Monday, December 20, 2010

Savannah: A Mixed Bag at Vic's

After stopping by Molly MacPherson's for a beer

This pub is a cheerful, cozy place to hang out and drink beer.

and taking in the sights and a cocktail in the sleek lounge atop the Bohemian hotel,

In all of our photos, note that the Maven's camera is set to the wrong date.  :)

the Mississippi Maven and I strolled down an eerily deserted River Street.  Our late lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' still lingering in our bellies, we began to contemplate our dinner prospects. 

Usually, I like to avoid restaurants located in an obvious tourist trap like River Street, but a bit of preliminary research revealed that Vic's on the River had possibilities.  And, as if it were predetermined, we found a business card for the place on the floor in the hallway of our hotel.   

A few hours and a wine-and-cheese reception later, pleasing live piano music, soft lighting and full tables greeted us at Vic's as we blew in from the cold. Warmly welcomed, we were shown to a lovely table that viewed shimmering lights reflecting off the Savannah River.  Ahhh....  Our timing was uncanny this trip because Vic's, unlike its River Street competitors, was bustling on this frigid December evening and, like our fortuitous experience at Mrs. Wilkes',  no wait! 

The Maven ordered a martini and I studied a well-organized and varied wine list.  Not rushing us in the least, our informative server inquired about my wine preferences and suggested I try an unoaked Chardonnay by the glass.  Vic's has a surprising variety of wines by the glass, half-bottle and bottle.  This one - the only part of the name I remember is Naked (imagine that!) - was about $10 a glass and went well with my scallops, which she also recommended. 

My scallops.  Boy, were they good!

Perfectly cooked, the half-dollar-sized gems had a beautiful golden, mildly salty sear and a silky, succulent interior.  They were terrific with a capital T.  The Maven tasted them and said they reminded her of lobster. 

They were served over crab risotto and topped with a nest of arugula.  I like arugula but thought this was a weird application.  I assume the chef was going for more color, almost using it as a garnish.  It was more crispy than wilted.  While risotto and scallops would have been a bland-looking plate on their own, replacing the arugula with fresh asparagus or another colorful veg would have pumped up the presentation as well.

The risotto was fine, not as creamy as I would have liked, and I would have preferred it cheesy rather than crabby.  Those awesome scallops didn't need any competing seafood flavors.

Mississippi Maven had crabmeat-stuffed shrimp.  I found them uninspired.  They reminded me of a touristy dish you often see in Florida.  Unless I see giant shrimp and lump crabmeat, I am not impressed.  I saw neither, but they were okay.   They were accompanied by grilled asparagus and rice.

I know I am back-tracking but I must mention our unusual appetizer - crawfish beignets - listed on the menu as award-winning.  The best part about these was dipping them in the Tabasco-laced sauce drizzled on the plate.   The Maven knows her crawfish and we had a hard time detecting them in this dish.  These "beignets" were more like miniature spring rolls made of sweet, fried dough and sparingly stuffed with a mild seafood-tasting substance.  The sweet-hot flavors were good but not what I'd consider prize-winning.

Accompanying the meal was a basket of - what else - biscuits.  Although served with a punchy and chunky orange marmalade, these little guys were lacking flavor and texture.  They needed that marmalade! After tasting the incredible biscuits at Mrs. Wilkes', these paled in comparison.  I didn't even finish one, and that's not like me.

Also relegated to the tasteless department was the dressing on the creatively challenged dinner salad.  With only the flavor of oil coming through, the everyday spring mix screamed for salt and more vinegar.  I see no reason for a restaurant in this price range ($20-30 entrees) to underseason a vinaigrette.

Thinking we might indulge in dessert elsewhere that evening, we wrapped up our meal at Vic's.  It was enjoyable overall, with attentive and friendly service, a relaxing and welcoming ambiance, and a chef who knows his scallops.  I would return for those; I'd stick with the server's recommended dishes; and I'd seek out the historic Civil War map that I somehow missed during my visit. 

Dinner for two, including tax and tip, was $112.

Restaurant Info:
Vic's on the River
26 East Bay Street
Savannah, Georgia

Vic's On The River on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Savannah: Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room

The beauty of Savannah lies not only in its historic squares and gracious Southern hospitality, but also in its quirky characters and unpredictability.  Who would have thought that during last week's 24-hour birthday getaway with my friend the Mississippi Maven that we would luck into a no-wait table at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room?  

