local

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Why
would anyone local
drink
anything other
than this stuff ?
My wife and I gave up beer when we started thinking about having a family. My one throwback was a beer with my daughter on her twenty-first birthday. Then, for this last holiday season, I stopped in to Otto's Pub and bought an assorted batch of brews to have on hand for company. A few weeks ago I still had a few in the cooler, and since I couldn't really recommend a specific brew to friends visiting from out of town, I decided to taste them instead of making batter or trash.

So last week I tried the Nittany Pale Ale. Crisp, light and dry- it was excellent. I would have been happy with drinkable, but this was something that I'd prefer over any major brand that I could think of. I put half into the asparagus rissotto I was making. This week, I tried the Red Mo Ale. Wow. Had I known, I would have made some stew or onion soup. I have one bottle of Jolly Roger Imperial Stout remaining, and will definitely make an accompaniment. Why would anyone local drink anything other than this stuff?

Which is the point of this post. Could the area sustain a local restaurant that uses mostly local, mostly fresh ingredients? Wine for drinking is pretty much out of the question. I never had a red that I wanted a second swallow of from anywhere in the state. Several whites are drinkable, and I was a regular at Koln Vineyards; but if the beverage was Otto's brews, what could be done?

I don't know anyone in Otto''s kitchen that I can ask; they may already use local foods. I've never had anything bad from their kitchen, and have only had good experiences there. But. I think another restaurant approach using their brew might just work. Smaller. Less noise. Less focus on brew and more on food. Local rack of lamb with a black walnut crust. Sweet cream ice cream made with Meyer's cream and Bear Meadow blueberries. The same cream turned into butter for pan sauteed Spruce Creek trout. The same trout, smoked, served with homemade pumpernickel toast points. Maybe Irvings would provide the breads?

I guess the problem might be maintaining a customer base once the seasons turn and fresh foods are replaced by items preserved in house. Would people still come out? Or would they go for "fresh" stuff from Argentina? I guess it might depend on the chef's talent and restaurants ambience. Terrines? Cassoulet? Stews topped with a nice puff dough?

How's the food at Elk Creek Cafe and Alehouse? Anybody try it?

10 Comments

Cole said:

We tried to go almost exclusively local -- it isn't completely possible, especially for fruit in the long cold winter, but our winter farm share does grow in a greenhouse so we do get some green leafy veggies. I try to buy all my beer locally from Otto's -- the Growler is the best invention in the World as far as I am concerned. Wine is just out of the question -- the PA stuff makes me want to cry.

I think a restaurant with nothing but local items would be amazing. I worry that people wouldn't get why that would be such an amazing thing. My wife is a huge fan of Alice Waters and her insistence on nothing but fresh. locally harvested foods -- doesn't hurt she is in a climate where grapes are perfect for wine and the food is amazing.

We get through the winter with lots of really tasty stews and items she makes with fresh pastry dough -- last night she made her own tortillas for fresh enchiladas. It is the most wonderful thing to see -- fresh local ingredients being combined to create food that seems so exotic (or just out of place in central PA). Maybe we should arrange a local food "barcamp" of sorts -- where a few of us who favor this kind of thing get together and enjoy each others' creations.

Chris Millet said:

Otto's has quite a few items on their menu from local sources. I've had their local grass-fed beef. I believe every month they feature a different local farm. I can't find anything about it on their website but they have info about it in their menus.

dave said:

Great perspective, guys. It does look like these folks are doing a decent job. I'm excited to do some more research. Not my choice for a white table cloth establishment, but seeing as how there's no real contenders in the area, if I don't cook at home I'll try to make it Otto's. (or Cole's house...)

Jamie Oberdick said:

First off, my impression on Otto's food is their entrees, in my opinion, does not have the quality to justify the price. I paraphrase John Travolta's famous line in Pulp Fiction about the milkshake, that's a good shepard's pie but it's not worth 15 dollars. So, I tend to stick to sandwiches there, which are very nice, although I have had a few stinkers there. Of course, I say this with apprehension, because I have noted any gentle criticism of Otto's tends to be met with the wild-eyed response of the zealot, and I often feel like people think I nailed 95 theses to their door or something.

As for their beer, it is of course first-rate and after moving here from Pittsburgh, home of the excellent Church Brew Works (there's a brew pup kitchen to be reckoned with), Otto's was a delight to see. I agree with Cole, the growler is indeed a great invention. Interestingly enough, the modern version of the growler was introduced by someone with the last name of Otto.

As for the local angle, kudos to Otto's for buying local. I think it's important to support local business, as I believe that the influx of chains for everything can destroy local culture by homogenizing everything. I enjoy buying local produce and when we can afford it, my wife and I go to a local butcher in half-moon township (price can be an obstacle in a time when food prices of on a rocket ship straight up).

As for what can be grown here, do not underestimate the local climate. My backyard is testimony to that. Last year, I grew ping tung eggplant (the long bright purple variety seen in Far Winds Asian market), pak choy cabbage, two varieties of amaranth (the spinach of Southeast Asia), poblano peppers (I still have four bags in the freezer), a variety of lettuce greens, little red bell peppers that are perfect for stuffing, thai basil, Italian squash, etc. This year French carrots and pumpkins, Chinese chives, borage, Japanese melons, corn salad, and Japanese radishes are added to the list. I didn't even mention varieties of tomatoes, fresh corn (there is nothing that can match an August evening eating corn that goes from stalk to grill in less than a minute), etc.

I use these products to whip up dishes from PA Dutch to Thai. So, Cole's idea of having a local food barcamp is quite interesting.

Great post... and I am certain there is a market for a restaurant which would highlight local resources. I am amazed that we have so little choice here.

As Cole mentioned, our CSA goes through the winter and while things are sometimes a little thin, there are plenty of root vegetables, grass-fed meats, potatoes, greens from their solar powered greenhouse, etc. Also a great opportunity for preserved foods -- blueberries, corn, peppers, etc. freeze wonderfully. And I think there is a certain ethic among these kinds of restaurants (like Michael Pollan talks about in Omnivore's) that deems it OK to "trade" for items which don't grow in your area (coffee, spices, etc.)

And yes, Ottos does serve some grass-fed beef. I am not sure where it comes from though... But I could see something slightly more upscale -- without going to the level of fine dining. Something maybe at a bistro level... steak frites with Blue Rooster beef, cassoulet (like you mentioned), etc. Have you tried Gemelli breads?

I'd be a customer! I am so uninterested in going out for dinner here any more. Everything out feels substandard. Not because I can cook it better at home (a lot of times, but not always), but because the ingredients seem so substandard.

dave said:

I'm amazed at the choices, too; especially with an agricultural college and food science department so much a part of where we are. A cafe-bistro in the heart of the new Arboretum would be a great Sunday brunch spot. Students could actually explore the challenges of maintaining a Michael Pollan - Alice Waters kitchen ethic.

I like the idea of using traditional "foodshed" trade items to bolster the menu. I love the purity of regional, but Pennsylvania (at least in my experience) is shy a few necessities, like the coffee and spices you mention. Roasted grain beverages can be good, but fresh roasted coffee better fit into the ethic somehow. If W.C.Clarke roasts it, it's local, right?

Places seem to come and go- small establishments with good intent that cater to a naturist crowd. I think that's the wrong slant. This definitely requires more exploration. Maybe a restaurant that's a club rather than public? Or a mobile shop the travels with and utilizes the farmer's markets? Just thinking...

I haven't tried Gemelli breads- thanks for the tip!


Mary said:

The Nittany Pale Ale is usually what I order at Otto's.

Does anyplace in town use fresh ingredients? It seems to me that I saw something at Herwig's Austrian Bistro to that effect.

dave said:

Mary, I was just told that the Elk Creek Cafe in Millheim uses a good bit of local foods- which doesn't necessarily mean fresh or wholesome, but may be worth a look. I've tried Herwigs, and think they do an okay job. The entire package of their food, staff, clientele, and atmosphere isn't something I'd seek out. That's just a personal preference.

Pubcrawler said:

At Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks, award-winning brewer Tim Yarrington is brewing fresh, local beer, the decor highlights local artists, the bar stools were created by local artisans, but most importantly, Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks is supporting sustainable small local farms and businesses.

Two of the suppliers are Tait Farm Foods and Gemelli Bakery (in State College). Meat and fish come from many sources, one of which is Over the Moon Farm; I’m pretty certain they use Cow-a-Hen Farm in Mifflinburg and the Elk Creek Fish Hatchery. And I’m sure the cheese is local - I just don’t know where it comes from.

Apparently Elk Creek is so dedicated to the environment that they’ve installed waterless urinals (I wouldn’t know for a fact - I just read about it.)

Anyway, your specific question was, "How's the food?" and I can attest that it is fabulous. The menu constantly changes, so I can't recommend anything in particular, but I've been there multiple times with many different people, and we all agree at all times that everything is perfect.

We've had things like tofu scramble (soft tofu morsels sautéed with spinach and caramelized onions) served with crispy potatoes and vegan bacon, beef and bean chili, potato-crusted wild Alaskan salmon balanced over roast beet cubes and topped with horseradish sour cream and chive, and pasture-raised grilled strip steak served with steak butter and a generous portion of fries with aioli.

This entry (which I did not write) at Epinions describes Elk Creek so perfectly. If you are in the State College area, it is worth checking out. For beer, I prefer Otto's because they are doing bigger, more exciting things right now, but Elk Creek gets my vote in terms of food and atmosphere!

dave said:

Thanks Pubcrawler! Looks like I'll be heading to Millheim real soon.

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