Tag Archives: restaurants

Brian Kahle Responds to Terry Valenti

19 Jan

On today’s Shredd and Ragan show, Terry Valenti tried to explain away his boasts of having defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, and accused the “marketing company” he hired for Googling him and using false information he had given to people in the past for manufacturing the claim.

So I contacted Brian Kahle, the well-respected local PR pro whom Valenti retained prior to opening the restaurant. It was Kahle’s press release that made its way to Janice Okun, and into her original review. It was Kahle and Lori Brocuglio who acted as Okun’s two sources for the Iron Chef claims, and when Okun called Kahle to verify the Iron Chef claim after their falsity was uncovered, he was perfectly correct in telling her that it’s what Terry and Lori told him.

But as far as journalism in WNY is concerned, take a look at Kahle’s release, and see how closely Okun’s words follow its template:

Co-owner (with his wife, Lori) and Chef Terry Valenti is a Western New York boy recently returned home from Texas and Florida — he cooked at Mama Leone’s in Manhattan and in resorts in Daytona. In 2003 he took on uber-chef Bobby Flay on the popular “Iron Chef” program. Knocked the socks off him, too.

It was the parsnips that did it,” says Lori. For the show, Terry produced Chilean Sea Bass stuffed with that vegetable (and artichoke hearts for good measure). He even dreamed up a Mango Parsnip Ice Cream that went over very well.

Everything that’s bolded in the two quoted paragraphs is a lie. So, how did it make its way into the paper?

Kahle explained that he doesn’t issue a press release and media kit until after (a) the clients help to write it; and (b) the clients approve it. In this case, every claim Kahle wrote on Valenti’s behalf was told to him by either Terry or Lori.

Although Valenti accuses Kahle of having Googled him, and including materials he found from prior lies he told Florida employers, Kahle vehemently denies doing any such thing. Indeed, Kahle is incensed at the suggestion that it was he, and not Terry or Lori, who fabricated or blew Valenti’s owns claims out of proportion. He was gratified that Valenti didn’t use Kahle’s name during his radio interview.

In other Valenti news, I learned that the Department of Labor did show up at the restaurant yesterday, but there was no fine leveled or violation drawn up.

What follows below is a PDF of the original press release that Kahle sent to media outlets throughout western New York on Valenti’s behalf.

Valenti’s Restaurant Media Kit Release//

Tea from Leaves!

13 Jan

Buffalo News diner Janice Okun reviews Ming Cafe today. The charming little Chinese restaurant is located on the same block as Shango, across from UB South, and is well-known for odd opening times and great food.

Ms. Okun’s review reveals:

1. Ming Cafe makes its jasmine tea from actual tea leaves. Somehow, this is surprising or unusual.

2. Ming Cafe doesn’t offer all that sweet-and-sour crap you’re used to seeing on Chinese menus, but mixes it up a bit. Also, the menu is not “tomelike”.

3. She ordered Crab Rangoon, except it had shrimp and ricotta instead of crab and cream cheese. Shrimp Yangon?  She also ordered tofu and spinach dumplings, “fried as crisp as could be”.

4. Given a chance to order a really interesting escargot dish, she instead ordered Singapore noodles (found on every Chinese menu), and was surprised that it had curry. Singapore noodles is universally recognized as a vermicelli dish with meat, shrimp, veggies, all loaded with curry. It’s curried noodles – you can’t be “surprised” by the curry. This is akin to her being surprised that a muffuletta comes with an olive salad. Sichuan chicken, also found on just about every Chinese menu, was served with “medium” heat, on a bed of spinach.

5. Ms. Okun says the food and service were “excellent” and “very good”.  This doesn’t explain why she gives Ming only 3.5 stars under her unexplained scheme. On what basis is the half-star given? Everything was good based on the safe choices she made, and her surprise over something quite predictable.

6. The image accompanying the review features the owners, and a plate of beef tofu.

Based on the foregoing, I give this review only one and one-half okuns.

I am not at liberty to explain how I arrive at that figure.

How Not to Run a Business

12 Jan

No surprise, the owners of Valenti’s are embroiled in a bitter landlord/tenant dispute with Budwey’s.  No surprise, it’s over unpaid rent and whether the rent is triple net or not.

