Thursday, October 29, 2009

Special Feature: the PRC



732 Joseph E. Lowery Blvd, Atlanta, GA http://acfb.org/

Today I wanted to take the opportunity to shine a small spotlight on a very special place that is dear to my heart: the Product Rescue Center (PRC) of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I have been volunteering at the PRC for almost seven years, and I truly feel that every hour there has been time well spent.

This is how it works: The Food Bank sends trucks to pick up donated food from food drives and local grocery stores, then delivers the items to the PRC, where volunteers sort, inspect and pack like items. The goods are then sent to over 800 partner agencies (such as children's, women's and homeless shelters, and senior centers) in 38 counties in metro Atlanta and North Georgia.

The PRC is a great place for many reasons, one being that it is extremely well organized. When you volunteer there you'll be shown a cute video produced by the Cartoon Network that gives you all the info on the work at the PRC and what becomes of the donations. Once you enter the warehouse you'll be well supervised and directed by several friendly staff members. At the end of the shift one of them will tell you the number of pounds of food you packed and its equivalent number of meals, so you can instantly feel great about the work you performed.

There are two ways in which you can help the PRC: you can volunteer, or you can make food or monetary donations. Either will be much appreciated.

The PRC takes volunteers ages 8 and up, and they have shifts on multiple days and times. You can find me at the Wednesday night shift from 6 to 8:30pm, sorting and inspecting donated food.

If you'd like to donate, you may do so on the website with a credit/debit card (see the yellow "donate online" icon), or you may send a check to the address listed above. The Food Bank is able to convert every dollar to $5.66 worth of food (or six meals) for the needy, so even a small monetary donation can go a long way towards helping the underprivileged in your community.

If you'd like to donate food, please see this link for instructions: http://acfb.org/operations/product_procurement/donate/. The PRC "most wanted" items include canned meats, peanut butter and canned fruits and vegetables.

Being a longtime volunteer at the PRC, I have seen many strange items come through the sort area. I know that everyone has good intentions when they are donating food for the hungry, but please try to be practical and keep in mind that the PRC cannot accept homemade baked/canned items, perishable goods or items that have expired over a year ago. You may be laughing at this, but I can tell you that my fellow volunteers have pulled gallons of milk, Ziploc bags full of home-baked biscuits and loaves of bread from the familiar blue bins. Two years ago we also received a tin of coffee that expired in 1975. I kid you not.

Verdict: The PRC is a fantastic place to volunteer and a wonderful service to our community. The Food Bank has many other projects that I will highlight in future posts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Raja Indian Restaurant



2955 Peachtree Rd., NE, Atlanta, GA www.2goclub.com

Today I ate lunch at Raja for the second time in the past six months. Raja is a small restaurant located beside an empty Verizon Wireless store in a shopping center on Peacthree Rd. in Buckhead. The interior reflects Americans' typical idea of Indian ambiance - red plastic tablecloths, gold wall hangings and the same, lyric less Oriental song replaying continuously in the background. Suffice it to say that you won't be eating at Raja for the decor.

You also won't be eating there for the food.

To give you the correct perspective on this post, I want to state that I absolutely adore Indian food. I shiver with excitement when I smell curry, lick my happy lips after eating naan bread and can practically drink cucumber raita out of a glass. I eat Indian cuisine every opportunity I get, which may not seem like very often given my complete deficiency of reviews of Indian restaurants up to this point. You have my word - there will be upcoming, additional posts on local Indian restaurants. Unfortunately Raja just happens to be the first one.

Today I had the chicken biryani lunch special. The special was $8.25 and came with soup, dal, rice and dessert. In the case of the biryani (which is comprised mainly of rice) I was served a vegetable medley rather than more rice, a reasonable and pleasant substitute. The vegetable medley was fragrant and soft, perhaps the best component of my meal. The biryani, normally a wonderful dish of pilau rice, peas, carrots and in my case, chicken, had a good flavor but was very greasy, leaving huge spots of dark red oil all over my plate. The chicken was dry and overcooked. The soup, which was some sort of completely pureed version of mulligatawny, had an very good, salty flavor. The flavor couldn't make up for the mushy consistency, however.

