Friday, May 28, 2010

Special Feature: Summits Wayside Tavern

525 Lake Center Pkwy, Cumming, GA

I love Summits Wayside Tavern. Absolutely adore it. It's my favorite pub in the whole state of Georgia.

Here's the rub: I can't technically review it because there are 3 locations (Cumming, Snellville and Woodstock), so it's officially a chain.

So, I'm going to make it a special feature for the benefit of all of you who imbibe.

Why is Summits so great? Here are just a few (of many) reasons:

1. The draft beer selection. Summits offers a greater variety of beer on tap than any other bar in Georgia. As you can see from the pic, one entire wall is lined with taps. They don't always have everything that's listed on the menu (which is updated every few weeks, but sometimes they run out of certain brews), but they're guaranteed to have something you'll like.

2. The bottled selection is almost as great. Four huge cases in the Cumming location, organized alphabetically by brew. You'll find beer from all around the world, including Latvia, which produces Zelta Gold, my all-time favorite beer.

3. If you're not into beer (which makes you crazy, of course), you can partake of a whole slew of liquors, seen at the top of the pic above the taps.

4. The Passport Club - Try 100 draft beers, get a mug with your name on it, and a t-shirt. From then on you'll get 24oz of draft beer for the price of 16oz. There are 2 more levels to worth up to - you get more apparel and a larger piece of drinkware each time. It cost $2 to join - which goes to Habitat for Humanity. How cool is that?

5. Summits has a free lending library. Only the 2nd time I've ever seen that in a bar (the 1st time was at Fox and Parrot in Gatlinburg, TN).

6. September is usually burger month. The chef invents burgers "from around the world", such as my absolute favorite, the Russian Czar burger. Think sour cream and caviar atop a huge patty. Yes, it was delicious. A portion of every burger purchased goes to a local children's hospital.

7. Great specials, like pint night and Summits University, which is basically a beer tasting. Summits also has a special relationship with Rogue out of Oregon, so sometimes you get to try all new brews from this great brewery before anyone else.

I won't comment too much on the food here, although I will say that Summits' food is better than most. I'm a big fan of the shrimp corn chowder. It's got a nice, spicy kick. Kyle enjoys the wings. Summits also serves bison burgers and some decent quesadillas.

Summits also formerly had a location on Roswell Rd., just off of 285. This was highly convenient and by far my location of choice. Sadly, they sold the business a few years ago and it's now Charlie Mopps, which is a far, far cry from the glory that was Summits.

While all of the Summits locations are outside the perimeter now, I still try to get up to the Cumming one about every 6 weeks because the beer selection is just that freakin' good. I know some Atlantans are vehemently opposed to going anywhere OTP, but if you are a beer fanatic, I promise the drive will be worth it. Just be sure to bring a designated driver along so that you can sample to your heart's content.

Verdict: #1 best draft selection in Georgia. My choice for best Georgia pub.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Key West Seafood Market

1976 Howell Mill Rd., Atlanta, GA

On Friday night Heidi and I decided to try Key West Seafood Market on Howell Mill Rd. The restaurant itself is casual and the interior is "cute". One of the reviews on the Facebook page, which was written by an employee, says that the atmosphere is "laid back". I'll agree with that. Heidi and I came to the conclusion that we liked the atmosphere better than the actual food.

We enjoyed the conch fritters, which I see have gotten negative reviews on other local food blogs. I think they were a good size and spiced well. That being said, I have eaten conch fritters at a restaurant on the southernmost point of the real Key West in Florida, and they aren't the same thing. However, I don't usually expect seafood to taste as good in Atlanta as it tastes on the coast. Conch fritters aren't a regular menu item in this city, and I'd be happy to return to the restaurant for another order.

Heidi ordered the shrimp skewers with a side salad. The salad was disappointing - just spinach, a few slices of red onions and cucumbers with a sesame dressing. This should have come free of charge with the skewers, which Heidi said were good but not worth what she paid for them (if there had been an additional skewer, we might have had a winner).

I ordered the Maria Maria's Clams ("clams sauteed in garlic, wine, butter and herbs). Now I adore linguine with white clam sauce, and I order it any chance I get. Since the menu only said that the dish came with "wine" sauce and didn't specify as to red or white, I specifically asked the cashier about this. She said it was white. Well, it wasn't. It was red, a little spicy, with red bell peppers and grated Parmesan (seemed like the stuff in the green canister, not real parm reg). It tasted fine, but it wasn't at all what I was expecting. The sad part about this is that my cashier was actually training a new employee at the time.

Everything was just a little overpriced, with the worst offender being the side items, which are $2.79 each. The conch fritters were $7. The Maria Maria's Clams might have been the best deal at $9.99, because the portion size is large, but don't expect more than about 7 clams.

