Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Food for Thought: How to Ruin a Nice Meal - Cell Phones


There is almost nothing that can spoil a great dining experience so completely for me as diners’ abuse of their cell phones.

When Kyle and I patronized our beloved Fogo de Chao Brazilian restaurant on Valentine’s Day two years ago, we were confronted with a superfluity of diners yacking away on their cells. As I’ve said, we adore Fogo de Chao and it would probably require several screaming babies and a tornado passing through the dining room to ruin the experience for us, but I was simply appalled to witness so many couples talking on their cell phones during dinner.

This rude behavior also extends to text messaging. The first time that Kyle and I were enjoying an expensive, romantic dinner and he picked up his cell phone to call anyone (and it wasn’t an emergency) he’d find himself eating alone, and I’d expect the same reaction from him if the case were reversed.

Did my fellow diners really endure the traffic jams and the long wait in the lobby that is inseparable from Valentine’s Day just so they could text all of their friends at the dinner table? They were paying almost $50 per person to enjoy some of the best meat that will ever pass their lips on what is supposed to be the most romantic night of the year, and they’re on the cell phone during dinner. If this is you, who in God’s name are you talking to? How important can the conversation be that it can’t be put off for a few hours, at least until the ride home? Unless your occupation is that of a surgeon or secret service agent I just can’t imagine that your job requires you to converse with co-workers during your dinner date.

Having a nice dinner in a restaurant should be a time to put aside all of these unnecessary distractions, breathe a sigh of relief, and enjoy your meal. If you feel compelled to send a text message after every bite of food you can’t possibly be concentrating on what you’re eating. Will you even remember the succulent flavor of that filet mignon you’ve been anticipating all week if you spend your meal arguing with a family member on your cell phone? In the case of our Valentine’s Day cell phone free-for-all at Fogo de Chao, I swear to God that we observed one couple sitting a few tables away from us who were actually texting each other rather than speaking. Is that what dining out, and for that matter, what relationships have come to?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food for Thought: Lure of the Cafeteria


Last night my friends Megan, Brian and I met for dinner at the Piccadilly on Cobb Pkwy in Marietta. On the drive there after work I found myself getting anxious, even excited about eating at Piccadilly, an old, predictable chain, something I would normally only begrudgingly patronize. I wondered to myself, what exactly about Piccadilly inspires my heart to skip happily?

It’s that Piccadilly is a cafeteria. That’s right, one of those things that you dreaded when you were in school, complete with a line of diners, plastic trays and workers in aprons and hairnets. What makes little children, the elderly and me want to go there?

For starters, it’s the multitude of choices. Cafeterias offer fish, red meat and chicken, lots of veggies, salads ranging from fruit cocktail to Caesar. Last night at Piccadilly I saw thick slices of apple and cherry pies, red velvet cake and small pots of vanilla custard. Lots of choices are comfort foods, like carrot soufflé (which is sweet and luscious at Piccadilly), fried chicken, or chopped (Salisbury) steak, which I’ve adored since childhood but rarely encounter outside a cafeteria.

Yes, menus at regular sit-down restaurants across the nation have lengthy and varied menus. Some of them even have pictures of the items listed. Still, it’s not the same. At a cafeteria you’re within a foot of each item in your future meal, nothing between you and your intended than the clear Plexiglas barrier. You can smell the garlic bread, see the Jello jiggle. You can easily determine if the steak is well done or rare, or if the biscuits have been burned.

Another great thing about cafeterias is that they are usually a bargain. You can get a complete meal of meat, 2 vegetables and a dessert for under $8 in most cases. The portions aren’t too large or too small, and you’ll get your food immediately. No waiting hungrily for your waiter to bring you your meal, but you’ll still have someone (who should be tipped a couple of bucks) clean up your mess after you’re finished. It’s a great setup, and super kid-friendly. While children often hate their school cafeterias, they love the commercial versions. There’s something for even the pickiest kid, and there’s always multi-colored Jello cut up into perfect cubes, the way most moms never have time to arrange it.

It also helps that the Piccadilly workers are a little more upbeat than most of the poor cafeteria ladies I encountered in public schools, probably because since you are choosing to eat there you, the customer, are happier about being there.