The saga of the Iron Chef has reached Lifetime Movie of the Week proportions. It’s also fodder for discussion on Chowhound.

A 3 1/2 Okun Review

9 Jan

Janice Okun dined at the somewhat newly reconstituted Rue Franklin, and reviews it here. For the second time in as many weeks, she did not give a half-star. This is a peculiar change from the norm.

What we do learn from her review of this venerable French restaurant is the following:

1. Her dessert was “nonthreatening”. That seems to be the underlying theme for most Okun reviews; one might describe it as, “almost totally subliminal”.

2. Lighting is important to a restaurant’s ambiance. Who knew?

3. The portions were to her liking; i.e., large.

4. Although this is a French place with traditional French dishes such as seared foie gras, Ragôut of veal sweetbreads with white wine, mushrooms, tomato and tarragon, poule au pot, and a braised short rib specialty of Gascony, she ordered two benign salmon dishes.

5. As usual, there is less information about dishes’ flavor than there is about ambiance, lighting, and the fact that Okun knows the waiter’s name.

As such, I give this review three and a half okuns. In keeping with the Gusto’s restaurant reviews, I will give no background on how the okuns are awarded.

Two and a Half WTFs

19 Dec

UPDATE: I am making this post sticky for the time being, as I will be speaking with Shredd & Ragan on WEDG 103.3 on Tuesday morning  (click the link to listen live) around 8am regarding the Valenti’s Restaurant saga. Follow-up posts exist here, here, and here.  As with any story, if you want to provide information confidentially, send an email to buffalopundit[at]gmail.com

Yes, it’s media criticism Monday.

On Friday, The Buffalo News’ venerable, legendary restaurant reviewer Janice Okun gave a new Italian red sauce joint in North Tonawanda, “Valenti’s” 2.5 stars.

(I don’t know why literally every single Okun review involves a half-star, either.)

In that review, which was predictably yet unfortunately devoid of good feedback about the food or its flavor, Okun made the following observations:

Co-owner (with his wife, Lori) and Chef Terry Valenti is a Western New York boy recently returned home from Texas and Florida — he cooked at Mama Leone’s in Manhattan and in resorts in Daytona. In 2003 he took on uber-chef Bobby Flay on the popular “Iron Chef” program. Knocked the socks off him, too.

“It was the parsnips that did it,” says Lori. For the show, Terry produced Chilean Sea Bass stuffed with that vegetable (and artichoke hearts for good measure). He even dreamed up a Mango Parsnip Ice Cream that went over very well.

In the days since that was published, we’ve established the following:

1. Iron Chef America (featuring Bobby Flay) didn’t exist in 2003.

2. The list of Iron Chef America episodes reveals no competitor with the surname “Valenti” challenging any Iron Chef, ever.

3. The list of Iron Chef (Japan) episodes reveals no competitor with the surname “Valenti” challenging any Iron Chef, ever.

4. The aforementioned episode lists from America and Japan reveal that there has never been an Iron Chef “battle parsnip” in either series.

5. Mr. Valenti claims to have graduated from the CIA in 1993 and then became head chef at Mamma Leone’s.

6. Mamma Leone’s closed in January 1994.

7. A March 2009 health inspection of Captain Hiram’s, where Valenti had been working for 4 months at the time, is shown here. These should be made public for New York eateries, as well.

Aside from the massive question marks over the chef/owner’s alleged backstory, can someone explain to me why the photos that accompany these restaurant reviews seldom show the actual food? The Valenti’s story depicts four women outside the restaurant bidding each other good-bye, two of whom have to-go boxes. All I can gather from the image is that Valenti’s has a nice sidewalk. As for Okun, she gushes over the comfort of a restaurant’s booths, but we have no idea whether the veal is any good.

The #BUFTruck Legislation: Tabled Again

26 Oct

Yesterday, the Common Council’s Legislation Committee met again to take up the issue of food truck legislation. Attorneys for both sides spoke, indicating that some progress had been made – some of it by the attorneys over beers – but that significant issues remain unresolved.

In some ways, this sort of legislation-by-committee of stakeholders is a textbook example of how not to push a legislative initiative. Evidently, the meetings between the food truck and brick & mortar representatives degenerated into shouting. It’s time for the common council to understand that it’s never going to satisfy everybody, and that life isn’t fair. So, it needs to craft some reasonable rules, implement them, pass it, and let the market figure out what happens.

