Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Food for Thought: Thanksgiving Out

Last night I was driving home from work, visions of my upcoming family Thanksgiving feast dancing through my head, when I spotted a sign posted on the board of a local McDonald's. It read "Open Thanksgiving Morning". As I veered off the road to take a picture of this disturbing sight, I thought back on all of my Thanksgiving meals from years past and determined that not one of them included a Big Mac or Fillet-O-Fish. This is a good thing in my opinion.

I have conflicting feelings on restaurants that choose to open for business on Thanksgiving Day. My first and foremost reaction is pity for the employees who are potentially forgoing their own family gatherings (or missing out on sleeping in that cold morning) while they stand behind a cash register or refill condiment dispensers. My second thought is that it's a benefit to many people that McDonald's will be open for breakfast that morning. To a traveler looking at multiple hours of driving ahead of him, an Egg McMuffin and a hot cup of coffee provides great relief.

My third thought is that I feel very blessed that I have a Thanksgiving feast to anticipate, unlike many people who may be homeless or simply without family or close friends with which to enjoy the year's best holiday meal. McDonald's isn't an option for me because I have better plans . . . but what if I didn't?

This got me wondering where I would like to dine if circumstances dictated that I couldn't eat a home-cooked meal on Thanksgiving Day as usual. Assuming that every restaurant was open and ready to prepare dinner for me, where would I want to dine? McDonald's, of course, was far from my first choice. I tried to decide if I would want to find a place that might make home-style food and good turkey, like Cracker Barrel, or if I would want to go all out and indulge in the seven course tasting menu at Restaurant Eugene.

Eventually I eschewed both of these routes, deciding instead upon Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Sandy Springs for my Thanksgiving Meal out. Why Ruth's Chris? For one thing, steak cooked in sizzling butter whets my chops every time. Also, the creamed spinach and potatoes au gratin are nice comfort foods. The service at Ruth's Chris is always great, and there's at least one fireplace on the main level that invites you to lounge around, full to the brim with rich food, in one of their comfortable armchairs alongside the table. And while they may not have pies for dessert, the bread pudding with whiskey sauce is a fitting winter treat.

I'm sure you've got your own ideas about the best Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant. Please share them with my blog community, and have a very happy and delicious Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Special Feature: Cape Food & Beverage

2080 Peachtree Industrial Ct., Atlanta, GA http://www.shop-southafricans.com/

Yesterday I finally made it around to shopping at Cape Food and Beverage on the north end of Peachtree Rd. My friend Max told me about this place at least six months ago but various activities and commitments have kept me from checking it out until now.

Cape Food & Beverage is a South African grocery store. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. A South African grocery store is actually in operation in Atlanta, GA.

Some of the items on the shelves included Ouma biscuits (several flavors), chutneys, curries, fig jam and peri-peri sauce. I picked up a bottle of lemon pepper peri-peri and plan to marinate some chicken in it soon. I saw a product called Chili Bite Batter and read on the back of the box that a person should mix it with watercress, onion and/or spinach for a tasty dish. Seemed interesting. If you like rooibas tea, a product of South Africa, you've got your pick of half a dozen varieties. I chose the vanilla rooibas by Cape Tea and am enjoying it even as I post this.

The store has also recently begun stocking lots of Cadbury candy bars and other goodies, including Sweetie Pie for $1.55. Kyle sampled it last night and liked it's marshmallow center encased in milk chocolate. I chose a Massaam's deluxe nougat candy in almond cherry flavor. It's sort of like a chewy version of divinity. Very sweet and wrapped in edible rice paper. You'll find a large selection of South African soft drinks, including one called Grapister that looked interesting.

Cape also has two refrigerators full of meat, specifically biltong, droewors and Boerewors. the Boerewors comes in choice of lean turkey or beef. The very helpful female shop manager recommended that I grill them, and since I don't have a grill I declined to make a purchase. They also carry biltong, which I have since discovered is a cured meat made up of ostrich and beef. It's supposedly similar to jerky. If anyone reading this has eaten it or the other meats I would love to read your comments.

The only downside to Cape is the hours of operation. They're open Mon - Fri from 9:30 to 5, exactly when most people are working, and on Saturday from 10 to 3pm.

Verdict: The most convenient route to South African cuisine for Atlantans.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Foodie Reading: Confessions of a Kitchen Diva

Over the past ten years - the current span of my "cooking life" - I have learned many invaluable cooking tips. Some I've gleaned from conversations with my mom and grandmother, most I've learned through trial and error. However, I've also learned a lot from cookbooks, including Claudine Destino's Confessions of a Kitchen Diva. Claudine is a part-time caterer from Roswell, Georgia. She also teaches cooking classes on occasion.

For one thing, I've learned that there are many ways to make my dinner parties run smoothly and free of last minute kitchen drama. When I’ve got a free Sunday afternoon, I like to whip up a batch of Party Quiche Bites, a great recipe found on page 51. These can be frozen and quickly warmed up in a pinch. I’ve also made a promise to myself to do all of my shopping the day prior to a big dinner I’m throwing. On one particularly unfortunate occasion I remember standing in my kitchen, frantically plowing through my shelves for that bottle of raspberry vinegar I needed for the night’s salad. Half an hour before my guests were scheduled to arrive, I had to send my date out on a frenzied trip to the grocery store to acquire this indispensable but missing ingredient. I only have one thing to say about this incident: never again.

I actually have the pleasure of being personally acquainted with Claudine Destino, author of Confessions of a Kitchen Diva, through her daughter, my friend Lindsey. I’ve been to Claudine’s home for large get-togethers on several occasions, and she’s always cool and classy in the kitchen. She never betrays a hint of panic, so I consider her a model hostess and highly endorse her ideas on entertaining. Her food is always scrumptious and her home is beautiful without being stuffy.

I attended a wedding shower for Lindsey in the spring of 2005, when Claudine had prepared a heavenly Kahlua and pecan baked brie. While everyone else talked and laughed out in the fading sunlight, I ate nearly a quarter of the brie with no attempt to be sociable. Although the goal isn’t to stun all of your guests into silence when they visit your home for dinner, it’s a pretty awesome feeling when they love your food too much to talk.

The brie recipe alone (page 22) is a good enough reason to buy this cookbook, but there are many others I've also enjoyed. One is the Zuppa de Ceci's, a soup of pureed chickpeas which includes butter, heavy cream, Swiss cheese, marjoram, thyme and a little sherry. The creamy texture and luscious flavor is unbeatable. The colorful Cloissone' salad (page 70) and the Unorthodox Spinach Salad (page 72) are part of my regular lunch repertoire. Kyle loves the Chicken Cordon Bleu recipe found on page 158.

You can purchase this conveniently spiral bound cookbook for under $20 on barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com, or you may visit Claudine's website at akitchendiva.com.

Verdict: Wherever you are in your cooking life - novice, mid-level or seasoned chef - you can learn something from Confessions of a Kitchen Diva.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Special Feature: Rice Country Hams

12217 Lebanon Rd., Mt. Juliet, TN www.ricecountryhams.com

I love bacon.
I love sausage too - one brand of sausage in particular - but my love for bacon is only equal to my love of chocolate. I love bacon so much that I have actually licked strips of raw bacon before put putting them into the pan to fry them. (Thank God Kyle has never witnessed me doing this, or I might be single right now.) You don’t have to warn me about trichinosis. I know about it, but it’s hard to think of negative, unlikely possibilities like contracting a disease caused by parasites from raw pork when I’m hungry and can smell the unrivaled meat that is called bacon.

The best sausage and bacon I’ve ever eaten comes from Rice Country Farms in tiny Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. The only reason I know of Rice’s existence is that I once dated a man who grew up there. Rice Farms cures their pork all year until October, when they begin selling it to the public at their Mt. Juliet location, via telephone and the internet. After the holidays, they close up again to tend to the meat. This is very serious business.

Mt. Juliet is a very small country town, and for a long time Rice Country Farms and its hams were only famous in the general vicinity. However, several years ago Martha Stewart featured it on her show and claimed that Rice makes the best country ham she’s ever eaten. You can imagine the pandemonium that this created. Poor Mt. Juliet was inundated with city folks from all over the east coast that holiday season, and the phones nearly rang off the hook at Rice Country Farms. They only have a limited supply of meat each year, so the story goes that many of Mt. Juliet’s natives were left empty handed after the big crush of Martha inspired orders from outsiders.