No, it’s not the best food in the world. I’ll readily admit the quality of any dish is rarely above average. However, a dining experience is exactly that – an experience. It’s not comprised simply of great food, and discerning diners aren’t impressed with just an awesome meal without some extras like good service and ambiance. If we were, we’d all flock to France or NYC and eat nothing but classic French cooking without a care in the world when their waiters sneered at us or stuck us in a dark corner without a full set of silverware. At least at a cafeteria you know what you’re getting yourself into.

And maybe the cafeteria experience reminds the adults who dine there of something intrinsically simple and good in their childhoods. Jello will do that to you.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Persepolis



6435 Roswell Rd., Atlanta, GA www.persepoliscuisine.com

On Monday night Kyle, our friend Amr and I had dinner at Persepolis, a Persian restaurant in Roswell Rd.

As soon as we sat down the staff brought us a huge flat bread along with a bowl of some absolutely delicious feta cheese, fresh mint and basil, chunks of radishes and onion.

We started our meal with the Persian Pickles, which are normally $3.99, but the restaurant was offering a buy-two-entrees-get-one-appetizer/dessert-free deal. The pickles were about the width and length of a man's finger, and were vinegary and delicious.

Kyle ordered the Joojeh Kabob ($13.99). This is skewers of cornish hen in saffron rice with rice (everything comes with basmati rice). He liked it, but I tasted it and thought and it was too gamey.

Amr ordered the Barreh (lamb) kabob ($15.99), which he thoroughly enjoyed.

I ordered the koresht fesenjan, which is steamed chicken in a sauce made of ground walnut and pomegranate sauce ($10.99). The sauce was thick and dark maroon in color, with a pleasant sweet/sour flavor. The only thing that disappointed me about this dish was the small portion of chicken - maybe four pieces about half the size of a chicken tender.

Service was attentive throughout. A team of servers kept our drinks filled and got our entrees on the table quickly.

The menu boasts some interesting dishes that I haven't encountered in some other Persian restaurant in Atlanta. For example, there are several dishes with sour pitted cherries, and fish kabobs. The daily specials all appear promising. When I return I plan to try the koresht gheimeh, cubed beef with Persian splitpeas, sun-dried lime simmered in Persian tomato sauce with spices ($10.99). Doesn't that sound warm and mouth-watering to you?

Persepolis offers a Royal Persian buffet lunch from noon to 3pm on weekdays, as well as brunch on the weekend.

Verdict: It doesn't have the ambiance of Darvish in Alpharetta, but Persepolis serves up equally great Persian cuisine.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lemongrass



2145 Roswell Rd. Marietta, GA www.lemongrassmarietta.com

On Friday night Kyle and I had dinner at Lemongrass in Marietta. It’s tucked back into the far left corner of East Lake Shopping Center, across from Wild Wing Café.

We started with the chicken satay appetizer ($7.95). The chicken was perfectly grilled, boasting a nice dark orange hue with deep brown around the edges. The peanut satay sauce was thick and dark mahogany, very tasty. Other appetizers include spring rolls, basil rolls and shrimp salad.

Green curry is my absolute favorite Thai dish of all time, the standard by which I judge a Thai restaurant. Consequently I ordered the green curry tofu ($9.50). Lots of Asian restaurant serve a large entrée that’s big enough to make a future leftover lunch. This was no exception. I had plenty of good tofu, crisp snap beans and bell peppers, soft bamboo shoots, sauteed onion and big leaves of fresh basil and cilantro to fill me up and then some. The dish was excellent.

Kyle ordered the sweet and sour chicken ($9.25). This is similar to Chinese sweet and sour with a lighter colored sauce which gets its tangy flavor from sliced pineapple. He gave it his seal of approval.

Additional entrée choices include an array of curries, Pud Thai and other rice or noodle dishes, Dessert is simple – your choice of mango, coconut or green tea ice cream for $2.95. My favorite is the coconut. In my mind, rich, creamy coconut is the signature ingredient in Thai food and I like to end my meal with it. (Which I couldn’t do on Friday, because of course I’m still on my diet).

If I had to pick a standout trait of Lemongrass’ cuisine, it would be the good quality of the sauces on the entrees. They are always thick and flavorful, true winners.

The service was fine, good enough considering the restaurant was packed to the gills with more people waiting. We arrived at 8pm and waited only about 5 minutes before being seated.