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One of the proposals includes a sunset provision – after one year, the law expires unless the common council takes action to amend or renew it. This gives everyone an opportunity to see how the law works in practice over four seasons, and both sides seemed amenable to it.

One of yesterday’s speakers was Christina Walsh from the Institute of Justice.  The WNY Food Truck Association retained her to explain to the Council that fewer regulations are better than more, and that complicated regulations in some cities have essentially turned trucks into outlaws. She indicated that these food trucks help get feet on the streets and generate their own jobs and economic activity. Most significantly, she helped to rebut the canard that the food trucks have all the advantages over brick & mortar restaurants. Tell it to someone who (a) doesn’t know where the truck is on any given day; and (b) has to wait in inclement weather to get food they need to eat in inclement weather.

How pathetic is it that the Food Trucks had to retain the services of a freedom expert in order to fight for the right to serve tacos, burgers, coffee, and BBQ from mobile canteens?

Councilmember David Rivera indicated that the meeting yesterday had been set up to get input from additional voices, but that none of them had shown up.  The meeting was somewhat abruptly adjourned after 45 minutes.

I have some questions out to various people involved in this issue, and as I get more details I’ll relay them here. In the meantime, be sure to join the WNY Food Truck Association Facebook page, and follow your local food trucks:

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Thoughts on the #BUFTruck Council Hearing (UPDATED)

30 Sep

As promised, here are my thoughts about the Food Truck public hearing at City Hall yesterday:

1. It was striking that only one person spoke in opposition to the food trucks.  John Fusco of Zetti’s has become something of an unintentional internet phenomenon with his focus on restrooms and his strong New York accent, but upon reflection, boycotting these restaurants isn’t the answer. I know Fusco, and he’s a good guy. I disagree strongly with what he said, but I appreciate that he was the solitary truck opponent to get up and voice his concerns. I have a bigger problem with the other restaurants, who put on a conciliatory public face while trying to kill or hyper-restrict the trucks.

2. The truck owners were very eloquent advocates for their cause. Pete Cimino of Where’s Lloyd was especially passionate and really killed it.

3. The Common Councilmembers who were present (all except Mickey Kearns) all seemed to indicate that they were willing to pass a law to regulate (in a good way) food trucks, and are concerned about the time, place, and manner details. This is the sausage-making that most people ignore, but is critically important.

4. The resolution at the end of the meeting was that the trucks and restaurants put their heads together and come up with a set of rules that everyone can live with. It is hoped that recommendations from this advisory committee will be completed within 30 days, in the hope that the law can be changed by November.

5. Going back to that word – “regulation”. It sometimes gets an undeserved bad rap. Regulating food trucks with time, place, and manner restrictions is a massive improvement over the status quo, whereby the trucks are prohibited from working the streets and setting up just about anywhere except on private property, or in locations for which they have a permit.

6. The story told by architect and developer Steve Carmina was startling. He owns a building at Main & Mohawk that likely wouldn’t have been leased had Lloyd’s taco truck not set up there and made that corner a destination of sorts a few days per week. That stretch of Main Street is especially bleak and depressing, but when that truck is there, it acts as a magnet for people from all over the city and region. He gave the truck credit for that pedestrian traffic and resulting economic activity, which in effect revitalized that corner.

7. There has been some “first world problems” and “stuff white people like” type criticism over this issue. I get it. But scratch the surface, and this is an issue that has plagued Buffalo for years – the city’s business friendliness. There’s loads of reasons why Buffalo’s downtown business district is a bleak shell even between 9 – 5 on a weekday.  Further restrictions on mobile businesses will only help to perpetuate that – ease them and perhaps it’ll change.

8. The food trucks are at a seasonal disadvantage. When the temperature drops, their customers won’t take kindly to standing in line for an extended period of time exposed to the elements. The regulations the city imposes should be eased between November – March to let the food trucks more easily find customers.

9. Two people spoke, expressing to the Council that they were prepared to invest huge money into their own food trucks, but not until the legal uncertainties were resolved. That’s the real-life consequence of slow action on needed legislation.

10. It’s great that people are taking an interest in this political process.  Hopefully, they’ll recognize that almost all of Buffalo’s problems have political solutions and they’ll become more involved and active.

