmospheres. It's a wonderful alternative/complement to Staunton's coffee shops (which are excellent in their own right), because sometimes you just want a nice cup of tea. The Cafe also offers meals, but I was still over stuffed from my meal at Shenandoah Pizza and my wife wasn't ready for food, so we passed on the food. I've heard good things about Mary Beth's food offerings from some Staunton friends, so I definitely look forward to trying some next time we visit.

Monday, April 12, 2010

George Bowers Grocery

I began tweeting with Katie of George Bowers Grocery on Twitter sometime last year. I decided to stop by and see her and her husband Brian on a visit to Staunton in November. Katie and Brian are fantastic people and great conversationalists. We stop in to see them every time we're in town now. I love chatting with them when I visit Staunton. Their grocery store is in the Newtown neighborhood, and was originally founded in 1881 by a New Yorker named George Bowers.

George Bowers Grocery specializes in "staple goods & fancy groceries" with a strong sense of community. Every time I've been in Katie & Brian seem to know their customers very well. Most everything in the store is local or regional (with the exception of some imported candies). You can find many local & regional craft beers, local wines, meats from T&E Meats in Harrisonburg (featuring meat from Polyface Farms among others), dairy products from Trickling Springs Creamery, produce from Nu-Beginning Farm, and some delicious fruit butters, jams, jellies, and preserves. Everything I've purchased from Katie & Brian has been excellent, but my favorite is a Chesapeake Crab Salsa from Gunther's Gourmet from Richmond. That stuff is great and hard to keep in stock. They also supply the American Shakespeare Center with their crowd favorite gummi bears, which are evidently harder to keep in stock for the ASC than the crab salsa is for George Bowers.

George Bowers is a great neighborhood grocer. I hope people will take advantage of such a nice place with great owners who have a vested interest in their community. In these days of hectic everything and big box stores it's nice to know there's a place you can go and have a chat with the owners and who know about the products and where they came from. Staunton is lucky to have a neighborhood grocery like George Bowers. I certainly wish there was a local alternative like this around my home.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

There are very few people who have not seen several performances of Romeo and Juliet. While it is definitely a tragedy, it has tons of comedic moments. This particular production definitely plays up the comedy, but has as equally sad and tragic ending as any I've seen. This is an excellent production and the most solid of the three performances this weekend.

Josh Carpenter and Brandi Rhome play the title characters and both turn in wonderful performances. Carpenter has taken the Hero role that Luke Eddy so capably handled last year and he does a good job as Romeo. Rhome always turns in solid performances and this is no exception. She is very convincing as things move from bad to worse to desperate as the play unfolds. There is no need for me to recap the plot of this well-known tale. All I can say is it's a must-see production. Besides Carpenter and Rhome, standouts include Ginna Hoben (she's definitely at the top of her game this season and it's going to be wonderful seeing her in residency this summer/fall) as the Nurse; Curt Foy as one of Shakespeare's greatest characters in Mercutio; Dennis Henry as Friar Lawrence, and Rick Blunt in a more dramatic role than I am used to seeing him. His performance when he tells Juliet she must marry County Paris and his performance during the final scene are riveting. I would really love to see Rick get a lead role in something like Macbeth. He is a very intense performer and very energetic. I think he'd do a fantastic job.

The musical selections for the pre-show and interlude were fantastic, and Joseph Rende kind of blew me away on his guitar work. The fight action in this production is terrific as well.

Josh Carpenter as Romeo and Brandi Rhome as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Mike Bailey.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The first ever American Shakespeare Center (then Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) performance I saw was Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle in September 1999 at my alma mater. I was somewhat of an unwilling attendant, as I was dragged there by my then fiancee. The theater we saw it in was ancient, cramped, uncomfortable, and packed. The air conditioning was also broken and it was near 90 degrees inside! I'd also had some food that made me uncomfortable, so you see where this is going. I had never heard of the play and I couldn't follow it at all. It was very confusing to me and I was basically lost from the get-go.

Well, here we are a little over 10 years later and I'm probably as big a fan of the ASC as you can find. Still, when I saw that this was on the slate, I was a bit apprehensive, even with the always great Rick Blunt in the title role. To help myself, I recently read the play, but I must say it was not an easy play to follow. You basically have competing casts (with assumed names) & a few different story lines and it's just generally confusing. Having notes definitely helped, but I can see why I was a lost fool the first time I saw it. There were several people in the audience this time that were as dumbfounded as I when I saw it in 1999. This time it was much easier for me to follow, especially since I had read the play, though had I not I think I may have been in dire straits.