All of the entrees are affordable, most are around $9 and can be served with your choice of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, tofu or simply vegetarian. I’ve eaten at this restaurant at least half a dozen times over the past 5 years, and I’ve enjoyed it every time. I will also say that it’s several cuts above nearby Pattaya on Powers Ferry Rd.

Verdict: Very good Thai food in Marietta, GA.

Friday, August 13, 2010

White House Restaurant



3172 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta, GA 404-237-7601

On Tuesday I had lunch at The White House restaurant, a slim but long place located in a non-descript shopping center on Peachtree Rd. in Buckhead. I have driven past White House on the way to the gym at least 3 mornings a week for the past 2.5 years, but I always assumed it was only a breakfast place (like The Original Pancake House). I discovered through the internet that the restaurant is open until 3 pm on weekdays and decided to make it the subject of my next blog post.

Of course, White House serves breakfast food. It’s got everything you’d expect, all sorts of combinations of eggs, bacon, ham, biscuits and grits. There’s fresh fruit, etc.

I decided to get a daily lunch plate, a meat and two sides. Each day the House offers four different meats and five or so vegetables. I chose the chicken fried steak, collard greens and baby lima beans. Since the daily specials are prepared beforehand (and visible under glass at a counter in the front of the restaurant), I received my lunch almost immediately after placing my order.

The baby lima beans were great. Soft but not mushy. Lightly sprinkled with black pepper. The collard greens were the best I’ve had in a long time, perfectly seasoned. Normally I have to liberally salt my greens, but not at White House. Unlike the greens at the chain Folks (which I strongly suspect were dumped out of a can five minutes before serving), these greens were fresh. And the scent of both sides was fantastic. Warm and wonderful, exactly as they tasted.

If only the steak would have measured up to the veggies. I heartily disliked it. It tasted . . . peculiar. It wasn’t the sauce, it was the meat. I don’t know that it was old exactly, it just contained some ingredient that I made me screw up my mouth in distaste. I have a feeling the Greek chicken would have been much better.

White House is much more a diner than a restaurant, and the food is something akin to a Waffle House. Yes, it is more expensive than Waffle House. However, at White House you’ll get friendlier service and this is saying something, because 95% of all the Waffle House staff I’ve encountered has been friendly. My waitress was almost an old-time diner stereotype – smiling, efficient and just talkative enough to make you feel welcome without oppressing you. You’ll get large pictures of former presidents (of both parties) on the walls. You’ll get a much better selection of home-cooked vegetables, and you’ll have the pleasure of personally promoting a family owned establishment. The owners are Greek, which should be pretty obvious once you note all of the Greek items on the menu (think Greek chicken and pastitsio).

Inside, there are groups of middle aged women wearing flowered dresses talking like they just auditioned for Steel Magnolias, and old men with newspapers spread out beside their cups of coffee. It’s a Southern diner, period.

I really, really wanted a biscuit, but alas, I had to refrain because (gasp of horror) Southern Foodie is on a diet! I know - diets are to foodies what Kryptonite is to Superman. It has been a very difficult past two weeks. No pasta, rice, white/orange/yellow veggies, alcohol, bread and very few fruit and dairy items. Hence the reason I’ve done two Japanese restaurant reviews in a row. They’re about the only places where you can manage to avoid all of the above.

And don’t you dare post a comment asking how chicken fried steak made it past all the diet’s stipulations!

Verdict: Avoid the chicken fried steak, but enjoy the veggies. I’ll be back to try the biscuits.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hashiguchi Jr.




3400 Around Lenox Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA 404/841-9229

Last night my friend Brad and I had dinner at Hashiguchi Jr. We shared a variety of items in this smallish, simply decorated restaurant in the Around Lenox shopping center right beside Lenox Mall.

First we began with sashimi - sea bass, yellow tail and flounder. The flounder was OK, the sea bass was disappointing. Sea bass used to be my favorite sushi fish at the former Soto, and I remember it having a lot more flavor than what I was served at Hashiguchi Jr. The yellow tail was good, better than what I recently ate at Paul's (see July review). I attempted to order the yellow jack but they were out.

One of the best dishes was the goma-aae, which is parboiled spinach with sesame sauce ($3.50). The sauce was thick and sweet, quite delightful atop the nearly bitter spinach.

My favorite dish of the night was the gindara miso-zuke, grilled cod with soybean paste ($6). Delicious. Wonderful smoky grilled flavored crust with a bright white, meaty interior. Yum. I could have ordered 3 of these and an order of the goma-aae and left totally happy.

This was followed by one of the specials, beef tendon with ponzu sauce ($5). I liked this, but I didn't love it. One of the reasons for this is that I'm still tasting the ponzu sauce over 12 hours later. The meat is cooked just right, but it has a very slightly gamy taste. Tendon simply tastes more like red meat than regular beef cuts. It takes a little palate adjustment.

Last but not least we had the tuna tataki with "special sauce." I'm not sure that the special sauce differed very much from soy sauce, but honestly, it barely needed a condiment. The tuna itself was a lovely light red with a thin fatty white border, and was rolled in (I think) cracked black pepper. Very good.

Hashiguchi Jr. isn't the place to go if you need a quick dinner. Selections from the sushi bar come out slowly and separately, especially when the dining room is crowded. Although I normally abhor slow service, I don't necessarily have a problem with it in this case. Good sushi takes time to make.

Good sushi also isn't cheap. Our meal averaged $35/person, although that included two large Sapporo beers. Again, I didn't expect it to be "a good deal." Quality raw fish well presented is never going be inexpensive. If you want cheap sushi, pick up some rolls filled with imitation fish and inferior rice at Publix or a food court restaurant. If you want to spend a moderate amount, come here. If you want excellent, artistic combinations and are OK with spending about twice this much go to Taka, my favorite sushi restaurant in Atlanta.

Hashiguchi Jr. also has a location in Marietta.

Verdict: Good. I would return, but nothing beats Taka on Pharr Rd.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Osaka



276 Hwy. 400 N., Dawsonville, GA 706/216-6988

On Saturday night Kyle and I joined my dad and stepmom at Osaka, a hibachi restaurant in Dawsonville, GA about 2 minutes away from the Georgia 400 Premium Outlets.

I bet half the people (or more) reading this blog are thinking "Ugh, hibachi. How corny can you get?"

And it does carry that negative stigma, often for good reason. However, I like hibachi. I like having fresh food cooked up in front of me. I like seeing the chefs perform knife tricks beforehand. I like the miso soup that precedes the meal.

Therefore I can say I liked Osaka, but not nearly as much as I like some of its competitors. Here's why:

The meat. I ordered a combination NY steak and chicken dinner. I got about twice the amount of chicken as I did steak. Look, I know steak is more expensive than chicken, but the meal was $18.95, so I expected equal portions.

The fried rice. I love fried rice at hibachi restaurants. Love it. Usually. This rice was OK, but it lacked sufficient flavor. I'm not sure if it needed more egg or more soy sauce, but it failed to impress.

The hibachi chef. I feel bad about saying this, because Jimmy was very nice (and the service from our waitress was great), but it rubbed me the wrong way. For one thing, I'm not crazy about the trick of tossing the food directly from the grill into the customer's mouth. Some people love this. Not me. Usually the chefs ask for a volunteer. Jimmy chucked a piece of chicken at every person in our group, and only one made it to its destination. My chicken fell far from the intended target, on my pale blue polo shirt. Hope that teriaki sauce comes out in the wash.

For another thing, Jimmy used a small water dispenser to heighten the flames of the grill, an interesting spectacle, but then he squirted water at every member of our party, on either the face or neck level. The only reason I didn't complain about this is because the restaurant was exceptionally hot and the water actually cooled me off a little bit. 95 degree temperatures don't mix well with sizzling hibachi grills. Our party sweated through most of the meal.

Another reason I usually like hibachi is for the sauces that are served in little square bowls - one for your meat, one for your vegetables. A some hibachi restaurants you'll get even more sauces, but Osaka serves only two. And unfortunately, neither of them were very good. The ginger sauce was too watery, and the white/pink sauce for the meat didn't taste like any particular ingredient I could identify.

This isn't to say that I disliked everything. Both the chicken and steak were both quite tasty, and the vegetables were copious and varied. All items combined, it was plenty of food for any diner.

There's also a sushi bar. Most of the selections looked like the usual Americanized stuff - California rolls and the like. It would be worth a try to ask the chefs to make something special, more traditionally Japanese.

Verdict: OK, but not up to Benihana or my favorite, Kobe Steak on Roswell Rd.