11. I will try to keep on top of the committee’s work and report what sort of progress is being made, and what sort of nonsense might be taking place.

12. The legislative process is silly and slow, but the city, her leaders, and their staff are listening. A petition posted earlier this week has garnered over 4,300 signatures solely based on social media.  Each time that petition was signed, that signature was sent via email to each Councilmember and the head of Buffalo Place.

13. The Mayor’s office has been characteristically silent. Typical. Why is he letting the Council lead on this issue? Why isn’t the Mayor taking a stand one way or another – why isn’t he saying anything about what is at its core a story about how the city deals with businesses, and how quickly it adapts to novelty? To my mind, Byron Brown should spend the next week sampling the wares at each of the trucks, listening to their concerns and stories.  He should be thanking them for enhancing the quality of life downtown. Because he’s a politician, he should also be listening to the concerned restaurants.  He should also then be using his office to be a leader, and help bring about a fair resolution that is a win for everyone. We don’t have a mayor like that, apparently. This issue underscores what a disappointment that is.

UPDATE: 14. I forgot to add the most important part. SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FOOD TRUCKS. 

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Live-Tweets from the #BUFTruck Hearing

29 Sep

The Tweets are in reverse chronological order – the newest one is at the top. I shouldn’t have done it that way, but it’s the way Twitter is read, and it was how it sort of fell together.

I’ll write more about my thoughts later, but the Tweets from various attendees speak for themselves.

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ICYMI

8 Jul

1. I’ve posted stuff from Shorpy before, but this candid image of an everyday Swan Street in 1911, devoid of emptiness, and this image of a busy Main Street near Swan in 1905 gives you a vivid picture of what the city was like a century ago. Back then, this was a wealthy and busy city, at the forefront of scientific and engineering innovation. These Shorpy images are like a time machine – the resolution is so great that you can examine them and find average people doing everyday, unposed things. To me, it’s the closest thing we have to a time machine.

2. Yesterday, the Republicans on the County Legislature held a press conference blaming the Democrats for torpedoing the reduction of that body from 15 to 11 members. The reason has to do with the fact that the Democrats had the unmitigated gall to be in a majority and to pass a redistricting plan that the Republicans, Chris Collins, and their allies didn’t like. The problem is that both plans were political – they each fellate each group’s traditional base, and each was promoted by political appointees as part of a fundamentally flawed, hyper-politicized process. The whole thing was a sham, and some quite reasonable maps that were drawn up and promoted by average people never saw the light of day because they weren’t being promoted by any particular political faction. Had the process been de-politicized – an idea that is downright unthinkable in Erie County politics – perhaps it wouldn’t now be in front of a federal judge. But the Republicans are being beyond disingenuous in suggesting that they are somehow blameless for the way in which all of this turned up. They had, after all, tried to create a de facto majority so that they could slam whatever plan they wanted down voters’ throats – but a Democratic detente seems to have put the kibosh on that strategy.

3. Felonious Monk writes:

The only observation I have is these local lib blogs continue to publish either false or disingenuous information. The most obvious in WNY Media. For weeks they claimed there was NO strife among Erie County Democrats & now they have back peddled & admit there is significant turmoil within the Party.

Here’s what I wrote:

Both major political parties in western New York, it seems, are going through some upheaval. The Democrats have been fractured into oft-warring factions since time immemorial, but a massive push by Governor Cuomo to broker peace has been largely successful, at least for the current election cycle. There has been some grumbling, but when the most popular governor in America tells you to knock it off, you probably will.

I specifically acknowledge that the Democrats had undergone significant strife in the past, which has almost completely been eliminated, save for a few “what about me” complainers.

Reading is fun. Comprehension is better.

4. Remember that thing I wrote up at paragraph #2? After I got the press release and media advisory from the Republican caucus, I contacted a person working for the Democratic caucus who was – last I knew – their media contact. It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t receiving any press materials from the Democratic caucus at all lately. The response I got was that this person no longer handled press – but there was no information to point me in the right person’s direction. So we at WNYMedia.net are such bigshot Democratic insiders that I can’t get basic information from the caucus we’re supposed to be so closely aligned with. The Erie County Legislature is such a broken, anachronistic, and dysfunctional, needless body that it’s shocking that it (a) exists; (b) is allowed to be partisan; and (c) did I mention “exists”? Maybe they can get Glenn Gramigna to write something up on their behalf.

