2019-03-01 / Features

Chefs' Fabulous Food Finds

By Robyn Passante & Sarah Rafacz
Photos By Ruth Harpster

We’re lucky to live in an area with a wealth of local food and international cuisine. But let’s face it: We all have tried-and-true favorite foods based on our individual tastes, lifestyles and family histories. We know what we like, and that’s great.

But professional chefs have a different sort of discerning eye, nose and palate for what’s truly outstanding on plates around town. For this year’s annual Fabulous Food Finds, we asked three well-respected chefs for their thoughts on what locally made dishes they think are delicious, inventive and authentically made. We hope some of their favorites might soon become your favorites, too!

Chef Justin Berkebile
Chef Justin Berkebile has been cooking since he was 14, and has been professionally running restaurants since 2003. He was brought on to be executive chef at Barrel 21 Distillery & Dining and food service manager at Otto’s Pub & Brewery in August 2018. Before that, he was executive chef of Spats Café and Speakeasy downtown, which closed in January 2018.

“I like the chance to work with our house-made spirits and beers,” says Berkebile, 36. “We have our own farm for a lot of our own beef … and in spring, summer and fall we have our own gardens, so those kinds of things are pretty exciting. And they give me carte blanche to do whatever I want.” What he wants to do is a near-total menu shakeup every four months, so if you have a favorite on Barrel 21’s current menu, don’t wait to go enjoy it again.

Here are two of Berkebile's current favorites from his own kitchen at Barrel 21.

Hand Crafted Rolled Ice Cream
at Momotaro

Photo by Georgianna DeCarminePhoto by Georgianna DeCarmineThai rolled ice cream was an internet sensation when it first came on the scene in the United States, and it’s easy to see why: the process is transfixing, even relaxing. The Hand Crafted Ice Cream Roll (starting at $7.45) at Momotarō is customizable to whatever your taste buds are craving. Start by choosing a base ice cream — original, yogurt, green tea (Matcha), chocolate, Thai tea or nondairy coconut. Then you can mix in a flavor — ranging from old standards like strawberry to black sesame — and add toppings and a drizzle. Each is served with two pocky sticks, a toasted marshmallow and an adorable koala cookie (usually filled with a bit of strawberry or chocolate).

Joe Sorkin, who’s worked at Momotarō since October 2017, says the ice cream starts out as a liquid, but it’s the same ingredients as the ice cream you’re probably used to. It’s poured onto the “cold grill,” where flavors are mixed in, and then it starts to freeze. Then it’s flattened out and rolled up. On go the toppings, and you’ve got an Instagram-worthy treat.

CHEF’S THOUGHTS: “The whole dessert shop is really unique; their macarons are out of this world,” Barrel 21 Distillery & Dining Executive Chef Justin Berkebile says. “But the Thai rolled ice cream is probably the most creative dessert I’ve had in the past year.”

BACKGROUND BITES: Momotaro opened almost two years ago and has been serving up sweet and creative creations ever since. In addition to the rolled ice cream, Momotaro offers a variety of made-to-order teas, like cheese tea and milk tea, and other decadent desserts. Momotaro, 220 W. College Ave.,

Corn Maze
at Happy Valley Brewing Company

Happy Valley Brewing Company’s Corn Maze ($9) is a riff on the classic polenta, a smoked cheddar version fried and served in two generous wedges with a poached egg and ricotta salata, which combines red pepper, red wine, smoked paprika, crushed red tomatoes, carrots and green onion, with a touch of cilantro added for a nice, fresh bite. “It’s a well-loved dish around here,” says general manager Celesta Powell. “It’s on our small plates menu, but I really consider it more of a main dish.”

CHEF’S THOUGHTS: “I always like going to Happy Valley Brewing Company, and my girlfriend got this dish and I thought it was really good and unique,” Berkebile says. “I’m a big fan of polenta.”