Formerly known as Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House, Mrs. Wilkes' is famous for its down-home Southern cuisine and the line of people willing to wait an ungodly amount of time to feast on it.  Hubmeister, who often goes to Savannah for business, said he has never dined there because he refuses to get in the line that snakes daily down a picturesque residential street. 

Figuratively and literally, the sun was shining on me and the Maven when we walked up Wednesday afternoon a little after 1.  No line!  A couple of people were waiting inside and the host told us a table would be ready momentarily.  Are you kidding?   Christmas had come early. 

We were told to enter an adjacent dining room and grab a seat at the second table on the right.  Unbeknownst to us, this place serves family style and you sit at a large round table with your brand-new family of 10, comprised of tourists and locals alike.  The food is already on the table and it's a feast of Southern fare like you could only imagine.  I counted 17 side dishes and four entrees.  As soon as one bowl is emptied, another is brought to the table.  You pass the bevy of bowls among your new family, and everyone prepares to bust a gut.

I can't begin to evaluate every dish, but I'll share my thoughts on a few.  Best of the bunch were the fried chicken and biscuits.  The chicken was crispy-crunchy outside and so moist inside that when I pulled off some golden skin, the piping-hot juices were pooling.  These birds also had just the right amount of salty essence.

You know about my love affair with the biscuit and may recall how I recently wrote that biscuit recipes vary from one place to the next.  Mrs. Wilkes' has a unique biscuit and one of the best.  It isn't gargantuan, it isn't too buttery, it isn't too tangy, it isn't doughy, and it isn't round.   It's a square of warm, tender fluff that dissolves on your tongue. 

After leafing through one of Mrs. Wilkes' cookbooks - on sale at the restaurant and throughout the city - I noted that her biscuits combine self-rising flour with additional baking powder, blend buttermilk and whole milk, combine shortening and butter, and include a touch of water.  According to the recipe, they are hand formed, but the restaurant serves perfect squares and produces such huge quantities that I assume they are cut.  Whatever they do to them, they are amazing.  Corn muffins were also on the bread plate, but if I had tried them, I wouldn't have had room for a second biscuit and you know I went for two.

Besides fried chicken, the entrees included beef stew, barbecued pork, and meat loaf.  The stew and meat loaf were nothing to write home about and I didn't sample the pork.  Popular at our table, the meat loaf and chicken plates were the ones replenished. 

On the vegetable front, my favorite was the collard greens.  Mississippi Maven enjoyed the creamed corn.  The succotash, full of okra, was a big hit with everyone. 

These are the other sides I remember:   mac and cheese (okay but lukewarm and clumpy), cornbread stuffing, white rice, gravy, pole beans (wilted and tasty), lima beans (the usual), black-eyed peas, baked beans (nobody touched them), potato salad (very pickly in true Southern fashion), Cajun sausage and dirty rice (not my favorite and a bit out of sync with the rest of the menu), rutabagas (mashed, no thanks but you rarely see them and some people - Hubmeister - love them), sweet potatoes (mashed, didn't try them but they were a beautiful shade of sunset-orange), yellow squash (flavorful), green cabbage (didn't try because my plate was too full), cucumber salad (Mississippi Maven gave it a big thumbs up), and a noodle and English pea dish (didn't look appetizing but one lady at our table loved it). 

Dessert was a choice of banana pudding or fruit cobbler.  I sampled a typical banana pudding loaded with crushed vanilla wafers, which both the Maven and I thought would have been better if accompanied by a cup of hot coffee to cut the extreme sweetness, but that's not part of the meal.  You are dining on the ground floor of a lovely three-story 1870 red-brick house, once a true boardinghouse, and you are getting a boardinghouse-style meal served with sweet tea, unsweetened tea on request, or water - something to keep in mind if you are a choosy diner. 

Go to Mrs. Wilkes' to experience cooking like a real Southern grandma would put on the family table - authentic fried chicken and biscuits and vegetables that have been seasoned with love and bacon grease.  Don't go with special requests and gourmet expectations.  Go for the camaraderie, and go hungry.

Restaurant hours are 11 a.m. till 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.  Price range $16.  Reservations and charge cards are not accepted.

