Friday, September 30, 2011

Road Trip: Savannah - Cobblestone Cafe

130 W Lower Factors Walk, Savannah, GA 912/231-0701

Before we left Savannah, we had breakfast at Cobblestone Cafe. See how cool it looks from the outside? The interior doesn't live up to the exterior. It's a little dark, the furnishings are outdated, the staff appear less than fresh. I'm forgiving of this though, because the Cafe is located in downtown Savannah on the back side of River Street. If you've ever been to River Street, you know it's about old charm, not bright modernity. The Cafe sort of fits the area.

The menu is basically pleasing - oatmeal, cereal, French toast, eggs Benedict, corned beef hash, omelets, juices and lots of flavored coffees and cappuccinos. Most choices are between $10 and $15, which seemed a little steep considering the quality. I would assume the prices are marked up because of the high rent in this part of town, but I don't like making excuses for inflated prices.

A few of us got omelets and thought they were pretty good. Eggs were fluffy enough, veggies seemed okay. My side of bacon was paper thin, nearly translucent, but the flavor was right on target.

The booths were very cramped - think coach-class airplane seats. The service was initially fine, and midway through our meal our waitress must have finished her shift because we never saw her again.

Before I posted this review I noticed a lot of bad reviews of this restaurant on other websites. I want to make it clear that we didn't have a bad experience. I think as long as your expectation is that you're going to get average service and adequate food, you'll be fine here. If you go in expecting something really impressive, you're going to be disappointed.

Verdict: A little better than IHOP.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Road Trip: Savannah - Vinnie Van GoGo's

317 W. Bryan St., Savannah, GA

You didn't think I was going to take you all the way to Savannah and just leave you with one post, did you?

Kyle, Ben, Danielle and I also had dinner at Vinnie Van GoGo's. This place has been in City Market for a while, and is a favorite of the locals. If you aren't familiar with Savannah, City Market is a very central area full of arts and crafts galleries, stores carrying Southern-made jams, wines, handmade quilts, and an excellent candy shop that I can't blog about because it's a chain - but I'd definitely recommend picking up some fudge there once you've had dinner at Vinnie's.

Vinnie's was my sister's favorite restaurant in-town back when she was a SCAD student living in Savannah, and Danielle and Ben like it a lot, too. I really wish I could get on the bandwagon and become a big fan of Vinnie's, but I just can't. I've eaten there at least 3 times over the past 7 years and I've never left feeling super impressed.

That doesn't mean the pizza is bad. It's not. In fact, it's probably above average. A little above average. There just isn't anything that stands out as fantastic about the pizza. When I see my pie coming to the table, I perk up my nose, but I don't close my eyes in near ecstasy when I smell the aroma the way I do at Blue Moon in Marietta. The restaurant doesn't offer particularly interesting or premium ingredients, the service is so-so, the dining areas (both indoor and out) are crowded, the chairs are somewhat uncomfortable, and I've always waited a decent period of time before receiving my order.

Part of the reason for that last comment is because Vinnie Van GoGo's is always packed - always. As I said, it's in a great location, a very pleasant area of town with a nice view of one of the squares. And the pizza IS notably better than the chains (e.g. Domino's, Pizza Hut). The ingredients, while not particularly exciting, are fresh, and the thin crust tastes like it's made from scratch. Which the website claims it is, so there you go.

Also, Vinnie Van GoGo's is a cash only establishment. No cash only restaurant is every going to get a perfect 10 review on my blog. Most of us under the age of 55 just don't carry a wad of cash around nowadays. I'll give Vinnie's this much - they've posted Cash Only notices on both the inside and outside of the restaurant, as well as on the website, so anyone who approaches the host stand (which is inevitable, considering you've got a snowball's chance in hell of waiting for less than half an hour for a table here) has any excuse when they receive their check, which also proclaims CASH ONLY!!!!! at the bottom.

On a positive note, the pizza isn't overpriced. $2.50/slice for most of it. $.50 extra for toppings, and $.75 for the better ones like pesto, artichoke hearts or spicy Italian sausage. For some reason basic tomatoes and mushrooms are considered premium toppings. See what I mean?

The restaurant also serves calzones and salads.

Verdict: An apparent old favorite of the locals, but not on my hot list of places to dine in downtown Savannah.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Road Trip: Savannah - Green Truck Pub

2430 Habersham St., Savannah, GA

On Saturday Kyle and I visited our friends Ben and Danielle in Savannah, and had lunch at Green Truck Pub. It's a square, smallish, stand-alone white building on Habersham. We waited for about 20 minutes for a table, and were seated at a slightly cramped booth. The restaurant is a little dark inside (which is indicative of pubs), and the decor is a little trendy without being intimidating.

That description goes for everything about the restaurant, from the waitstaff to the menu. You'll see some locally produced ingredients on the menu, including grassfed beef from Hunter Cattle Company in Brooklet, GA and Perc Coffee Roasters coffees from within Savannah. The beer list features a few Savannah brews, and there's a "Little truckers menu" for your kids. Not that this place was full of kids, or anything.

Adults have their choice of burgers, a chili, soup du jour, a few salads and sandwiches. So the menu isn't huge, but it contains humorous commentary. And while there may not be a ton of choices, what Green Truck Pub does it does right.

For example, my Trailer Park burger ($10.50). It was a 1/3 pd beef patty (I could also have opted for organic grilled chicken or a homemade veggie patty), topped with pimento cheese, bacon, tomato and onion. The bacon was delish. The pimento cheese was chunky and the cheese tasted much better than the typical Kraft shredded. It wasn't a super fancy burger like you'd find at Flip in Atlanta, but it wasn't trying to be. It was just an honest, sizzling burger with real beefy aroma, prepared with the toppings (probably intentionally) a little sloppy on beneath the fat bun. Flip wants its burgers to be works of art. Green Truck Pub just wants to make a good burger. Would you have expected something different from a place called Green Truck Pub? The very name eschews pretension.

My burger came with the house made French fries, which were a little too browned and greasy for my taste, and the homemade ketchup. Kyle wasn't fond of the ketchup, likening it to marinara sauce. Not that there's anything wrong with marinara sauce . . . it just tastes odd with fries.

Danielle ordered the El Jefe burger ($10), one of the more creative combos. It has cheddar, black bean and corn salsa, avocado and jalapenos. It was so big she could barely get her teeth around it. I gave up on grasping my own burger almost immediately and cut it up like a yuppie. Oh well.

Service was good, not too pushy, zany or inattentive.

Verdict: Not the best burger I've ever had in my life, but the best burger I've ever had in Savannah.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


4686 S. Atlanta Rd. Smyrna, GA

Last week Kyle and I had dinner at Blackstone. I'd been curious about the restaurant for some time, interested to see this place that had been awarded a few good reviews several years ago in various papers, all of which claimed Blackstone was Smyrna's answer to fine steak and seafood dining. No need to go all the way (meaning a 15 minute drive) to Buckhead, midtown, or downtown Atlanta when you have Blackstone, that sort of thing.

Boy, was I ever disillusioned from that theory. Upon entry, we had to wait for several minutes for the hostess to show up from some back room. We weren't the only ones waiting. And once she came out, we had to wait for a table despite our reservation. Not for a long time, but long enough to give me a sense of foreboding.

Unfortunately that sense was correct. Here's what was wrong:

1. The atmosphere. Too casual, with an overly dark dining room that seemed to be geared towards covering up the dingy furniture and ugly carpet. Adults wearing inappropriate clothing. Noisy children. If all of this recent fervor about not allowing babies or small children in nice restaurants has escaped you, I ask that you visit Blackstone for dinner. You'll know why so many people are cheering this idea.

Maybe this is Smyrna's citizens fault and not Blackstone's, but I couldn't help but think they're geared towards a mediocre dining experience when I saw that overly casual bar and cramped seating.

2. The bread. Kroger has better bread in their bakery, and I'm referring to the house baked kind. Plain, boring, nothing but filler. Why bother?

3. The wait for our entrees. Yes, the restaurant was almost full. However, it was a weeknight, and we had reservations. Upon ordering it took about 40 minutes for us to receive our entrees. Why?

4. Here's a guess: because they were burning Kyle's steak to a crisp. It was a 14 oz ribeye for $37, and was supposedly marinated in soy sauce, garlic and herbs and seared on a flat iron skillet. This steak was a long, long way from being simply seared. Take a gander at the photo above if you don't believe me. He ordered it medium rare. The inside was probably medium or medium well, and the outside was black and charred. What did they do to that poor thing, anyway? Cook it to the requested temperature and then stick it under the broiler for 15 minutes, just for kicks? It was nearly inedible, but we were so hungry by this time that Kyle ate it. Why didn't we complain? Because if you've ever worked in a restaurant or known anyone who has you know that this will almost guarantee you some type of revenge from the kitchen. Not worth it.

5. My fish entree. It was the special, a baked salmon stuffed with crab meat in a citrus buerre blanc sauce ($22). Sounds outstanding, right? No. The fish itself was fine. The crab tasted old. The sauce was lackluster, the orange slices looked as if they'd been sitting out a while.

For dessert - creme' brulee. Kyle assures me that at least they didn't screw that up. I didn't even order dessert, if that gives you any idea of how disgusted with the meal I was.

The only redeeming quality I found at Blackstone was the service. Our waitress, a dead ringer for Maggie Gyllenhall, was perky and bright. She apologized when our food was late in getting to the table, she refilled our water glasses at appropriate intervals and offered us more wine. Blackstone's management needs to do its best to keep her.

The website says Blackstone is an upscale establishment. About the only thing that's upscale about this place is the prices. You'll be paying as much to eat here as you would at Ruth's Chris, where the steak is about a million times better, the staff is more polished and and environment is more spacious and in better repair.

Verdict: No way, no how. A waste of nearly $100 for a dinner for 2.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Highlander

931 Monroe Dr. Atlanta, GA

A couple of weeks ago Kyle and I met our friends John and Jennifer at The Highlander, located on Monroe in the same shopping center as the Landmark Midtown theatre, Trader Joe's, Bruster's, etc. We were there to play trivia, which The Highlander offers on Sunday nights.

There are lots of typical bar items on the menu, but there are a few that stand out for their novelty in either title or presentation, such as the Pitcher of Tater Tots or French Fries ($4.95) or crab au gratin ($8.95 - served with pita). We were intrigued by the pasta-rella sticks ($7.95). This is 5 sticks of mozzarella sticks wrapped in pasta and deep fried, with a side of marinara. Yes, someone thought that all cheese sticks needed to transform themselves into fantastic was some fried pasta. If you're adding that many carbs and calories unnecessarily to your diet, the result OUGHT to be stupendous. It wasn't. They really tasted like regular cheese sticks with more bread coating. Not that they were bad, just that the pasta didn't improve anything.

I was determined to try the chili, apparently a claim to fame for The Highlander as it's been featured on The Food Network's Diners, Drive-In's and Dives. It's Jamaican Jerk chili, complete with jerk seasoning, shredded cheddar, sliced green onions, and plenty of good ground beef. A pretty good sized bowl is just under $7. While I liked the flavor, it was way too hot for me. I realize that plenty of people judge chili based solely on it's ability to scorch the mouth (meaning they think this is a good thing), but I'm not one of that tribe. I would have liked to eat more, but I just couldn't handle more than half the bowl.

There's a half decent beer selection. Nothing to get excited about, but several premium choices on tap.

The absolute downfall of The Highlander was its service. It was just awful. When we entered the restaurant, at least 3 servers were hanging out around the server's station. We seated ourselves and were there for nearly 10 minutes before any of them acknowledged us. In the meantime, at least 2 other groups came in and were attended to right away. Judging by the clientele, I'm guessing we were ignored because we were way too average for that scene. And I don't mean we aren't good looking people - I mean that we aren't marred by sleeve tattoos, weren't wearing hipster or Rockabilly clothing and didn't sport huge holes from gauge earrings. Anyone fitting that description appeared to get great service, so if that sounds like you, The Highlander should probably become your new hangout.

Besides getting ignored, our waitress was generally snide. She kept calling us "kids", and I mean every time she came to the table. Since the youngest person in our party was 27, I have to assume this was her "thing." Not that she came to the table all that often. Jennifer mentioned something about the restaurant being written up in Playboy, and I agree that the waitresses seemed to have been selected for their jobs more for their cup sizes than their level of interest in actual service. Had I seen the cartoon on the website before dining here, I wouldn't have actually thought this was an accurate depiction of the employees. But I would have been wrong.