5. What’s happened in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Casey Anthony cases over the last couple of weeks underscores just how well our judicial system works. The prosecution in the DSK case, when confronted with damning information about it’s star witness’ credibility, is doing what it should do. Their job is not to convict, but to do justice. Likewise, the Casey Anthony jury’s verdict was not unexpected and was completely reasonable. They may think that Casey Anthony is a scumbag, but they weren’t convinced that she had committed an intentional homicide with aggravating circumstances. No one in that courtroom proved to the jurors how or when Caylee died, nor did anyone establish a clear motive for Casey Anthony to have done that. Since the burden of proof is the state’s, maybe it punched too high in bringing the charges it did. You might be pissed off because you think Casey Anthony killed her daughter – and maybe you’re right and maybe she did. But that’s not good enough for a capital murder conviction. Even if you’re the detestable Nancy Grace.

6. Does Buffalo need a “Buffalo Rising”? Probably. I thought Boston had an inferiority complex, always comparing itself to New York, until I moved here and saw that Buffalo has an inferiority complex towards everything. Four decades of being a national punchline will do that to you.

7. I am genuinely stunned that people would knowingly defend an able-bodied person using a handicapped parking spot at any time, under any circumstance. It’s not just illegal – it’s arrogant and obnoxious. But I guess some people will excuse even the most boorish behavior. However, my favorite comments in a thread of 100+ were the why-don’t-you-focus-on-important-things ones. Well, yesterday I posted about state redistricting and how the process has been hijacked and is being politicized by people who had made a pledge not to do that. That post got 6 comments. How many of you called your legislators? Exactly. Spare me the whinging lecture. Collins is still an asshole.

8. When Rupert Murdoch gets a well-deserved come-uppance, everyone wins. Here at home, Fox News is now pushing back hard against Media Matters, the lefty watchdog (yes, funded by *gasp* George Soros! Who is a Jew! /teabagger) that relentlessly points out Fox’s lies and unfair, unbalanced slant. This means that Media Matters’ criticisms are hurting Fox. This means that Media Matters deserves your support. After all, if News Corp is engaging in illegality in the UK, God only knows what it’s up to here in the US.

9. If you get a chance, check out my Spree review of the new Rocco’s Pizza on Transit. It’s quite good, but my hunt for an authentic Neapolitan wood-fired pizza in WNY continues. Vera, are you out there?

Buffalo and her Chow

14 Jun

Lamb with mint chutney - Frenchie: Paris April 2011

Buffalo Chow has regrettably folded again. The news came somewhat unexpectedly yesterday, when the site was essentially scrubbed of all content and shut down. The author of another local food blog, Natalie Eats Buffalo, sent a Twitter Direct Message to Buffalo Chow to ask what was up, and an epic rolling Twitter saga explaining why, commenced yesterday afternoon.

In a nutshell, Buffalo Chow went grudgingly with friends to the new Olive Garden on Transit, and decided that they’d review it, and in so doing order all the cocktails on the drink menu. They did – only a couple of the drinks were any good. The food they ordered, complete with clumsy un-Italian names, was “good” in direct proportion to how drunk one was. The cost – outlandish. Then, the aha moment:

The three people who had wanted to come didn’t enjoy their meals. But I did. And we’d waited way past our reservation, paid a ridiculous price for it all, and no one was really, truly thrilled.

I went to write it up for Buffalo Chow, and realized something. No one would care. This restaurant, as much as it represented just about everything bad in dining today, was packed to enviable levels.

My review wasn’t going to change that. Three out of the four people who had just eaten there would, despite their meals, come back again. And even I, the person who disliked the place the most, had found a way to make the most of the experience. The food sucked, but… so what?

And that’s how Buffalo Chow ends. In this town, restaurant reviews are barely about the food any more. They’re about the people and stories. The photos in the Buffalo News are barely about the food – they’re people sitting around chowing down on stuff that doesn’t even look good.

Local [publications] are there to tell you stories about the people who started the places, about why the ingredients come from this or that farm… [Does the chocolate in that ice cream really taste distinctive? No? Well, let’s talk about where the chocolate came from, or how the ice cream was hand-packed with love by an actual person rather than put into the carton by an evil robot bent on stealing American jobs or something. It’s ridiculous.]