Restaurant Info:
Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House
107 West Jones Street
Savannah, Georgia

Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pig Out on Drunken Ham

If you had time to check the blogosphere last week, you were a step ahead of me.  I hosted the family Thanksgiving festivities and had houseguests for several days.  I did lots of cooking, had a few hits and misses, and over the next few posts thought I'd share with you some of the family favorites.  

Here's a recipe you might want to try over the Christmas holiday if you decide to purchase a ham.  I can thank Southern Living Christmas Cookbook for this dish, which I also made for Easter.  It makes the house smell divine, serves an army of folks, and tastes wonderful.  If that isn't enough, it's also easy peasy.   The day before the Thanksgiving kitchen camp-out, I needed simplicity so I served it with baked beans, coleslaw and homemade biscuits.

Golden Glazed Ham
(Southern Living Christmas Cookbook)

1 (7-pound) fully cooked ham half  (I had a 10-pound spiral-sliced ham half)
2 C firmly packed brown sugar, divided
2 (12-ounce) cans beer
2 T. honey
2 T. Dijon mustard
1/2 C bourbon

Place ham, fat side up, in a deep roasting pan.  Press 1 cup brown sugar onto all sides of ham.  Pour beer into pan.  Insert meat thermometer into ham, making sure it does not touch fat or bone.  Cover and bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes.  Remove 2 cups drippings from pan.

Combine remaining 1 cup brown sugar, honey, mustard, and bourbon in a saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sugar melts.  Baste ham with sugar mixture.  Return ham to oven; bake, uncovered, 1 hour or until meat thermometer registers 140 degrees, basting with reserved drippings and sugar mixture every 10 minutes.   Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.  Serves 14. 

Note:  Both times I made this, it took longer than an hour, but don't overcook the ham.  It's already cooked; you're simply heating it through.  I put my (impeccably clean) finger down one of the center slices and when it felt hot enough to me, I removed the ham from the oven.   How's that for precision?  Also, stay on top of the basting to keep it moist.  It's worth it.  Leftovers make great sandwiches and ham and eggs; or, if you're like us, you can yank it off the bone and eat it out of hand.  Pig out!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Belly Up to the Bar at Sushi Tsu

Perched at the bar sloshing down a ginormous, frosty Sapporo, I chatted with Hubmeister about my top 10 favorite movies.

It was Friday night at the sushi bar.  The chefs were busy creating roll after roll, going about their exacting business as kimono-clad servers barked orders, two gay guys next to us sat scooping up rainbow rolls, and the post-workweek celebration had begun for a couple of professional types getting blitzed across the bar. 

When Hubmeister and I go to Sushi Tsu, we sit at the bar because he likes it there.  It's not that the restaurant doesn't look inviting - with its warm red and gold hues and a choice of either teppanyaki or standard dining tables - there's just something intriguing about eating at the bar. 

We are certainly not there to converse with the chefs, whose accents are so strong that when our chef presented one of the rolls, I looked confused enough that he gave up repeating himself, picked up the sushi menu and pointed out which one it was.  Oh, Philly roll!

That was part of Hubmeister's order.  I had a crunchy, spicy tuna roll and a spider (soft-shell crab) roll.  Hub loves the ice-cold house salad with the tangy ginger dressing, so he had that as well, and we split an order of gyoza.  The tender, meat-filled dumplings were fabulous and I could eat several orders of them and call that my entire meal.  They had a pan-fried crispy sear on one side and a steamed soft exterior on the other, and the accompanying salty dipping sauce made them as irresistibly dunkable as donuts into coffee. 

One thing is apparent when you dine at the bar and that is the just-reeled-in freshness of the fish.  It looked gorgeous laid out in front of us in its icy bed.  The squid glistened, its little suction cups looking as if they might still muster a mean grip.  The white fish, salmon and tuna practically sparkled.  What a difference from the ashen, "previously frozen" supermarket fare.  My rolls were scrumptious, crunchy as promised, lending a great textural contrast to the slightly warm and pliable sushi rice.

Perhaps the fun of sitting at the bar lies in its communal nature, where people from all walks of life share a common pleasure.  A melting pot of humanity comes together to appreciate the chefs and delight in their edible art.  It's a place to discuss carefree topics like your favorite movies, a happy spot to relax and expand your culinary horizons. 

Restaurant Info:                                                               
Sushi Tsu Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar
15363 Amberly Drive

Sushi Tsu Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon