Thursday, March 31, 2011

Farewell Y'all: Athens Grub Notes

Every time I visit Athens, Ga., I am amazed that this small town offers so many delightful dining options.  I can think of cities much larger that have fewer independent restaurants, and the chain-free establishments in those cities aren't nearly as charming or as inspired as those I've discovered in spunky Athens.

During Daughtress's four years at UGA, which will sadly - yet gladly - culminate in May, I happily sampled the local food scene while visiting her.  Some of the eateries were enjoyed before I launched Food and Loathing so forgive my lack of specifics, but I thought I'd mention a few blogworthy spots in addition to Five & Ten, which I reviewed in a previous post.

Last Resort Grill - The first thing that comes to mind is my total shock that Type-A Hubmeister would tolerate a seemingly endless wait to dine at this, much less any, restaurant.  We endured over an hour's wait in a tiny, chairless front entrance crammed with other famished parents and aging Bulldogs.  There was no getting a seat at the bar or even near the bar for that matter; people were packed like sardines in the lounge area.  The beleaguered wait staff was good humored as they maneuvered serving trays through the throng.  I wish they would have lobbed a few drinks our way.  To exacerbate the situation, it was cold outside, so everybody huddled inside for warmth.  All I can say is, thank the Lord the place was worth the wait.  I believe I rewarded my patience with the Firecracker Filet because it looked so darned good as I watched it go by countless times.  It didn't disappoint.  This place was a hit with the whole family.  Thumbs up on food, service and atmosphere.

Last Resort Grill on Urbanspoon

East West Bistro- Pre-Food and Loathing days, but I know lunch was decent because I intended to return.  I am channeling homemade sweet potato chips.  Due to the crowd, we dined in the wood-accented bar area, which I especially found appealing for its warm, publike aura.   Located downtown in an historic building, it's a welcome retreat for a beer or cocktail.

East West Bistro on Urbanspoon

The National - The second Athens venture for Chef Hugh Acheson, who earned accolades for Five & Ten.  Thanks to a sweet Daughtress connection, we snagged a table the first weekend The National opened for brunch.   The place was packed.  Daughtress and I both ordered a smoked trout and egg dish served in petite cast-iron skillets. We found the trout somewhat strong for the early hour (our fault), but Hubs and Son of Hubs ordered well.  The surroundings are well appointed, bathed in white.  Snazzy.

The National on Urbanspoon

Big City Bread- I had breakfast here a few times, feeling very much at home.  Order and pay at the counter and your food is brought to your table.  It occupies an old brick building and boasts a spacious patio filled with Dawgs and their dogs.  Size-of-your-head biscuits are a bit sweet, so I always ordered toasted homemade bread and scrambled eggs fried in a ton of butter.  They have a pastry case full of scones, cookies and the like, if sweets are your thing.  It's a comfy spot to hang out and drink Athens-roasted Jittery Joe's coffee and attracts a university Wi-Fi crowd, but I think I spotted some local professional types, too.

Big City Bread Cafe on Urbanspoon

Shokitini - Daughtress and I share a love of sushi, so this was our dinner destination during my overnight stop last month.   The place was hopping on a Sunday night and all I could think of was how those college kids could afford to eat there.  When I was at FSU, granted a few decades ago, a big night out entailed $5 pitchers of Bud and 10-cent oysters at tattered and battered Barnacle Bill's.   Since oysters are like eating nothing, we actually filled up on crackers.  Not here.  These kids are eating nigiri and drinking Sapporo in a freakin' sophisticated setting.  I think we split three rolls, an order of gyoza and each had a couple glasses of wine.  The bill was $65 with tax and tip.  The meal was beautifully plated and the sushi tasted like the ocean.

