Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Special Feature: Cacao

2817 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta, GA

Today I decided to stop by Cacao. I've been passing it on my way to work since the second location opened a couple of months ago, and finally my curiousity got the better of me and I went inside today on my lunch break. The flagship location is at 312C N. Highland Ave.

Cacao makes a nice first impression. As you can see from the photo, the interior is pretty. Girly pink chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and glass cases hold chocolate goodies of all kinds. It's exceptionally clean and white. The counter was manned by a very polite woman with what I think was a German accent.

I was illegally parked, so I couldn't stand around lusting over the chocolate the way I normally would. Within a few minutes the German woman had sold me a 4 oz slice of almond marshmallow fudge for a whopping $15.50.

I know, outrageous right?

Well, technically there's a reason for that. Cacao is a "bean-to-chocolate" maker. They use all organic ingredients and hand-form the chocolate in-house, mainly at the original location in the Highlands. When you bite into the fudge as I did today, you'll taste a purity, a deep, rich flavor that speaks of beans grown in uncontaminated soil, picked by expert hands and made just for you with love. Or maybe I just convinced myself that's what I tasted because I needed to feel better about just dropping $15 on a slice of fudge that would've cost me $4 at a chocolate shop in Helen or Savannah.

Besides the fudge, of which I saw 3 different flavors (including a great looking one with lots of sliced pistachios), there are plain and dipped marshmallow clouds, fruits dipped in chocolate, truffles, bars, and individually wrapped caramels. You can also enjoy premium cups of cocoa inside the shop, where there are tiny round tables set up for you. The truffles come in delicious-sounding flavors, like lemon curd, mint julep, lavendar apricot and peach amaretto. Wish I could have afforded to try some. A box of 10 is $25. And these truffles are on the small side. I think the ones at Godiva are expensive, and I know for a fact that I love them. This would be an expensive experiment.

Also, I'm pretty sure all of the chocolate is dark. The level of darkness varies, but it's all dark. If you're a milk chocolate lover, you better go elsewhere for your fix.

Cacao will also provide custom chocolate bars for private events such as weddings. God only knows how much that costs.

Verdict: It's nice for Atlanta to have an artisinal chocolate shop, but it won't be affordable for everyone.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Honey Pig

3473 Old Norcross Rd. Suite #304 Duluth, GA 30096

OK foodies - after posting several reviews in a row of disappointing restaurants, I finally have a positive one for you. The restaurant is in Duluth. I think my last (and only?) post from Duluth was of Chaba Thai back in 2009. I may not visit Duluth frequently, but I've had good luck dining there. So here goes:

Last night Kyle, John, his grandmother and I went out to Honey Pig. It's located in a shopping center with a makeup store, a Japanese restaurant, and another restaurant named "Chicken and Beer." (I know - it was hard to resist the temptation of going to that place instead. But then again, the name Honey Pig also put a smile on my face.)

Eating at this restaurant was an interesting experience. You're seated at a table with a large round cast-iron lid in the center. Underneath is a gas burner, triggered by a small dial at one side of the table. You choose between pork, beef, seafood and vegetable dishes. There is a minimum of 2 orders per table - but you can choose any 2 items. First the server brings out some moderately spicy kim chi and very mild bean sprouts, placing them on two sides of the lid and turning on the gas burner. These items come with everything on the menu. Each person also get a cup of sweet soup that's mainly broth, a small bowl of sea salt, a tiny bowl of rice wraps, another tiny bowl of radish wraps, a dish containing bean sauce, chili sauce, a couple of jalapenos and onions (I think these last 2 were pickled). Your table will be completely full by now. Then you wait.

A few minutes later you'll start getting the meat or veggies you ordered. Seafood will come out first. The waiter will melt a little butter, spread it across the lid, then artfully arrange each piece of scallop or shrimp near the top center. When he comes back to cut them in half, that means they're ready. In the meantime, you can inhale the delicious aroma and imagine how good everything will taste.