I was sitting in the second row and I saw Rick, Ginna Hoben, and Curt Foy come in and take their seats in the 7th row or thereabouts. When the pre-show began and the show was announced as The London Merchant, I noticed some folks looking a bit confused. After the play began Curt, as the Grocer George jumped up and protested about something going on on stage. I noticed one lady was enraged at what was going on and I was about to die watching her. Anyway, you can see where the play can be confusing for the uninitiated and I wouldn't suggest a theater newbie pick this as their first theater going experience. For a veteran it's a much better time. There is all kinds of hilarity and Ginna Hoben is brilliant as the catty, whiney, totally bourgeois Grocer's wife, Nell. Anytime you can see Ginna stretch her comedic legs is a treat, and she's in all her glory here. Foy is also great as the bombastic, & somewhat henpecked George. Other standouts include Aidan O'Reilly as Mr. Merrythought/Indigo Toad (he also plays George the Dwarf); Jamie Nelson as Venturewell/Kenneth T. Umbrage/Tim the Squire; Josh Carpenter as Jasper/Dieter von Pilsner; and David Zimmerman as Michael, Jasper's bratty younger (toddler/giant baby?) brother. The star of the show however is Blunt as Rafe. He dominates the stage in this role and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.

This was a quiet crowd, and a small one, and much older than the typical ASC crowd, and it was a matinee and I think that affected everyone. Still, I thought the troupe did a great job. If anything was disappointing it was the crowd, and I always feel like the audience is an extra performer and can take a show to the next level. I think I would like to see another performance of the play, perhaps on a Friday or Saturday night with a large crowd. Hopefully we'll get back up and see it again.


Rick Blunt as Rafe in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Wings over Staunton & the Shenandoah Blues Festival

We were back at Shenandoah Pizza this weekend and owner/chef Johnnie Huggins made me some buffalo wings. These things were amazing. We ran into Johnnie out on Beverly Street and I had some Moravian cookies for him that he asked that I bring him next time I was in town. He had family in Winston-Salem and was fond of Moravian cookies, so me living in Moravian cookie Heaven made it an easy proposition. Anyway, we chatted with him and a friend and Wayne Luhn of Mockingbird awhile before moving on. Well, my wife was feeling bad and didn't feel like she could eat, so we went to Shenandoah Pizza and I had a couple of slices of the great veggie pizza (fantastic assortment of mushrooms, tomatoes, & spinach on wheat), and the legendary Chicken Florentine (which now has feta as well).  

Well, Johnnie came in and we started talking and he mentioned buffalo wings. He asked me how I liked mine & went back into the kitchen & concocted some ingredients. He basically went with a  medium Texas Pete base, with some General Tso's spice among others, and a little of his homemade pizza sauce. Johnnie bakes his jumbo, meaty wings rather than deep frying them & it really makes a dramatic difference. They are much juicier and tender and they have an almost grilled chicken taste/texture and smell. So, next time you are in, ask Johnnie to make you some wings. If you want them like mine, I guess just ask for the ones he made Adrian. You won't be sorry. You won't even need or want ranch or blue cheese. I am not exaggerating when I say these are the absolute best wings I've had (and I love wings). He can go with any heat you want & he also does a barbecue style wing. Bring him some cookies and he might come up with something extra special for you too! 

Johnnie is also promoting the Shenandoah Blues Festival which will be held at the Oak Grove Theater, 812 Quick's Mill Rd. in Verona on Saturday, May 8 from 11AM until 11PM- that's right, 12 hours of smokin' blues that'll turn the Oak Grove into the Oak Groove! The headliner will be Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin. Other great acts include the Nicholson Brothers, Lisa Miller and the All-Stars, The Biscuit Rollers, Bryan Elijah Smith, Stephen Michael Smith, Boston Shilling and Co., J.D. and the Shenandoahs, the Marino Brothers, Douglas Day Turner, Rev. Bill Howard, Hound Dog Hill, Pops Walker, Eli Cook, Marla Pamla, and several local artists. Food & drinks will be available from local vendors (including Shenandoah Pizza), tailgating is allowed, and the gates open at 11:00 AM. Tickets are $25. For more info see http://www.shenblues.com/

All's Well That Ends Well

We saw All's Well That Ends Well at the American Shakespeare Center on the Pay What You Will Opening night. As always, I was greeted with a big smile and a hug from Rick Blunt. Rick typically warms the crowd up and circulates among the crowd chatting with people. He's a great guy who I've gotten to know over the past year and a great actor, and he does a wonderful job as Parolles, the cowardly blow-hard. Be sure to check Rick out this Holiday season as he takes on the role of Crumpet the Elf in the Santaland Diaries. It will be an absolute blast! I also got to chat with Jamie Nelson, another fun guy, and he and I joked around for the rest of the weekend, mostly because he sold me a raffle ticket with the number 666. I had seen him in A Christmas Carol in December and thought he did a fantastic job, and he was great again in this play, playing LaFew, Parolles' foil. His voice is wonderful and he really captures the bearing & carriage of an aristocrat. Aidan O'Reilly has the unenviable task of trying to make Bertram likable, and while that is certainly a tall order, he did a fantastic job in this difficult role. Ginna Hoben plays our heroine, the unrequited Helena. Ginna was fantastic in all three plays this season, but exceptionally strong in this role. I'm always impressed with her work, particularly in comedies, but she rocked this more dramatic role with ease. Another terrific performer was Curt Foy as the clown Lavatch. Lavatch is a very crude character, and Curt was great as the lascivious clown. Dennis Henry, who also acts as assistant director on all three spring season plays, put in a strong performance as the King of France. I could tell Dennis was having allergy issues or a cold, which makes his performance all the more impressive. I can't imagine doing that at less than 100 percent. He's always a solid performer and it's a treat seeing him on the stage. The music, as always, was great, though the crowd was a bit loud, making it hard to hear. That's a shame, because Joseph Rende is an incredible guitar player. Luckily, he was heard loud & clear in the other two performances. Be sure to pay special attention to him when you see any of the three spring shows, he throws in some great flourishes when you least expect them. Speaking of great musicians, I ran into Chris Johnston and told him how much I enjoyed his work this past Renaissance Season and complimented him on his musical performances as well. He's a really nice guy, a terrific actor, and I can't wait to see his work this summer/fall. This is a fantastic performance of a somewhat problematic play (is it a drama? a comedy?) with an unlikable hero and a very likable villain.

Ginna Hoben as Helena and Aidan O'Reilly as Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Mike Bailey.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shenandoah Pizza

Staunton is a small town blessed with an abundance of artistic and cultural attractions, visual beauty, and extraordinary cuisine for a small town. One place I especially like is Shenandoah Pizza. I can already hear folks groaning when I mention a pizza joint among great cuisine. Well, Shenandoah Pizza is not just any pizza joint. They use fresh ingredients, unique topping combinations, several types of sauces, and intriguing dough mixes. Most of their meats are organic or grass-fed from local sources. The restaurant owner, John Huggins, is an absolutely great guy. He will always take the time to visit with his customers and develop relationships with them. He will explain things on the menu in great detail and will suggest beers to best match your taste cravings from their extensive beer list (I've never seen such a selection of beer, I think they have 200 plus). He's a big supporter of the arts and the local Valley music scene, hosting musical acts at the restaurant and featuring works by local artists available for purchase on the walls. Johnnie and his wife Cheryl opened Shenandoah Pizza about five years ago, and they have developed a very loyal customer base. 

I've had several different types of pizza at the restaurant: white pizzas, traditional cheese, pepperoni, on wheat, on white, on sunflower wheat, and several of the gourmet selections. They have all been excellent. Everything tastes absolutely fresh. Sometimes when I eat pizza I notice an almost stale taste to the dough. That's never the case at Shenandoah Pizza, as a matter of fact their dough is far and away superior to any other I have tried. Another nice touch is the bottle of olive oil on the table- it goes especially well with the white pizzas. Of the gourmet selections I've had the Sherwood Avenue (meatballs, ricotta, red onions, mozzarella); The Valley (spinach, red onion, mozzarella, tomato); The Augusta Margherita (extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, basil, fresh mozzarella); and the Chicken Florentine (spinach, garlic, chicken, ), The Swoope (Alfredo sauce, spinach, artichoke hearts, diced tomatoes, cracked pepper), The Shakespearean (Basil Pesto, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, tomatoes), The Lady Rebecca (Mushrooms, mozzarella, red onion, bell peppers, tomatoes, black olives), and The Woodrow (Pepperoni, sausage, mozzarella) . In all, the restaurant features 25 gourmet pies and a few special ones from time to time. They also serve the absolute best cheese bread sticks I've ever had. They take a little extra time, but they are well worth it and come with a fabulous marinara. If you are in the mood for buffalo wings, you've come to the right place. Shenandoah Pizza serves some of the best tasting, juiciest, meatiest buffalo wings you are apt to find.
Photo taken by Sara Zeglin.

Johnnie can take pride in the fact that his restaurant is ranked number one in Staunton on Trip Advisor. That's nothing to scoff at considering the stiff competition in this cultural and culinary gem of a town. If you are in the mood for some gourmet pizza, a tremendous selection of beer, or some live, local music or artwork while visiting the Shenandoah Valley, make sure to stop in and visit Johnnie at Shenandoah Pizza.