Shokitini on Urbanspoon

Sniff.  Sniff.  Somebody hand me some Kleenex.  My trips to this great college town are quickly coming to an end.  Son of Hubmeister has chosen to attend the University of Florida, arch rival of yours truly and the Daughtress Dawg.  Come fall, guess I'll be going Gator gigging in Gainesville.  That should make for some interesting blog material.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tupelo Honey Cafe: Big-City Flavor Meets Small-Town Charm

It was lunchtime in Asheville as Sister Foodie and I combed the downtown streets for some chow.  We hadn't done any research, so we based our decision on gut instinct and crowd size.  Not a bad way to select a restaurant sometimes.  At least we lucked out this day as we joined the line at Tupelo Honey Cafe.

As I write, Van Morrison's tune plays on a loop in my head.

The folks at Tupelo Honey Cafe, located off a main drag in artsy Asheville, told us we'd have a bit of a wait and gave us a buzzer.  Within 10 minutes, we were seated at a table contemplating which Southern diet killer we would savor.  Thank goodness I didn't select a sandwich on a biscuit because biscuits are delivered hot to every table as a matter of course.  Giant biscuits with homemade jam.  A place after my own heart.

And you know what that means...time for the biscuit bash:  These had some heft to them, achieving that "wow" factor when presented, but they were bread-y.  They lacked the light texture of my all-time favorite at Mrs. Wilkes' in Savannah.  That biscuit is the gold standard by which all other biscuits will be judged, including my own inconsistent specimens.   This one was tasty, though, and I appreciated the fresh berry jam that accompanied it. 

In a feeble attempt to save calories, Sister Foodie ate the crunchy top and bottom and left the bread-y middle.  That's how I remember that these had a crunchy exterior, which she proclaimed was her favorite part. 

It's probably good that she left room for what was to come - a Southern Fried Chicken BLT. 

Fried chicken complemented by fried sweet potatoes.  I love the South!

Maple peppered bacon, lettuce and tomato topped a crispy free-range chicken breast.  A shmear of dijonnaise and a puffy bun rounded out the sandwich.  Sister was pleased.  Really, can lunch get much better than a combo of crunchy fried chicken and high-quality bacon on artisanal bread? 

My plate wasn't too shabby, either.  I had a Fried Egg BLT. 

Say hello to goat cheese grits in all their creamy goodness.

Two fried eggs cooked over hard were accentuated by the same maple peppered bacon, lettuce and tomato, and served on delicious, toasted sourdough bread smeared with smoked jalapeno aioli.   A side of creamy goat cheese grits put it over the top.  Smoked jalapeno aioli isn't a dressing I'd use on a fried egg sandwich but it worked, and it wasn't at all spicy.  The grits were strong on goat cheese, which I might avoid at breakfast, but I was up for it midday.  This sandwich isn't for the faint of heart - each half consisted of an entire fried egg.  Oh, all right....I admit I ate the whole thing. 

I like this restaurant's creative take on Southern cooking.  It puts imaginative twists on old favorites, which seems appropriate in a town teeming with artists and cultural appreciation.

Apparently, others share my view.  Every table was taken inside, as well as outside on the streetside patio.  Seating is also available at a long kitchen bar, where patrons can consume such creations as hot pimento cheese and tortilla chips, fried green tomatoes, catfish tacos, meatloaf with bacon gravy, and cheesy grit cakes.  Stool jockeys can't help but relish the fact that they are not locked in the frenetic dance of the line cooks visible on the other side of the counter.

The only thing sweeter than Tupelo honey was the price:  $9.95 for the chicken sandwich and $7.95 for the egg BLT.   How else could they snag a segment on Rachel Ray's "$40 a Day"!  With its now-famous dish of jumbo sweet potato pancake topped with peach butter and spiced pecans, this place did just that.  I know.  I read it in the restaurant.

Tupelo Honey Cafe has two locations and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Restaurant Info:
Tupelo Honey Cafe
12 College Street
Asheville, NC

Tupelo Honey Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 21, 2011

Greenville Grub Notes

Here are the last of my Greenville reviews, at least until Sister Foodie and I paint the town again.