I'd be willing to return to try different items. This is a relatively new restaurant, and I'd like to give the chef a chance to settle in, or the management a chance to lower the prices (I know, unlikely). In the meantime, if you're expecting the great, fresh and fried seafood you'd find at nearby Six Feet Under, you'll be disappointed.

Verdict: Heidi said it best: "It ain't Six Feet Under."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bamboo Grill & Hotpot

4646 Buford Hwy, Suite R, Chamblee, GA

It's been a few months since I've reviewed anything on Buford Hwy. Many of my readers probably think that it's been far too long, and I agree.

On Monday night my friend Erin and I had dinner at Bamboo Grill. Bamboo Grill looks like most of the Asian restaurants on Buford Hwy. It's located in a shopping center, and inside you'll find the typical decorations. They also offer many of the same menu items, including spring rolls (2 for $2.75), vermicelli (average $6.50 per entree), and pho noodle soup (between $5.45 and $6.45).

However, Erin and I didn't order any of these things. The reason we chose Bamboo Grill over the dozens of other Vietnamese restaurants in the area was the hotpot. For those unfamiliar, this is how hotpot works: The staff brings you a personal gas burner for your table, then puts a warm pot of chicken broth with eggplant, okra, tomatoes, mushrooms, lemongrass and lots of hot pepper oil on top. While it heats up (you control the setting by a little knob), your waiter will return to the table with a heaping plate of vegetables (think napa cabbage, banana blossoms, greens and enoki mushrooms), a bowl of noodles, a plate of seafood (shrimp, calamari, mussels, tilapia and fish patties) and a plate of thinly sliced raw flank steak. Our waitress instructed us to first let the pot of broth simmer, then add a little bit of vegetables, then a little clump of noodles, then some meat.

"Don't overload the pot," she warned us. "Just put in as much stuff as you can eat right now, then add some more, eat that, add some more. It's meant to be eaten slowly." This turned out to be good advice, but difficult to follow. We were too hungry to slow down as much as we probably should have, but we were forced to pace ourselves to some degree because our soup bowls were very small - you can fit about 2 ladles of broth in each. Erin and I stayed for about an hour and a half, continuously filling our bowls.

Ordering it is a cool experience, and it's also good for people who are picky about what's going in their food. Except for what's in the basic broth, you get to choose exactly what ingredients are going into your soup, and you get to control how long it cooks. If you like your meat well done, you can leave it in the pot until you're ready to take it out. If you like your calamari barely cooked, you can put a slice in your ladle and hold it in the bowl for half a minute before whipping it back out again.

We also tried an order of the eggrolls (2 for $3). They were average, not great.

A word about the hotpot prices - the small is $19.99, and the large is $35.99. I know it sounds like a fortune, but I can promise you that the small will feed at least 3 hungry adults, and I can only imagine how enormous the large must be. It's actually a deal when you look at it this way.

Enough of the explanations. I'm sure you want to know what I thought about actual quality of the hot pot. It was good. I liked it. I especially liked the okra and the mussels. It's a fun way to have dinner. Do I like it better than traditional Vietnamese pho? No. Not even close. There's something about the way that pho soup combines the flavors of it's ingredients that makes it special, not to mention the rich, savory broth. The broth in the hotpot was actually a little too spicy for me, although I'm sure the cooks would have toned it down for us had we asked.

Verdict: The hot pot is good, inexpensive, and makes for a fun dinner.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cafe Sunflower

2140 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta, GA

On Friday I was in the mood for something different for lunch, so I decided to try Cafe Sunflower, a vegetarian restaurant on Peachtree. There's a second location in Sandy Springs.

What's on the menu? Much of what you'd expect. Lots of salads, of course, some soups, tofu prepared multiple ways. There are also some vegan options for those so inclined. However, there are a few interesting items: orzo eggplant lasagna ($12), Jamaica limbo plantains with black bean dip ($7), and a baked garden loaf - "herb mashed potatoes in a miso mushroom gravy and organic mixed greens tossed in Thai curry vinaigrette" ($12). I'd like to try the latter.

Another interesting item was included in my lunch entree, the avocado sandwich. This is "Soysage, cheddar cheese, avocado, onion, lettuce, tomato and caper cream on whole wheat pita." Soysage? I was a little afraid to ask, but still willing to try it. It's soy sausage. No, it doesn't taste like pork sausage, but it does taste pretty good and the texture is the same. A good comparison is turkey bacon - it's clearly a different animal (literally in this case), but it's okay as long as you know in advance that you won't be getting the real deal.

The sandwich itself was very good. I crave meat, and the Soysage sort of tricked my mouth into thinking I was eating it. There was lots and lots of sliced, fresh avocado and a very thick (think 1") pita. The red onion and caper cream gave it zing.

There were also a couple of choices that sounded unappealing, such as the soy nuggets appetizer ($7 for 8 nuggets). The nuggets are mock chicken with barbecue and honey mustard sauces. Mock chicken? In a carnivore's opinion, chicken is the most benign of animals, a meat that can be shaped into unoffensive tenders or patties and flavored to taste like just about anything under the sun. Do vegetarians really miss chicken, of all animals, enough to mock it with soy? But I digress.

My coworker Valerie said that she sometimes wants to try vegetarian restaurants but that some of the ones around town look "sketchy". Rest assured, Cafe Sunflower isn't sketchy. It's high end. As a matter of fact, it's a little too high end for me. It's difficult getting lunch for less than $10, plus tip. The sandwiches are all between $9-$12, and there's only one appetizer for less than $6.

The dinner menu is very similar to the lunch menu, just more expensive.

Verdict: Pretty good, but a little pricey.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Food for Thought: Cooking Shortcuts?

There are also lots of little things I learned as my cooking skills improved over the years. I’ve learned that you can’t freeze alcohol and that plastic bottles of soft drinks will burst if you leave them in the freezer, and that you can literally burn through a cheap saucepan if you forget about it on a stove’s hot gas burner. I now know that if you burn bread in the microwave, the acrid smell will linger in your home for over 24 hours. I’ve learned that despite your best intentions, it detracts from the great aroma of your food if you burn potpourri or scented candles anywhere near the kitchen. I’ve learned that stir fry is meant to be cooked in layers, so that the distinct flavors properly meld together during the process. I’ve also learned that you should never cut a hot pepper before removing your contact lenses, unless you’ve scrubbed your hands four times under hot water or were wearing gloves during your prep work.

Although I’m glad that I have all of these sometimes hard-learned lessons under my belt, I’m always on the lookout for shortcuts in the kitchen or improvements on my standard practices. Last Christmas my friend Kelly gave me a wonderful little book called What’s a Cook to Do? by James Peterson. The cover identifies it as “an illustrated guide to 484 essential tools, tips, techniques and tricks.” It includes great clarity for mysteries like # 294: How to Truss a Chicken (pg 238) and # 392: How to line a Tart Mold (pg 331). Before reading # 138: How to Make Risotto I had ruined several potentially good lunches by either under or overcooking the arborio rice. Mr. Peterson’s instructions helped immensely, and today I am enjoying a creamy, al dente fennel and sweet Italian sausage risotto with pecorino.

While I really could have benefitted from # 14: Which Grater to Use prior to rubbing my hands raw and wearing myself out using insufficient graters on hunks of hard cheeses, I also understand that owning this book at the beginning of my cooking experience wouldn’t have necessarily saved me from most of my troubles. What’s a Cook to Do? is incredibly interesting, but I couldn’t sit down, read it and commit all of its great tips to memory, ready for instant recall when needed. Instead, the mistakes I’ve made in the kitchen have created permanent imprints in my mind that have guaranteed they won’t be repeated.

A co-worker told me that you can revive wilting celery by standing it up in a tall glass of water. I can’t tell you how many stalks of celery have apparently prematurely met their demise in my garbage disposal over the years. The same co-worker also passed on a recipe from a recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated that easily converts stale pita bread into crisp, tasty pita chips. Kyle and I often make chicken, egg or tuna salad on pita, and we only use a portion of the bread that we buy. Instead of allowing the remaining pita to get moldy and end up in the garbage, we’ll now be using it for pita chips and enjoying the added benefit of a less money spent on pre-made snacks. Little discoveries like that just make my day. It’s always exciting to learn a new skill in the kitchen, and there’s nothing better than getting to eat my reward. I’m still learning, and I hope I always will be.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mulberry Street Pizza

4355 Cobb Pkwy SE, Atlanta, GA

Last night my friends Megan, Brian and I had dinner at Mulberry Street Pizza. The restaurant is located in a shopping center between a bicycle shop and Laseter’s Tavern, across the street from Kroger on Cobb Pkwy. I just happened to drive by and notice it on my way home from work a few weeks ago and decided to give it a shot.

The interior d├ęcor might look cheap and uninteresting (plastic booths, linoleum floors, the typical red/white/green of the Italian flag), but the pizza is surprisingly good. I ordered a slice of tomato and pesto and another slice of bacon and mushrooms. The pesto was great – full of good olive oil and basil. I was worried the bacon would be undercooked and soggy. It wasn’t. It was crisp and fragrant and crumbled. I was happy to see that they didn’t skimp on it, either. It covered the entire slice of pizza.

There are options for regular cheese crust and Sicilian crust, which is thicker and softer. I went with the regular rather than pay the upcharge for the Sicilian. The crust was average, not fantastic but fine. The great toppings more than made up for the lackluster crust.

The menu isn’t especially exciting. Mulberry Street Pizza isn’t trying to be California Pizza Kitchen or some other trendy pizza joint. Which is fine - Atlanta needs many types of pizza. The serve simple, traditional options such as regular pizza, calzones, garlic bread and Stromboli. The bacon and pesto that I ordered were the most exciting toppings available. For salads, they have the usual suspects: Caesar, Italian Garden, Greek, antipasto. I never go to a pizza place and order salad, and if I did, I wouldn’t waste my time with these predictable choices. There was also a small sign at our table advertising tiramisu and cannolis, but neither of these were on display or posted on the regular menu.

It’s much better than Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, etc., but not as good as nearby Blue Moon Pizza. However, it’s notably less expensive (when comparing with Blue Moon’s specialty pizzas, which is all I ever order), so it seems to even out. A small pizza (12”) is $9.99, medium (14”) is $11.99, large (16”) is $12.99 and x-large (18”) is $14.99. Megan and Brian split a small Margherita (which they enjoyed) and were happy with the portion size, but I can tell you that Kyle and I would have eaten at least a whole medium. Still, $12 for dinner for 2 is a good deal, about what you’d pay for fast food but much better quality.

The service was friendly and timely. I got the feeling there’s a small, possibly family staff, and they seem to take pride in their place and their food, which is nice.

Verdict: Better than the chains, not as good as Blue Moon Pizza.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Darvish Persian Tea House

11235 Alpharetta Hwy, Roswell, GA

Darvish is an experience. It's a large restaurant with lots of regular tables and at least a dozen "beds", the flat platforms covered with pillows and Persian rugs where you can dine sort of picnic style. (A word to the wise - the beds are hard and not advisable for people with back problems.) It's dimly lit and generally fun, a dining novelty. Purists can rest assured - Darvish serves all hilal meat. Of course, there's also persian tea ($1.50, hot or cold).

We ordered the Royal platter, which consists of every type of meat kabob on the menu. This costs $70 but it fed 3 grown men and me, and I'm sure you can tell by reading this blog that I can put down a fair amount of food for a girl.

The chicken is very good, but it's the least exciting meat on the menu. My friends John and Amr love lamb, and the meaty chops pleased them very much. Our platter also included beef tenderloin and ground beef kabobs. This might sound odd, but I consistently prefer the ground beef. It's flavor is simply outstanding. The tenderloin is also very good, more subtle. Everything is tender and juicy and tastes like charcoal - which is great. The meats are accompanied by grilled plum tomatoes (excellent, and a nice, fresh and acidic contrast to all that meat) a huge plate of rice.

I've also eaten at Mirage on Roswell Rd., and in my opinion the meat at Darvish is superior. The ground beef at Mirage is actually TOO rich for my taste, making it difficult for me to consume my entire entree. You won't have that problem at Darvish. Every single bite will be gone.

Darvish's hummus may be the best I've eaten in Atlanta. It's got just the right amount of olive oil and paprika, and is perfect with the fresh baked pita. The dolmeh ($8), stuffed grape leaves, is also very good, but at that price it's a little expensive. You'll be served 5 pieces.

The only item I've eaten at Darvish that I disliked was the baklava. It's not sweet AT ALL $5. If the baklava at Cafe Agora in Atlanta is far too surgary for you then you might like this, but if you agree with me that Al at Agora makes the best baklava in the city then you need to steer clear of this dessert at Darvish.

Darvish is NOT the place to dine if you're on a tight schedule. I've eaten here at least 4 times and the service has always been very slow. Once I think it was the waiter, who disappeared for more than half an hour while our stomachs grumbled. The other times I think it was just that this food isn't quickly prepared. The upside of this is that it's delicious and straight off the grill. You may wait for 10 minutes to get more pita, but it will be crisp and warm when it comes out. The best course of action is to just bring some friends and plan to stay for several hours enjoying the food and the ambiance.

Personally, I'm not into the hookahs, but Darvish supplies them if you're interested. I'm sure many of you like the idea of lounging against the fat pillows on the the big carpeted "beds" with hookah in hand. If so, this is the place to do it. You can see one of the smaller beds (seats about 4 or 5) above.

Darvish also features belly dancers on the weekends, when I hear the place is very crowded. Last night there were only 3 tables of customers. It's unlikely you'll ever wait for a table during the week.

Verdict: Outstanding kabobs, interesting atmosphere, slow service.