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by MALCOLM ABRAMS
When I eat out or order in—and that’s frequently—I’ve often thought the best dishes are not the entrées or even the desserts, but what comes first: the appetizers. Here are a few that I crave.
Every time we visit Bangkok Thai Cuisine, my family orders the shrimp and chicken dumplings. They’re steamed, then topped with green onions, cilantro, and garlic, and served with a vinegar- mushroom soy sauce. These dumplings are dense, indescribably delicious, and if you eat all five, it’s practically a meal.
Speaking of dumplings, the Japanese vegetable gyoza at Asuka Japanese Steakhouse are wonderful. Crisp on the outside, juicy and flavorful on the inside. I normally prefer my dumplings with meat or seafood, but I’ll take these instead anytime.
At Osteria Rago, I had to be convinced by a fellow diner (okay, my wife, Jenny) to sample the Polenta Bites. I’m not a polenta person, but eventually I gave in, and they are as yummy as she said. Each bite is comprised of a marinated mushroom, garlic, melted fontina cheese, and, yes, polenta.
The Owlery Restaurant on the downtown Square is the go-to place for vegetarians and vegans, but even if you’re not one it’s worth a visit just for their sweet potato fries. Crunchy on the outside, smooth on the interior. I like mine with gravy.
The first time I sampled the Meatballs Bucharest at Janko’s Little Zagreb, I vowed never again. They were so hot my mouth went numb. Gradually—one meatball at a time over a couple of years—I learned to love them. Prepared with tomato, green pepper, and god knows what spices, they become addictive. If you find them too hot, ask for some sour cream to neutralize the sting.
I love soup, and those at Crazy Horse are terrific. I have two favorites—Southwestern chicken and French onion. Both are generally available on Wednesdays. The chicken soup is hot and spicy; the French onion is overloaded with gooey Gruyere cheese on top of crunchy croutons. What could be bad?
21 North on the Martinsville square is a gem of a restaurant serving the best egg rolls I have ever eaten. Made with shrimp and pork and a bunch of other ingredients, they’re served with a sweet chili dipping sauce. So fabulous. I once asked Chef Matt Harakal what’s inside the crisp shell and he listed about a dozen ingredients. Who puts that much effort into making an eggroll?!
If you like fish tacos, there are two places that do them exceptionally well.
At Malibu Grill, spicy cumin-seared mahi-mahi is covered in chipotle slaw, tomatoes, and cilantro on a flour tortilla. At the Trojan Horse, the fish is tilapia and it comes with a spicy breading, covered in red cabbage and pico de gallo, and served on a flour tortilla with their “cool” hot sauce on the side. The taco is listed under sandwiches, but you can order one, two, or three as a starter.
Wednesday is a special day around Bloom because that’s the day our neighbor, Stéphanie Laparre at La Vie en Rose, makes almond croissants. Maybe it’s not really an appetizer, but it’s what I have first whenever I lunch there. The croissants are flaky, buttery, crispy, sweet, and creamy— all the major food groups!
At The Uptown Cafe, the smoked salmon paté is a New York–style appetizer unlike anything I’ve found in Bloomington. Honey hot smoked salmon is mixed with cream cheese, sour cream, horseradish, and dill, and served with slices of olive oil– toasted baguette. For me, it doesn’t get any better than this.