Since we visited a couple of spots for quick bites, I'll make them quick critiques.

Breakfast at Greenfield's Bagels was a nice surprise.  Who would have thought you could find a decent bagel in this neck of the woods?  We both agreed the bagels were boiled, then baked, which gave them a passing grade for authenticity, sparing them the "fagel" label.  You may recall from my recent Tampa bagel review that fagel is the Food and Loathing term for fake bagel, a.k.a., Einstein's. 

Greenfield's star product met the right balance of crispy outside, chewy inside.   So, if you are in the area and craving an authentic bagel, this is a good choice.  Do not, however, expect a robust breakfast menu.  For breakfast, bagels and an assortment of smoked fish and spreads are the offerings of the day and you'll enjoy them in a neighborhood deli atmosphere that's conducive to reading the newspaper and slurping down coffee.  Aside from bagels, lunch sandwiches seem to be their specialty.

Restaurant Info:
Greenfield's Bagels and Deli
101 Verdae Boulevard, Suite 180
Greenville, SC
Greenfield's Bagels & Deli on Urbanspoon

Now, jumping over to another place that offers a specialty:  soft pretzels at Bavarian Pretzel Factory.   

A pretzel operation outside of a mall or ballpark?  This I had to see. 

First of all, this spot is a restaurant and bakery that occupies a corner location of a small strip center.  Upon entering, we walked past a few rows of long beer-hall tables before reaching the counter and bakery case.  The decor reflects feminine touches:  wavy blue and yellow valances top the windows, and seat cushions in matching fabric pad hard wooden benches.  A German radio station played in the background while a woman I assume was the owner busily tended to a handful of customers while lifting sheet pans of pretzels and breads in and out of the oven. 

A few lunch specials and soups were listed on a chalkboard and a more elaborate menu of German dishes was posted on a board behind the counter.  Sister and I both ordered soft pretzels, which the counter lady explained were nothing like those in the mall.  No kidding.  They were worse.  These were seriously chewy in an unpleasant way.  While Sister and I pondered whether this possibly could be the outcome the baker intended, we chewed and chewed and chewed, then washed the weirdly firm, dry and tasteless pretzels down with German beer.  In hopes of adding some flavor to the pretzel, I requested mustard, which was unexpectedly and disappointingly sweet.  The kind lady at the counter told me they have a special cheese spread that is a pleasing pretzel accompaniment but they were out of it and she needed to make more. 

Things at Bavarian Pretzel Factory may have been slow for a reason.  A man dining solo next to us sent back a plate of food to be heated. 

As we left, I asked Sister, who has visited Germany, if that's how true German pretzels are supposed to taste.   She doesn't recall eating pretzels in Germany, but she sure as heck remembers the beer.

Restaurant Info:
Bavarian Pretzel Factory
1106 Woodruff Road
Greenville, SC
Bavarian Pretzel Factory on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 14, 2011

Greenville 'Cue: Smoke on the Water

Continuing our savory tour of Greenville, Sister Foodie and I sampled Carolina barbecue at Smoke on the Water.

When we strolled up to this downtown Southern eatery on a sunny Saturday, lunch service was jamming outside but plenty of inside seating was available.  We parked ourselves in a booth and wasted no time putting in orders for Fried Catfish and the Triple Play, a barbecue sandwich sampler. 

Not one to pass up a microbrew, Sister downed a mug of something or other.  I can never remember the names of craft beers; guess I'll have to start writing them down.  I drank sweet tea because, you know, I gotta fit in with the Southern folks.

Although we weren't seated in the bar area, it looked pretty darned welcoming.   Resist the temptation to picture the average barbecue joint because Smoke takes the decor up several notches.  Pendant lights illuminate a long, shiny bar, where you can watch the flat screens, or opt for table or booth seating if you prefer more intimate human interaction.  Interior colors can best be described as subdued Pottery Barn hues, setting a mood that is clean, modern and comfortable.