The first time I tasted the sausage I discovered that it's unbelievable. Simply a complete joy to taste, to chew and to swallow. An earthly, clearly pork flavor coated my mouth in a heavenly wave. Even though I wasn’t extremely impressed with the famous ham, this sausage completely converted me to Rice Country Farms as a customer for life. I’ve almost never ordered sausage patties at a restaurant since that morning, and I’ve never once purchased any other brand from the grocery store, because I knew it couldn’t live up to the true Tennessee sausages lovingly smoked throughout the year and sold during the holidays by Rice.

Next I tried the bacon. Happy, happy day! The bacon was very thickly sliced, and turned a beautiful, marbled brown in the frying pan. This is no bacon for dieters, it’s fatty and full of sodium and nitrates. I’m not sorry or disappointed about that. It’s simple, proud and true country bacon, it’s not pretending to be anything else. Rice also makes a peppered bacon that is heavily coated with coarsely ground black pepper. While I encourage utilizing the smoked bacon for recipes, I advise anyone to eat the peppered bacon alone. As my friend Eric (a Rice Country Farms convert through my recommendation) says, “That bacon’s not playing around.” It’s for serious bacon fans only.

Verdict: The best bacon and sausage I've ever eaten. Don't miss out - place a large order and freeze what you can't eat right away.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pho 96

5000 Buford Hwy, Ste. C, Chamblee, GA 770/452-9644

Last night my friend Brad and I had dinner at Pho 96 on Buford Hwy. I do not claim to be a Vietnamese pho aficionado, so when I get a jones for pho I have to consult someone with a true pho fever - in this case I want to thank John for the good recommendation.

I ordered pho with beef brisket and well-done flank steak. The aroma of my soup was totally mesmerizing. the broth was rich and complex. The brisket was so tender it was falling apart in my bowl, and the flank steak was especially flavorful. Despite being described as "well done" the flavor hadn't been cooked out of it. The rice noodles were silky. I added a little fresh basil, a few bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime from the large serving dish provided with our entrees and was quite satisfied with my meal.

Brad ordered a beef and rice vermicelli dish (pictured above) topped with fresh cilantro, onions and carrots. He gave the dish a thumbs up. We shared an order of spring rolls which contained large, fat and fresh shrimp accompanied by a shredded carrot and peanut dipping sauce. Great stuff.

I also noticed that there were more than 40 different beverages (non-alcoholic only) on the menu, although I was too full of spring rolls and soup to sample any of them.

Pho in general is very inexpensive. I ordered a small bowl for under $7 that more than met my needs. If you're on a budget, Pho 96 is a very good choice. You may want to forgo the specialty beverages in this case, because they all appeared to cost at least $3 each. Considering that you get free (and Brad says authentic) tea with your meal, you're hardly in need of an additional beverage anyway. Both entrees and appetizer came to $17 before gratuity. Our service was also cordial and attentive, so I was happy to leave a nice tip.

When we arrived at 7pm Pho 96 was completely empty. When we left there were customers dining at about four other tables, which is still pretty scant. With all of the pho competition (the famous Pho Bac is within sight on the same street) I wonder how long this place can afford to stay in business. Brad suggested that the bulk of the patrons may dine much closer to closing time, which I believe is 10pm on weeknights. Hopefully this is the case.

Verdict: Good food with fresh ingredients that hits the spot.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thai Fusion

2140 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta, GA http://www.thaifusionatlanta.com/

Yesterday my friends Dave and Courtney had lunch with me at Thai Fusion on Peachtree. Thai Fusion is located in a large shopping center on Peachtree in Buckhead. Look for the yellow brick restaurant Vita if you need a landmark.

The interior of Thai Fusion is understated without being boring. There are lovely framed black and white photos on the walls, which are painted a surprisingly nice mustard color. Or maybe I should say curry color. Hee, hee.