BACKGROUND BITES: With St. Patrick’s Day on a Sunday this year, the HVBC team is excited to offer something for the whole family, including great food, the return of NitWit, a Belgian white, and live music from 2 to 8 p.m., including sets by The Evergreens and Goodish. Happy Valley Brewing Company, 137 Elmwood St., State College,

Old Fashioned Marinated Teres Major
at Barrel 21Distillery & Dining

The Old Fashioned Marinated Teres Major ($28), also called a petit shoulder tender, is an underblade cut from the shoulder that’s as tender as filet mignon but not quite as expensive. Berkebile uses Barrel’s Old Fashioned spirits — orange-infused rye whiskey and bitters — with a simple syrup made with soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and other ingredients to make a marinade that’s used on the beef in a vacuum tumbler. The meat is paired with leeks, Brussels sprouts and Pommes Parisienne, topped with fried shallots and finished with a cherry demi-glaze and red wine vinegar syrup.

Seared Scallops and Crab with Parisian Gnocchi
at Barrel 21 Distillery & Dining

“This is our most popular dish,” Berkebile says of the Seared Scallops and Crab with Parisian Gnocchi ($32). He estimates that the creamy combo has accounted for about 25 percent of total menu sales since it first appeared on the menu in November. The gnocchi are made with Pâte à Choux, a French pastry dough that makes the finished product more delicate than traditional Italian gnocchi. “They’re almost like little clouds.” A bit of limoncello gives the dish a touch of sweetness and pairs perfectly with the mascarpone cheese.

BACKGROUND BITES: The Barrel 21 brunch buffet has earned a great reputation for its tasty all-you-can-eat menu and Bloody Mary bar, and its nice long window — 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday — means even the sleepiest among us can indulge. Barrel 21 Distillery & Dining, 2255 N. Atherton St.,

Chef John Clickner II
Chef John Clickner II, 50, has been working in restaurants for decades, scoring his first executive chef gig when he was 21. He started as executive chef at Gigi’s Southern Table in June 2014 and says he loves the cuisine, having worked in the South for a number of years.

His food philosophy is to keep things simple. “I try to let the food be the star of the plate,” he says, meaning that he isn’t trying to add a lot of different ingredients. He finds that nowadays, with culinary shows and internet recipes, people are overcomplicating food.

“I just try to simplify it, using fresh ingredients. I try to get the freshest ingredients possible,” he says.
Gigi’s seafood is flown in fresh multiple times per week, and Clickner says he tries to use local farmers’ products as much as possible.

Clickner picked a hearty breakfast option and a delectable dinner as two favorites from his kitchen.

Dragon Roll / Spicy Basil Fried Rice with Shrimp
at Kamrai Thai & Sushi House

Gigi’s Southern Table Executive Chef John Clickner II is a big fan of Kamrai Thai & Sushi House, especially their Dragon Roll ($15) and Spicy Basil Fried Rice with Shrimp ($14.95). The almost-too-pretty-to-eat Dragon Roll has shrimp tempura, crab sticks, masago, scallion and cream cheese, and it’s topped with avocado and eel sauce.
The Spicy Basil Fried Rice, which Clickner adds shrimp to, is Jasmine rice with eggs, chili, garlic, bell pepper, onion and basil. (Kamrai Chef Maxx Ditin says it’s a “medium” on the spicy scale.)

CHEF’S THOUGHTS: “I love Asian cuisine,” Clickner says. “It’s so different than what I’m used to doing.” So if he gets off work early, he usually heads to Kamrai. Clickner says he can make his own sushi, but “it’s easier and nicer just to get it from people who have a passion about it, and I know the owners there so it’s a good camaraderie.”

BACKGROUND BITES: It’s worth noting that both Berkebile and Clickner called out the Lobster Bomb Roll ($26) as a can’t-miss item. We thought so, too: It was one of our Fabulous Food Finds in 2016. So if you still haven’t tried it, consider this a gentle nudge in that direction. Kamrai Thai & Sushi House, 901 Pike St., Lemont,

HEAD’S UP: Ditin plans to open Maxx Sushi & Ramen Bar (812 Pike St.) down the street from Kamrai sometime this month!

Carnegie Inn & Spa Fine Dining

Clickner says he loves what Executive Chef Paul Kendeffy is doing at Carnegie Inn & Spa Fine Dining. But, for two reasons, he couldn’t name a favorite dish: The menu changes frequently, and the restaurant is undergoing renovations due to a pipe that burst in late January.

The hope is to reopen in early April, Kendeffy says. And while the kitchen and dining room will have an updated look, something important will remain the same: the focus on delivering quality food, which he says is all about the product.

“The better food you have, the less you have to do with it and the better it’s going to be,” Kendeffy says. “If you have a perfect tomato, it’s a perfect tomato. You can’t take a bad tomato and make it taste good.”

BACKGROUND BITES: A fire pit and patio overlooking Toftrees Golf Course was added before the restaurant closed for renovations and is waiting to be a new favorite outdoor dining spot. Almost 20 people can be seated around it. “It’s unbelievable” and offers one of the most beautiful views for dining in the area, Kendeffy says. Carnegie Inn & Spa Fine Dining, 100 Cricklewood Drive,

Cajun Eggs Benedict
at Gigi’s Southern Table

The Cajun Eggs Benedict ($14) includes two poached eggs served over grit cakes. Those are topped with Louisiana gumbo — made from scratch with Andouille sausage from Hogs Galore, chicken, okra, rice and a roux, which gives it a “nutty flavor,” says the chef. The final touch is a cheddar-based beer cheese. It’s served with hash, made from red potatoes, peppers, onions and a special seasoning.
It’s one of several Eggs Benedict options at Gigi’s, and Clickner says the restaurant will soon be adding a Shrimp and Grits Eggs Benedict, with a grit cake supporting a poached egg, shrimp and tasso gravy.

“People seem to really like Eggs Benedict. We’ve tried a lot of different little egg things here and there, but the Eggs Benedict, you can be creative with it,” Clickner says.

Mascarpone Ravioli
at Gigi’s Southern Table

The Mascarpone Ravioli ($19) is a dish of vibrant colors. It’s done in layers, with sautéed baby kale, red peppers, garlic, onion and a bit of white wine laying the foundation. Striped ravioli stuffed with mascarpone and spinach is placed on top, along with a slow-roasted tomato vodka sauce made in-house and shaved asiago cheese. It’s garnished with black Falksalt. It's Clickners favorite vegetarian dish on his menu.

BACKGROUND BITES: Gigi’s Southern Table serves brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, giving you plenty of time to get your fix of traditional Southern staples, like Sausage Gravy and Biscuits. Gigi’s Southern Table, 2080 Cato Ave.,

Chef Harrison Schailey
Harrison Schailey has been focused on local food way before it was trendy. The Philadelphia native was lucky enough to intern for famed chef Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in the mid-’90s. Waters is known as the mother of the local food movement, sourcing everything served in her restaurant from local or regional suppliers. “That was kind of a life-changing experience for me,” says Schailey, 57, who brought that approach to the restaurant business to State College in 2000 when he opened the original Harrison’s on North Atherton Street.

Since 2005, he’s been cozily ensconced in the Hilton Garden Inn State College, where he changes the featured menu to different international cuisines each month, but boasts more than 30 local food partners for the dishes made there and menu items offered there.

Later this year, Schailey and partner Kit Henshaw hope to open a new restaurant at their events location, Above the Valley Event Center in Centre Hall, which will feature barbecue favorites smoked on-site.

In the meantime, these are two current favorites.

Spicy Rolls
at Kimchi Korean Restaurant

The Spicy Rolls ($7.99) at Kimchi Korean Restaurant might not be the prettiest things on a plate, but don’t judge this book by its cover. These spicy fried, breaded seaweed rolls stuffed with clear noodles have just the right kick to them. If you’re hungry for more than an appetizer, Harrison’s Wine Grill & Catering Chef Harrison Schailey suggests you try the Bulgogi ($15.99), thin slices of beef rib eye marinated in savory Korean barbecue sauce and served with steamed rice.

CHEF’S THOUGHTS: “Korean food is a mystery a little bit to me. This is a spicy roll; it’s a little appetizer, and it’s kind of addictive,” Schailey says.

BACKGROUND BITES: Kimchi Korean Restaurant has been open since 2006. Every meal is served with a side of the restaurant's namesake kimchi, a fermented cabbage marinated with hot peppers.  Kimchi Korean Restaurant, 1100 N. Atherton St.,

at The Greek

What’s not to love about fried cheese? Saganaki ($6.99), an appetizer at The Greek, is Kasseri cheese mixed with feta, sesame seeds and egg. Kasseri is a Greek cheese that’s similar to mozzarella but a little sharper, says John Dimakopoulos, who owns The Greek with his wife, Lisa. The mixture, shaped almost like a little pie, is then placed in the frying pan with olive oil, and “it gets nice and crispy,” he says. In some places, Saganaki is served flaming by pouring hot ouzo, which Dimakopoulos says is “high octane,” over the dish and then setting it ablaze. At The Greek, they save the flames for the kitchen and serve it instead with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

CHEF’S THOUGHTS: “I like The Greek because I always know the people know what they’re doing,” Schailey says. “Whoever’s in charge of that kitchen knows how to make that food.”

BACKGROUND BITES: On Fridays at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., Shannon Bishop of Black Cat Belly Dance performs upstairs at The Greek. For a little while, you might even forget you’re in central Pennsylvania. The Greek, 102 E. Clinton Ave.,

Som Tam
at My Thai

Som Tam ($6.95), a green papaya salad, is the national dish of Thailand, done to spicy perfection at My Thai. A pile of shredded papaya, tomatoes, string beans and crushed peanuts is drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette — featuring fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice — that gives it just the right zip.

CHEF’S THOUGHTS: “This salad is really, really good, and it’s good for you,” Schailey says. “I don’t make my own because I don’t make it as good as they do.”

BACKGROUND BITES: My Thai is known for its spicy dishes, and manager Michelle Jiang says they use a combination of different spices to give the dishes an authentic Thai flavor. They also incorporate a lot of galangal (Thai ginger root), lemongrass, lime and fish sauce. My Thai, 422 Westerly Parkway,

Local Meatloaf Platter
at Harrison’s Wine Grill & Catering

The Local Meatloaf Platter ($19.75) has become a favorite comfort food among regular Harrison’s patrons, but took awhile to catch on due to the unique flavor of the chorizo sausage in the mix. “I really like chorizo because of the spice to it, but it’s kind of strong,” he says. “It complements the ground meat, and we mix a little bit of barbecue sauce into the meat as well.”

The meatloaf is a blend of J & J Farm chorizo and Hidden Pond beef and is served with a local in-season vegetable.

Marinated Mushrooms
at Harrison’s Wine Grill & Catering

Schailey orders more than 60 pounds of button mushrooms from a Kennett Square farm near Philadelphia every week to make his chilled House Specialty Marinated Mushrooms ($7.75), which are a proven favorite on the Harrison’s menu. He developed the recipe — which he won’t share beyond the fact that it includes oil, garlic and red wine vinegar — while working on cruise ships in the early part of his career.

“The key with the mushrooms I make is they’re not cooked, they’re chemically cooked,” he says of the ’shrooms’ marinating process. “They need 48 hours to make them what they are.”

BACKGROUND BITES: Stop in for a dish from Schailey’s South American-themed special menu this month, and return in April when the eatery will feature French cuisine. Harrison’s Wine Grill & Catering, 1221 E. College Ave.,

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