Craig LaBan: On Sunday we headed off to Conte Farms in Tabernacle, Burlington County, for our annual blueberry-picking fest. It doesn't take long to fill those buckets - we collected 10 pounds in an hour, which at $2.50 a pound was a pretty good deal for berries so fresh . . . I find Conte's fruit reliably great every year, and it's a wonderful family ritual.
Reader: Just had two over-seasoned meals, at In Riva and Alla Spina. Almost inedible. Feeling like over-seasoning is like a new fashion statement or something. I would prefer under-seasoned, but what happened to properly seasoned?
C.L.: Sorry to hear that, those are both places I like where I've not had seasoning problems. It's not something I've perceived as a city-wide trend, either. . . . This is obviously a subjective thing, but, in general, proper seasoning should make flavors pop, not overwhelm them. If you taste the salt one way or the other (too much, too little) something is amiss.
Reader: Peter McAndrews has such a heavy hand with the salt and such a high tolerance for noise that he's driven me away. At Modo Mio once I truly could not hear the person next to me :(
C.L.: Well, Peter has always had a two-fisted approach to cooking - big, bold flavors, often finished with an egg on top. I've had issues with this at several of his places but I also understand the appeal. Monsu and Modo Mio are the two I'd really like to get back to - big flavors, real personality, and very fair value for what you get. These are definitely not generic Italian restaurants, and I appreciate that about McAndrews' places.
Reader: Have it from a reliable source that the Mainland Inn will reopen (at last!) mid-September: All organic and handicapped accessible.
C.L.: Michael Klein tells me it's still slated for a September/October opening. And that the chef on board for the project now has a nice pedigree: "Ezra Duker, Philly-born hotshot whose resume includes French Laundry, Morimoto Napa Valley, the Truffled Pig in Steamboat, Colo., and Block 16 in Vail," writes Klein. Love to see another Philly guy come home, and also one of our great country inns getting some new life. Which reminds me . . . the Blue Bell Inn is another suburban classic that recently got new owners and a remake. I hope to get there some day soon, but does anyone have a report?
Reader: Blue Bell is gorgeously redone, but each time we've been the service has been slow and the lobster roll is microscopic relative to its $20ish price. Hope it works out the kinks, because its a magnificent space.
C.L.: It's early, so some kinks are to be expected - especially with service, always a little tricky in the far burbs. Speaking of lobster roll deals, though, I'm finding it hard to beat Luke's Lobster Roll for value. This is the chain with its own lobster fishery in Maine that has a tiny subterranean nook on 17th St. just north of Walnut St. Luke's has been around for a year or so, and I do think there some more upscaled versions that I prefer - which also cost more. Pa6 and the Oyster House, for example. But for $15, I got half a lobster roll and half a shrimp roll, a very tidy, tasty snack evocative of the coast. Warm, butter-crisped bun, tender, juicy meat that tasted of the sea. Luke's doesn't overdress its lobster, either.