Let's get this out of the way first: the last Thai restaurant I reviewed on the blog was Chaba Thai in Duluth. Thai Fusion is nowhere near as good as Chaba Thai, but it's far more conveniently located unless you live north of the perimeter. It's also less expensive.

The egg rolls were average (and fairly small, about two bites worth) and the crab rangoon, which I normally associate with Americanized Chinese restaurants, was warm and cooked appropriately crisp on the outside while retaining its nice soft center.

For the entrees: I ordered the Massaman chicken, a dish served with a brown sauce containing large wedges of avocado and cashews. I liked it - rate it about a seven on a scale of ten. Dave ordered the Panang chicken and commented that the sauce had a wonderful flavor but was a little thin.

Courtney really enjoyed the spicy basil leaves, a dish that included bell peppers and onions in a spicy basil sauce. She liked the flavor and thought it was appropriately spicy. All of our dishes were attractively presented with plenty of rice. All of our entrees were $8, a nice price for a sit-down lunch.

We also had the green tea ice cream, which I chose because I read another complimentary review of it. It was fine, not great. Green tea ice cream varies greatly in flavor across Atlanta: some like it sweet, some don't, etc. Thai Fusion's version is not sweet and is very subtle. A little too subtle for my taste, although I feel that way about green tea in general.

The service was fine, but the lunch menu promised us coconut soup along with our entrees and we never received any soup. I also didn't see any other patron being served soup, so I'm not sure if they were having a "bad soup day" or if the restaurant just isn't including the soup anymore. Obviously if that is the case they should revise their menu.

(A side note: My followers may remember that another recently reviewed restaurant, Raja, also neglected to serve me soup that was clearly listed as included with the entree on the lunch menu. Maybe I am exuding some sort of negative soup vibes . . .)

Verdict: A quiet and pleasant lunch destination.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Road Trip: Hong Kong - Macon, GA

5936 Zebulon Rd. 478/471-0979

Hong Kong is exactly the kind of restaurant I normally loathe. The primary reason for this is because it serves Americanized Chinese food, a pseudo cuisine mainly consisting of fried rice, limp broccoli and poor quality dark meat chicken. Hong Kong is located in a shopping center where Kroger is the anchor store. It's right beside a Blockbuster, a position that almost immediately dooms every restaurant in my mind: this screams to the public that your food is only good enough for take-out.

Hong Kong is not a sit-down restaurant per se. There are cheap plastic booths where you may sit, but there is no table service. When you enter the restaurant you will see large pictures of the 15 or so dishes above the cash register. All of them are quite familiar and generally boring: moo goo gai pan, cashew chicken, sweet and sour shrimp. I hate ordering based on overhead photos.

I ordered the house chow mein fun because it was the most ridiculous sounding item on the menu, poured myself some water in a very tiny plastic cup from the automatic dispenser, and settled glumly into the cold plastic booth.

I absolutely cannot believe that I am writing this, but I loved the house chow mein fun.

Maybe its strengths can be traced to the word "house." In my experience, "house" can mean one of two things: 1. a concoction of the cheapest leftover ingredients in the kitchen or 2. an opportunity for an otherwise regulated chef to make his own, surprisingly good creation. The house chow mein fun was the latter. It included chow mein noodles, with generous portions of thinly sliced green onions, pork, chicken, shrimp and a quite salty but delicious sauce. The chicken was white meat, chunky and juicy, and the shrimp was fatter and tasted fresher than I have normally encountered in like restaurants. I liked the dish so much that I took half of it home and ate it for dinner.

Of course my cousin Holly, who is 13 years old and the reason we were eating at Hong Kong in the first place, really enjoyed her General Tso's chicken. I tasted it and was unimpressed, the feeling I expected to have about my own entree. I also ordered an egg roll, which unfortunately turned out to be nearly tasteless.

Portions were very large (most diners should only order the "small") and appropriately inexpensive. All 3 of the people in my party took home leftovers. Possibly the worst thing about the restaurant is that they serve these huge meals on very wimpy Styrofoam plates which bow under the weight of the food, and you'll be struggling with the cheap plastic utensils. In hindsight, maybe this would have been a great take-out choice because then you can use your own dishes and cutlery at home.

Verdict: A surprisingly good Americanized Chinese stop.