Verdict: Some of the menu options are interesting, but the service was enough to keep me from returning.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Empire State South

999 Peachtree St. Atlanta, GA

Empire State South - why do I love thee? Let me list a few of the reasons:

1. Your convenience: You are located on the corner of 10th and Peachtree, and you have a parking deck where you validate the parking for up to 3 hours. No unnecessary valet, no metered street-side parking or expensive lots.

2. The Southern inspired menu: It's not just the once-new-but-now-ubiquitous shrimp and grits. This menu boasts really inspired combinations of local and otherwise delicious ingredients. Take one of the dinner "beginnings" for example: grilled Tybee shrimp (as in Tybee Island, just off of Savannah's coast), Wong's melon, ESS bacon, radish, and ESS yogurt. Playful and smart. The menu changes regularly. I see they now have a dish I would have jumped on had it been available when I dined here a few weeks ago: monkfish (possibly my favorite sea creature) crepinette with country ham broth, arugula, oyster mushrooms, sweet onion and dressed cucumber ($28). Be still my beating heart!

3. An in-house bakery. Sweet and tart treats like zesty lemon loaf, scones, muffins and donuts for only a couple dollars each.

4. Little cast iron skillets. My unbelievably good fish with oyster mushrooms, thick, fragrant bacon and tomato risotto cooked just right was perfectly presented in this

5. Atmosphere: NOT stuffy. It's hard to find a restaurant with the caliber and price of the food served here (meaning $20+ per entrees) with a farm house appeal. (And I generally don't find farm houses appealing, but somehow the interior designers have made it so.) Guys who hate to dress up and worry about what utensils to use with which course will love this place. Not sure why they bothered with the bocce ball court outside. When you're eating a meal this good, you don't need any other form of entertainment.

6. The wine: Wine Director Steven Grubbs was recently featured in Food & Wine as one of the best new sommeliers of the year. When we had dinner at ESS, Sabrina and I asked for wine recommendations and our sommelier found something great for each of our palettes. Lots of good choices here.

And finally -

7. The jars. The jars, the jars, the jars! Hot diggity! I know they're an $18 appetizer, but I'm telling you they're the best appetizer I've had in at least a year, and you'll get enough for 4 people to share. If there was any way I could've absconded with the jars, I would have, but there was no way they were fitting under my blouse without attracting a lot of unwanted notice (and possibly security in the parking deck). Our jars contained pork rilette, trout mousse, homemade pickled vegetables, pimento cheese with bacon marmalade, and boiled peanuts. The mousse was my favorite, the marmalade Sabrina's. And by the way - thanks to Sabrina for this awesome belated birthday dinner.

I can't wait to have another meal here!

Verdict: The best new restaurant in Atlanta.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Recipe: Marinated Pork Chops w/Herb Salsa

I know you just got a recipe from me a few weeks ago, but I made this last week and knew I had to share it with all my followers. I live in an apartment complex in Cobb county, and therefore am not legally allowed to have a grill, so I get few opportunities to put my grilling recipes to good use. Fortunately I've been dogsitting for the past couple of weeks at a house with a great new gas grill, and this has been the best thing Kyle and I have made so far.

I've actually made this recipe about 3 times, and unless you burn the pork chops (which you have no excuse to do if you're watching them while they grill) then you can't screw it up. It's a fantastic summer dish because you can use some of that fresh basil, mint and parsley from your garden. My friends Kathy and Amy sometimes grow lemon basil, which would make a fine, lively substitute for the regular basil. In that case you could probably use only half the lemon juice, or none at all. This is also a great recipe because it's simple and requires only a few ingredients. If you have to buy the fresh herbs in the little plastic packages, you should have enough to double or triple the recipe, or enough left over for other meals later in the week.

Capers, dijon mustard, white wine vinegar - all zingy, potent ingredients - offset by the fresh parsley, basil and mint. You'll love it. We use the thin breakfast chops for this recipe, which cook in about 7 minutes or so. In my mind, pork is always better seared, broiled, falling apart after hours in the slow cooker or grilled as opposed to baked. It's wonderful juices should either be tightly retained (such as when searing), ready to flow into your mouth upon entry, or should be bubbling slightly after broiling or grilling. Getting the edges of the chops just singed from the broiler is my specialty.

Kyle and I like to pair this with a simple side such as buttered corn on the cob or sliced carrots. Enjoy!

And yes, I'll be sure to post a new restaurant review for you by week's end.