And it will taste good. We had the scallops first, then the beef (boneless prime/Kobe style - $23.95), next the pork (Honey Pig sam-gyup-sal - $17.95), and finally the shrimp (jumbo - $24.95). The shrimp was my favorite - big juicy pieces basted in butter. The beef was good, although not quite as tender as I would have expected from something labeled Kobe. The pork was too fatty for me and Kyle, but John and his grandmother loved it. Kyle liked the kim chi - and he usually hates stuff like that, so that says something. I thought the bean sprouts were excellent. Something so simple shouldn't taste that good. They were best when they had cooked for a while and the bottom layer had gotten crispy - the same appeal as fried rice from the bottom of the pot. Our server also added a few different mushrooms - at least 3 varieties including portobello, shitake and enoki. The enoki will practically melt on the lid, a lovely sight.

There are no chicken options, probably because it's too easy to undercook chicken, which would of course lead to bad consequences.

So what do you do with all this stuff? You take either a rice or radish wrap (both are very thinly sliced, the radish being nearly transparent), grab a little bit of kim chi or bean sprouts, select a meat, dip the meat into one of the sauces, then add it to your wrap. You probably can guess the next step - roll it up into what amounts to a one or two bite wrap. It's an excellent combination (in fact, there are many different combinations possible, all of your own choosing), and really fun to eat.

The whole thing is sort of like hibachi - you get to pick a meat, watch the food cooking in front of you on a hot surface. You won't have the drama of the hibachi cooks, but you'll have the meat closer to you, and you'll get to determine when it's done enough to remove it to your own plate. For those of you who are picky about the temperature of your meat, this is a great bonus.

What I didn't like about it: the music was too loud. Some songs were overplayed R&B tunes, the others were Korean pop. The servers were all young Asian guys, and they weren't always attentive. They seemed to be hired more for their slim physiques and spiked hair than their skills at handling a table. The place is a little too trendy for me altogether.

It's not the cheapest meal in the world. Much like hibachi, you'll need to order one item off the menu per person, so you're looking at $20 each before ordering any drinks or additional selections.

Verdict: A cool experience, with plenty of good food.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nino's Italian Kitchen

11070 Alpharetta Hwy, Roswell, GA 30076

On Saturday night Kyle and I had dinner with our friends Dan and Rebecca at Nino's in Roswell.

All of our entrees came with a choice of soup or salad. I opted for the cream of broccoli soup, which was quite good. It was subtle, with small chunks of broccoli and a lovely light green hue. Wish I would have ordered a whole bowl of this.

I ordered the meat ravioli with plum tomato and basil sauce ($13). The menu claims the ravioli is homemade. This may be true, but if so, someone in the kitchen isn't doing much to the meat within besides pulverizing it. The meat had basically no flavor of its own, while the sauce was too heady. I loved the plum tomatoes and fresh, shredded basil, but the sauce was overloaded with pepper. There was nothing on the menu to indicate this would be a spicy sauce, so I wasn't expecting that. Our server told us that arrabiata sauce, another option for the ravioli, was the spicier version - that must be very hot indeed.

Rebecca ordered the eggplant Parmesan ($11.50). I tried it, and thought it was baked just right, and the portion size was good. Kyle ordered the manicotti ($11.50), which was filled with ricotta cheese, and topped with Parmesan and your choice of a marinara or a meat sauce. The pasta appeared to be overcooked. Manicotti is a traditional Italian dish, and Nino's made it in the simplest way possible. I'd like to see a more unusual option on the menu, like one with a creamy pesto sauce.

I guess what I'm getting at is that everything on the menu was completely predictable, right down to the moderate quality bread, and a wine list that includes Chianti in the straw bottle. (And if you don't already know this, Chianti in the cute straw bottle is always priced for it's packaging and of inferior quality.)

We had excellent service from Karyn, who was upbeat and made us feel very welcome. Dan and Rebecca have been to Nino's many times, and they said this was by far the best service they'd ever received. According to them, the servers are usually nice enough, but there are too few of them to adequately cover the tables.

Having been to (Northern) Italy twice, I'm not an expert on authentic Italian cooking, but I do know a little bit about it. One problem I always have with Americanized Italian places like Nino's is that most dishes are overseasoned - too much oregano, too much pepper, so much garlic that you're still tasting it over 24 hours later. Nino's isn't the only Italian restaurant in the metro area that's guilty of this, but they are one of the guilty parties.

You'll end up paying more, but if your goal is top quality, authentic Italian cuisine, I'd recommend Veni Vedi Vici or previously reviewed Sotto Sotto over Nino's. If you want a decent (but not the best) place that's more family friendly and located in the suburbs, Nino's is the way to go.

Verdict: I'd be willing to eat here again if I was in the area, but I wouldn't seek it out.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Chat Patti

1594 Woodcliff Dr. NE, # F, Atlanta, GA

Last night my grandmother and I visited this Indian vegetarian restaurant a stone's throw away from previously reviewed Tin Roof Cantina. It's in a shopping center with a sari shop, another Indian restaurant and an Ethiopian restaurant.

If you are unfamiliar with Indian dishes, you're best move before going to this restaurant is to review their website, which has descriptions of everything on the menu. At the restaurant yourself, all you'll get is pictures and the names of the dishes, featured on a glossy hanging board. If you want more details, you can always ask the owner, but he has a heavy accent.

I ordered the Katchori Chat. This is fried pastry (on the bottom), with brown and (neon) yellow lentils topped with yogurt and fresh cilantro. The menu doesn't say this, but it also contained onions, potato, and hot sauce. This is a very interesting dish, very heavily spiced. In some bites I tasted cumin, in some coriander, some mild hot sauce, and then of course the cilantro. Every forkful seemed different from the last. It was like eating the flavor equivalent of a tie-dyed shirt. If you like variety, this is the entree for you. I'm still not exactly sure how I feel about it.

Grandmother ordered the masala dosa, which is a long, cylindrical semi-crisp crepe containing mixed vegetables. This is a southern Indian specialty. It looks enormous, but you should know is that the vegetable filling is only within about the middle third of the crepe. This isn't atypical of dosas I've eaten at local Indian restaurants - just be prepared for a meal composed of mostly bread. This particular dosa mainly included onion and potato, with a few chili peppers. It was adequate, but I much prefer the Saravana Bhavan, which specializes in southern Indian cuisine. By comparison, the dosa at Chat Patti is too pancake-like, and the filling wasn't as flavorful.

This is the third Indian vegetarian restaurant I've reviewed on this blog. Of these, I think Saravana Bhavan is # 1, Vatica is # 2, and this is # 3. I also prefer Udipi Cafe to this place, although I haven't posted a review on it because it's a chain. I'm not saying Chat Patti is bad, it's just not the best.

On the bright side, the menu is extensive, and the portions are filling. There are lots of varieties of chat, plenty of bread, eggless pastries, and "snacks" like dal and samosas. It's also very inexpensive - I spent $12 on two dinners. A great deal, if you like the food.

The owner and other employees were very nice. The owner even gave us a few samples of some lentil-based cake that came with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, on the house. It's always nice to be able to try something new for free.

The restaurant itself is nothing fancy, but it's clean and benefits from a big window that allows light to reflect off the mustard yellow walls. It's nicer than the worn exterior indicates.

Verdict: Average.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Recipe: Turkey Tomatillo Enchiladas


Corn tortillas (enchilada size)
1 3/4 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
2 cans enchilada sauce
1 small (6 oz.) can salsa verde
Canola oil
Crumbled feta cheese
3/4 pound turkey - thin-sliced

Directions: Preheat over to 350 degrees.