@ccharvella writes, “Follow @buffalochow right now for an explanation of why s—ty chain restaurants are not the answer.” I have no issue with chains. For me, it’s always – always – about getting the best food. The rest is all storytime, all filler. Excuses. But around here, [while] it’s becoming storytime, our favorite restaurants are nosediving. I can’t even point to my own review of Chophouse. They’ve lost two chefs since we wrote it, and after two bad meals, we’re not excited to go back. Same w/ King & I. Sun Garden. Many others.

I love Buffalo. Love WNY. Want so, so badly to see this city and region do well, to embrace great food, to become successful again. But our system here is broken. Too broken for me to fix it. Too broken for me to start a business in the city and change things. Too broken to know that a restaurant review that I read on a local web site wasn’t written by a friend of the owners, or owners themselves.

@chinakatsunflwr writes, “@buffalochow amen. WNY embraces mediocrity, from food to fashion.” @chinakatsunflwr, it’s hard to know where the mediocre tastes end and the shilling begins.

From day to day, it’s honestly tough to know whether (lots of) people here don’t know or don’t care about quality food.

So for the people who read Buffalo Chow, thank you. For those who care about food quality, thank you. For those who can see [through] the BS that’s been printed in local media here about local places, thank you. I know you’re out there. I appreciate you. You’re the smart ones.

@nateatsbuffalo writes, “@buffalochow I respect and understand your decision, but you will be SO missed! I guess this leads me to ask: what’s next?” @nateatsbuffalo – I’m not going to string people along w/what’s nexts. We have two alternatives that we’re discussing. One is WNY-changing. Seriously on that. Like, huge. But it is highly unlikely to happen b/c of WNY corruption. The other is less ambitious and more doable.

When we decide the road to take, we’ll tweet it. Right now, we’re still discussing + exploring. But reviewing Olive Garden is not worth it.

I write reviews for the Spree, and they’re nowhere near as food-centric or thorough as Buffalo Chow’s. My philosophy of reviewing restaurants underscores the fact that working parents are probably paying a fortune in babysitter fees just to leave the house, and a place has to not only get the food reasonably right, but everything else has to be good, too. The place should be comfortable, the welcome should be gracious, the servers should be prompt, not in my face, but ready to help with suggestions for wines or specialties. I think the story behind the food is interesting, but only when the food is good. I agree with Buffalo Chow that the story is irrelevant excuse-making if the food sucks.

I had recently went to the Steer on Main Street in order to review it. I ordered a burger, the menu entry for which had a lengthy description of how awesome it was: “locally raised hormone-free beef house ground grilled over charcoal and wood fire”. Well, maybe it’s the hormones and long trip that make other burgers in other places taste good, because what I got was a machine-formed overcooked, dry hockey puck doused in a sriracha mayo. We also tried the wood-fired “pizza” and the homemade tater tots on the side. The pizza was a dry, floury, crackerish flatbread with Ragu and mozzarella, served in a rectangular shape and was done in an oven that was nowhere near hot enough, hence the crumbly, undone crust. The tater tots were overcooked and prepared in what tasted like borderline rancid oil. The meal was so awful that I couldn’t eat again for over 24 hours – not sure if it was the sriracha mayo or the horrid tots that did it.

The service? It was ok, but the food was so awful that the story, or the ownership, or anything else one might point out about the Steer didn’t matter at all.

On the other hand, there are some places – like Lake Effect Ice Cream – that make some great things, some so-so things, some misses, but they keep trying and experimenting with ingredients and flavors. To me, the story sort of matters with them because there are too many ice cream joints in town that blindly scoop Perry’s or swirl something that comes out of an Upstate Farms carton. There aren’t many places that make their own ice cream (Charlap’s, Sweet Jenny’s, and gelateria Sweet Melody’s come to mind). So, although Lake Effect’s cappuccino mocha may be a little bland, I’ve always been delighted with Date at the Zoo, chocolate, salty caramel, and Loganberry.

We plan on doing a podcast soon with Buffalo Chow, with input from Chris Charvella, who works in the restaurant supply business to discuss all of this. Read Chow’s entire post here.