Speaking of mushy, the dal was ridiculous and nearly flavorless. Two spoonfulls were enough for me, and then it was unceremoniously shoved to the far reaches of my table. I also ordered a serving of naan ($2.75), and regret to inform you that it may have been the worst naan I've ever eaten. I want to clarify this: if I had not expected it to be the very lightly baked, leavened, bulbous and light brown bread that I am accustomed to receiving when I order naan at other restaurants, I may not have been disappointed. As far as bread goes, it was fine. As far as naan in particular goes, it was sub-par. The consistency (apparently a problem in multiple dishes at Raja) was too crispy, and the top was far too buttery. I love butter, but if naan is baked correctly it does not require slathered butter to produce flavor. Most steak lovers know that a really fine cut of beef does not require steak sauce. It's the same with naan and butter.

Incidentally, I never received a dessert on either of my trips to Raja. I don't know what happened here, but I wasn't severely disappointed about this discrepancy considering my general bad impression of the food.

You may not believe this after reading the above review, but I actually liked the food at Raja better on this trip than on my last lunch there. This time I would label it a C-, whereas several months ago I would have given it a D or D-. That time it was chicken curry, which one assumes that any Indian restaurant can adequately produce. In the case of Raja, all assumptions are out.

On a happier note, service was attentive. I was rereading Gone With the Wind during my lunch today and the waitstaff made sure to refill my water glass and clear my table without disturbing me. Very nice.

Verdict: Possibly improving but still poor.

update - sorry for delay

Hello blog family,
I will be posting a new blog this afternoon. Sorry for the delay.
- Southern Foodie

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Food for Thought: Holiday Dinner Essential


It's that time of year again - the holidays are right around the corner. (Please do not hate me for reminding you of this fact!) The holidays are full of crowded shopping malls, themed music, temperatures dropping, spiritual rejoicing and time for catching up with family, and they are also filled with opportunities to eat huge portions of hot, rich foods. Yes! The time is indeed drawing near!

I woke up this morning dreaming of green bean casserole (topped with French fried onions, of course), turkey with giblet gravy and pumpkin pie. Maybe it's because the Atlanta weather has briefly turned cold, or maybe it's just because I love to stuff myself to near sickness and this act of gluttony is more readily excused during the upcoming holidays, but I can't seem to get the smells and flavors of holiday dinners out of my head today.

Which got me thinking about priorities. In most American homes, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals are composed of many dishes which range from spicy to sweet. I recall that last year when I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at Kyle's mother's house there was a greater number of dishes on the table than people sitting around it - a true holiday smorgasbord. If I had to choose one, and ONLY one, to eat on Thanksgiving or Christmas, what would it be?

Naturally it is highly doubtful that you would ever have to make such a terrible decision in reality, but I have noticed that contemplating this sort of question helps me to appreciate all of the wonderful options that most of us take for granted every year when we sit down to sup.

After spending my early morning running on the treadmill and considering all my holidays past (not a good combination of activities), I have concluded that I would never want to spend a holiday without my grandmother's sweet potato souffle. I know there are many versions of this, and my sister makes a great one with a thick layer of pecans on top, but I have to give my grandmother's my highest rating for holiday food. It's topped with cornflakes, a whole bag of marshmallows and candied pecans. I have seen her make it and I cringed when she melted an entire stick of butter during the process, but all thoughts of clogged arteries fled from my mind when I tasted that first steaming bite. Fabulous!

Maybe your essential holiday dish is a special casserole from a recipe your mom hides from the rest of the family. Maybe it's an ethnic dish passed down through generations or from relatives who are fairly new arrivals in the U.S. Maybe you are part of a vegetarian family and instead of turkey or ham, your relatives whip up some tofu delight topped with vegan gravy. Whatever it is, I'd like to hear about it. Please share your holiday dinner essential with the Southern Foodie community by leaving your comments to this post.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Crepe Revolution




4600 West Village Place, Smyrna, GA http://www.creperevolution.com/

On Tuesday night I had dinner with my friends Kelly and Beric at Crepe Revolution. Crepe Revolution is located in one of those live/work/play communities just off the Atlanta Rd. exit of 285.

The interior of the restaurant is modern but comfortable. There's a bright red leather couch beside the door for you to lounge in if you have to wait, and in back there's a well stocked bar area. Because the weather was nice we chose to sit on the patio, which is decorated with a trellis of plastic, grapes lighting the railing.

Normally I love crepes. I don't get to enjoy them very often, and I think the last one I ate was at IHOP (it was Nutella-filled and I have to admit, simply delicious). When I browsed the menu the descriptions of both the savory and the sweet crepes practically made my mouth water and my heart leap. About 15 minutes later this same heart took a nosedive.