Slice the turkey into strips about 3" long. In a medium to large bowl, combine turkey, salsa verde, Monterey jack cheese, and 1/2 of 1 can of enchilada sauce. Mix well.

On the stovetop, pour a small amount of canola oil in a small skillet (you will need enough to cover the bottom of the pan but not so much that when it gets hot it's going to pop out all over you.) Briefly fry one tortilla at a time in the oil, on one side only. Fill center of tortilla with about 2 tablespoons of the mix, roll up, and place into a glass baking dish (I use a 9" x 13" or larger), oiled side facing out. Repeat until dish is full. Pour remaining enchilada sauce on top. Bake for 15-18 minutes. Sprinkle crumbled feta on top before serving.

This recipe was taken from a 2006 Whole Foods flyer, and these are hands-down the best enchiladas I've ever eaten. They beat the pants off the beef kind you usually find at typical Mexican-American restaurants. The turkey is surprisingly an ideal component. The salsa verde gives it some spice without burning your mouth, and the crumbled feta is an awesome final touch. It's also very consistent, and kid-friendly.

What you should know: the better quality the turkey you buy, the better this will taste. I'm normally totally fine with generics, but in this recipe the expensive turkey really stands out. Go for the Boar's Head, or something even better.

Also, I like the enchiladas to be a little crispy on the outside, so I bake them for 20 minutes or more.

I use red enchilada sauce, but green is fine too if you prefer it. And of course, buying the pre-shredded Monterey Jack cheese is a time-saver.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tin Roof Cantina

2591 Briarcliff Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA

Last night I had dinner at Tin Roof Cantina, near the intersection of Briarcliff and North Druid Hills roads.

Tin Roof is "one of those places." By that I mean it's a little grungy, with the sour smell of spilled beer and stale cigarette smoke permeating every corner. The interior is dark, and there's trivia or a band playing every night. It's open until 4am, even during the week, if you can believe it. They have the usual slew of bad beers on tap, along with a few good ones like Sweetwater Blue and Smithwick's. They also have something called, no kidding, "The Cheap S#!" for $2/draft (Could this be Pabst Blue Ribbon? Don't know, didn't ask.), and beer towers. You can bet that many a regrettable one-night-stand began inside these walls. A college student, or someone who just celebrated his/her 21st b-day would just love it.

The rest of us . . . not so much.

Sounds like a great place for me to take my grandmother, right?

I entered Tin Roof Cantina knowing absolutely nothing about it, besides that is was conveniently located within a mile of my grandmother's new residence. I wanted to take her some place neither of us had ever been, so Tin Roof met that requirement. It was only after we went inside and the waitress brought our glasses of water that I realized this may not have been the idea choice for us.

Nevertheless, I try to approach unfamiliar restaurants with an open mind. So we dug in and ordered.

Tin Roof offers typical Americanized Mexican cuisine - tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, chips and salsa, guacamole, etc. They also have regular bar food - wings, burgers and hot dogs. A few salads. Nothing I can get excited about.

My grandmother ordered the Tin Roof taco ($6.95), which is a large, soft flour tortilla-wrapped taco with lettuce, tomato, grated cheese, and your choice of chicken, steak or ground beef. She got the ground beef. It tasted exactly like what your mom used to make . . . if she was like my mom and served the Ortega brand from Kroger.

I ordered a chicken quesadilla, which came with grilled chicken, diced tomato, onion, Monterrey Jack cheese, accompanied by sides of guacamole, salsa and a very liquidy sour cream. I think this was $10.95. It was actually pretty good. The quesadilla itself was thick and the portion was ample. Not as good or nearly as fresh as the ones served at the Tree House in Peachtree Hills (previously reviewed), but better than I expected.

Service was okay. Neither the food nor the service was bad. It ranged from mediocre to slightly good. That's not enough to get a return visit out of me.

Verdict: Catering to a specific crowd, one who doesn't make quality of the food their first priority.