The main reason for this was my entree, the chicken Thai peanut crepe. Many restaurants serve some type of chicken/Thai/peanut combo dish and I usually really like them. Not this time. The fresh herb crepe itself, along with the chicken and brocolli, was fine. It was the "spicy sweet lime sauce and Thai peanut dressing" that did me in. The lime tasted completely artificial and was so tart it made my lips pucker. The Thai peanut sauce was sweeter than many pies I've eaten, and I'm a Southerner, so that's a major statement. The dish was so disatisfactory that I nearly sent it back to the kitchen, something I haven't done in about 5 years. This crepe was supposed to be savory. What happened?

Kelly ordered the creamy shrimp crepe. This was better than my crepe, primarily because it included bacon. My readers must have learned by now that I think the addition of bacon can improve almost any dish. I also liked the flavor and consistency of the parmesan sauce, and the shrimp was nice and plump. However, the menu indicated that the dish included artichokes, and I couldn't detect them with my eyes or my tastebuds.

On to the desserts, which in my case was the lemon and sugar crepe. If you've ever eaten a lemon filled powdered donut, you have had this same experience except in a much thicker form. I like lemon, so I liked the crepe, which was drizzled with raspberry sauce. It was good but not great. Kelly ordered the apple sizzle, which was comprised of Granny Smith apples, cinnamon, caramel sauce and powdered sugar. This was better than my lemon crepe, but again, not spectacular. All sweet crepes are served with your choice of vanilla, chocolate or coffee ice cream. Most of the crepes listed seem so sweet that the addition of ice cream might put you into sugar shock.

The restaurant does have some items on the menu that are NOT crepes. There are appetizers like ginger shrimp or "big flat mushroom", which is served with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, and there are multiple salads, including one with duck. There's also a duck confit crepe on the dinner menu. I'm not a duck fan - the bird is just too oily and fatty for my taste - but I'd love to hear a duck lover's opinion on the dish.

Crepe Revolution also offers brunch on the weekends, and I'd be willing to return to try the "baked crepe cups" or the cheeze blintz. Also, the coffee is served in individual French presses, a lovely touch.

Verdict: The menu descriptions are much better than the actual products. Avoid the chicken Thai peanut crepe.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Special Feature: opentable.com


www.opentable.com

I have mentioned the website www.opentable.com several times in my posts recently, and I received an inquiry about it last week. It occurs to me that if one of my followers/readers is unfamiliar with opentable, there must be more. Here is a description of this great service.

Opentable is a website that allows the user to make restaurant reservations online. I've been using it for years, I can attest to its user-friendly format and reliability. You simply go to the website, select your city, and make a reservation at the restaurant of your choice. There are tons of restaurants in Atlanta who utilize opentable, including many chains as well as independent destinations. I've also successfully made reservations in San Diego, Hilton Head and Savannah. It's no more difficult to reserve a table in Lisbon, Portugal than it is right down the street from your office. (OK, Lisbon only currently has 1 participating restaurant, but the service is expanding all the time.)

Why do you want to make your reservations through opentable, as opposed to calling the restaurant or making a reservation directly on the restaurant's website? Because opentable rewards you for booking through their website. Typical reservations get you 100 points, but there are also 1,000 point reservations for select restaurants, mainly at off times of the week or day. If you are willing to eat out at 6pm on a Tuesday like an elderly person, you might be eligible for 1,000 points. When you accumulate 2,000 points you may request a $20 opentable gift certificate that is good at any participating restaurant. There are also 5,000 ($50) and 10,000 ($100) point levels. What sane foodie would turn down some free dining funds?

The website also allows the user to narrow down restaurants in a region by type of cuisine or neighborhood, a big help if you are planning to dine in a city/state/country with which you aren't entirely familiar. When you select a particular restaurant you can read a review, see the price range for an average meal and link up to the restaurant's website and/or menu, so opentable is truly a one stop experience. Once you make a reservation you get an email confirmation, and a reminder a couple of days before you are scheduled to dine out. You can also send an email to your dining companions right from the website, which can be a big time saver.

I like to use opentable to my utmost advantage by making reservations at restaurants in lower price ranges, then using my gift certificates in more expensive places that would normally be a stretch for me to afford. Hey, they make the rules. And the gift certificates are good for 6 months, so I have plenty of time to use them.

Verdict: A fantastic service for foodies everywhere.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Firkin & Lindberg




541 Main St., Atlanta, GA http://www.thefirkinandlindbergh.com/

On Tuesday my friend Brad and I had dinner and a few beers at The Firkin & Lindberg, a pub that recently opened at the corner of Lindberg and Piedmont in Atlanta. It has a nice, traditional exterior and an English themed menu with bangers and mash, chicken curry and the like. What doesn't it have but really, really needs?

A little dirt.

That's right, I said dirt. A true English or Irish style put is dark, worn and weathered. My favorite local example of this is McCracken's Irish Pub in the Marietta Square, although I admit that the deeply ingrained cigarette smoke will practically knock a normal person to the ground upon initial entry. Brick Store Pub in Decatur is another good example.

The Firkin & Lindberg is just too new for me. It's too pristine, too quiet, and a little overly decorated. Yes, of course it IS new, and that can't be helped. I have to assume that some dirt will inevitably set in over time, I just hope that the management will allow it to accumulate and give the place a little bit of real, true character. As it is now, the place just seems to be trying too hard.

Now that you've heard my take on the ambiance, I'll move on to the food. Brad and I began the meal with an order of Irish nachos, an item I've never seen on any menu. This is composed of waffle fries with melted cheese, bacon, green onions and sour cream. They were attractively presented, and Brad commented that he was relieved the fries weren't completely saturated with the sour cream and cheese. Instead we were allowed to enjoy the crisp quality of the fries, which were not greasy, as well as the toppings, which were evenly distributed.

I wasn't feeling quite as ravenous as usual, so I selected the angus sliders appetizer as my entree. Somehow I've managed to never try sliders up until this point, a minor miracle given the current sliders craze in Atlanta. These sliders had nicely melted slices of monterey jack cheese (tasted like American to me) and short strips of fairly crisp bacon. The buns looked toasted and a little shiny, just as I like them. The dish wasn't stellar, but it was pretty good - I give it a 7 on a scale of 1-10.

Brad ordered the fish and chips, which I was thoroughly prepared to dislike after observing the nearly sterile newness of the bar area. However, I have to admit that I enjoyed the fish, which was generously portioned and coated in nicely browned, crispy batter. I did wince when they brought it out atop faux newspaper, but Brad pointed out that due to health regulations the pub may not be able to wrap the fish in real newspaper. What is the world coming to when we can't have pub fish wrapped in bonafide, inky newspapers?

Our service was good, if a little overzealous. Our waitress was convinced that our table needed to be cleared every few minutes, long before we were finished with our meal. I give her credit in the drink department though, because when I asked her to have the bartender make me a beer "cocktail" she promptly brought a black velvet, which was a combination of Guinness and Cider.

Speaking of beer, I was disappointed with the lack of variety on the list. Pubs that appear to be traditionally English or Irish build up my expecations of a varied, interesting list, and The Firkin & Lindberg didn't live up to them. There are the usual decent choices of Guinness, Harp, Boddingtons and the like, but no obscure or super premium choices. If I enter a bar and find I've tried all of the beers available I can't truly endorse it. I also don't remember seeing any local beers, a sad omission in Atlanta, home of quality breweries like Sweetwater and Red Brick.

Verdict: Above average food with a below average beverage selection. Too new, but given time could see improvement.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Relish



590 Mimosa Blvd, Roswell, GA http://relishgoodfood.com/

On Friday night Kyle and I ate dinner at Relish. I have eaten at Relish about half a dozen times - once for the Sunday brunch, once for lunch and the remaining meals were dinners - so my review is based on my impression of all of these experiences.

Relish is located in historic Roswell, GA. It's housed in a large stone building that used to be a funeral home at the corner of Mimosa and Marietta Hwy. There is a large parking lot behind the restaurant.

Don't let the building's morbid history scare you away from Relish. It's a very good restaurant. The service is consistently attentive and the atmosphere is casual. The interior is decorated in tans and sage green, and there are black and white photos of foods on the walls. It's smartly decorated without being uncomfortable or pretentious.

Relish's greatest strength is their entrees. The shrimp and grits is nice and filling, and the tasso gravy only mildly spicy. The pan roasted scallops with Southern succotash and corn jus is tasty and the shellfish is tender. I wasn't a huge fan of the bacon wrapped mountain trout - it's better in theory than in reality, when your bacon is completely stuck to the fish's scales and seems to have the flavor cooked out of it - but the green beans on top were slightly garlicky and perfectly crisp. Kyle really liked his wood grilled angus hamburger ($8.95), which was two steps up in quality but only one step up in price from fast food burgers.

The best deal I've found is the Tuesday night special of fried catfish I enjoyed a few months ago. I usually don't like catfish, but I took a chance and was pleasantly surprised to find this particular dish not typically "fishy", and the batter wasn't greasy. It came with cornbread and spicy coleslaw (the jalapenos give it a good kick) and a slice of red velvet cake. The cake was a little disappointing (as are all of the desserts I've tried at Relish), but the fish was generously portioned and the whole meal only costs $13.95. That's an awesome value.

The drink menu is also interesting. Our current favorite is the cucumber lemonade with Jack Daniels. Relish's signature drink is the non-alcoholic version, which I thought sounded a little strange at first but ended up relishing (hee, hee) the very refreshing, unusual flavor.

Although Relish claims to have the best brunch in town, I'm not as big a fan of it as I am the lunch and dinner menu. The brunch does include some of the same items as offered otherwise, along with a carving station with prime rib and omelette's cooked to order, but I was just expecting something more than what I found. Also, on the one occasion when I brunched at Relish the omelette service was slow and many of the serving dishes emptied and remained that way, leaving my party with fewer choices than we'd hoped.

Verdict: A sunny spot with a good menu in historic Roswell. Grab a drink, enjoy your upsized entree and skip dessert.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Blue Bicycle




671 Lumpkin Campground Rd., Dawsonville, GA http://www.bluebicycle.net/

Last Saturday my sister Sabrina and I lunched at The Blue Bicycle in Dawsonville, GA.

I know what you're saying: Dawsonville?

Or maybe you aren't saying that. Maybe you are familiar with the Dawsonville of today, a growing town centered around the North Georgia 400 premium outlet mall. You know that Dawsonville has two Japanese hibachi-style steakhouses, a hotel and annoying traffic on busy 400, so you can understand that Dawsonville might also have a decent little bistro. Then again, maybe you remember the Dawsonville of yesteryear, which merely offered a McDonald's with a Bill Elliott racing theme and a couple of barbeque joints in an otherwise culinary vacant place. That's the Dawsonville I knew when I lived there during my adolescence, so any inspired and non-chain restaurant there takes me by pleasant surprise.

The Blue Bicycle was my sister's suggestion. She lives in Cumming, so she's got the skinny on the good stuff in north Georgia. While I was skeptical at first, I remembered that it was Sabrina who introduced me to Rathbun's and Flip, both of which I adore. So I decided to give this supposed bistro in Dawsonville a shot.

And I'm so glad I did. The Blue Bicycle, located right behind the outlet mall, is a hidden gem amidst the mundane predictability of nearby Ruby Tuesday and Longhorn steakhouse. The interior is casual chic, with black and white photographs of citiscapes adorning the walls, along with an actual antique blue bicycle. Each table is topped with a different set of salt and pepper shakers, a fun little note in a charming environment.

I began with an order of crab and corn cakes ($6). You can see from the photo that it was in fact only one cake, not "cakes". Possibly it is necessary to advise your server how many cakes you require and understand that you will be charged per cake. I loved the cake. It had a little kick of flavor without being too spicy.

For my entree I chose the pimento cheese tartine. The online American Heritage dictionary defines tartine as "a French open faced sandwich, especially one with a rich or fancy spread." This was somewhat accurate. I was served several ladles full of pimento cheese atop two slices of bread that resembled biscotti in size and texture, but of course were not sweet. The quality of the pimento cheese was on par with my grandmother's, which is a big compliment. The dish ($8) was served with my choice of a salad or the soup du jour. I went with the soup, which was a very thick and creamy potato leek. I give it a 7 out of 10. Would have liked a little more leek flavor, not so much a dominate potato.

Sabrina ordered the curried chicken salad ($8), which was very similar to a restaurant I make at home, and equally good. It contains raisins, chunks of apple and a light curry dressing on mixed greens. A nice choice for those who don't want something to heavy.

Another plus is the wine list. The Blue Bicycle offers a pretty interesting selection (especially by Dawsonville's standards) and includes several wines from the vineyards of Dahlonega, GA, twenty minutes north of the restaurant. Seems that even Dawsonville restaurants are now making attempts to become locavores.

Verdict: Hands down my favorite restaurant in Dawsonville, GA.