Our affable waitress brought us a basket of warm cornbread, which seemed to be standard procedure.  It was moist but sweet.  I know the Mississippi Maven would have frowned upon the sweetness; true Southerners do not like sugar in their cornbread.  With our "border state" birthrights, this didn't present a problem for us Maryland-born sisters; we roll with the cornbread recipes.  I've had better (I like a tiny-bit-sweet, cast-iron-skillet version) but I enjoyed the fluffy texture of this one.  Cornbread is one of those foods nobody can agree on.   Whatever they thought, people throughout the restaurant were chowing down on it.

After the waitress presented our lunch plates, she explained the set of three barbecue sauces placed before us: a mustard-based, a sweet tomato-based and a spicy tomato-based.  These condiments accompanied the Triple Play, which featured a miniature pimento cheese hamburger, and pulled pork and beef brisket sliders. 

The hamburger was overcooked and the flavor of pimento cheese was undetectable.  Strike.

The smoked meats were served naked, so you can slather whatever sauce you wish on them.  Since the meats were dry - Strike 2 - the delicious housemade sauces were a welcome addition.  I would like to say the pork and brisket were moist and succulent, and that I would return for a giant plate of them, but I'd be lying.

The game stealer was the Fried Catfish.  Now this I would repeat.  Quickly fried, the catfish was - well - moist and succulent.  The batter was light and crispy with a touch of seasoning and not a hint of grease.   Catfish is something I rarely order but I saw a gigantic sandwich go by on my way to our table and it looked like a winner.  Home run.

Side dishes include mac and cheese, coleslaw, baked beans, fried green tomatoes, Brunswick stew and a litany of other Southern favorites.  The menu, which also features chicken, ribs, steak, burgers, salads, soups, and a tempting assortment of starters, would satisfy a variety of tastes and was reasonably priced.  The sandwich sampler was $11.95 and the catfish lunch entree was $7.95. 

The restaurant offers live entertainment and plenty of outside seating but no fire in the sky.  (You knew I had to get that in somewhere!)

Restaurant Info:
Smoke on the Water
1 Augusta Street
Greenville, SC

Smoke On The Water on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 7, 2011

Totally Tasty Find: Duck Fat Fries in Greenville

Wow, am I behind in my posting!  Where do I begin?  In the past few weeks, I ate my way around Greenville, S.C., feasted on Southern fare in Asheville, N.C., stopped by Athens, Ga., pigged out in Tarpon Springs, Fla., and tried a couple of new places in Tampa.

Let's start with Greenville and work back to Florida. 

Sister Foodie moved to Greenville a few months ago, so I headed up to the foothills of the Appalachians to check it out.  Greenville has gotten some good press in recent years for being a fun weekend getaway destination.  With its vibrant downtown and proximity to the mountains, I can see why. 

A mild Saturday over Presidents' Day weekend brought out winter-weary (and pale) Carolinians.

The downtown should be used as a case study in urban planning and renewal.  Modern hotels are interspersed with restored brick buildings that house art galleries, clothing boutiques, gift shops, doggie bakeries (yup!), a general store and a plethora of restaurants, many with al fresco dining.  Office buildings and a sports arena are woven into the mix that is so pedestrian friendly that the streets are crowded with people rather than cars. 

The Liberty Bridge carries foot traffic over the Reedy River.
A 355-foot-long pedestrian bridge wends across the Reedy River, where picnickers plop their blankets and coolers on the lush riverbank in Falls Park, munching away while watching their kids climb on the rocks that lie beneath a picturesque waterfall.

All of this scenic beauty works up an appetite, which leads to a multitude of fine or casual dining choices, indoors or out, in the form of ale houses, gastropubs, bistros, coffee shops and traditional restaurants. 

Upon my arrival, we headed to a hip place that had opened that same week near the Westin hotel on Main Street.  Dubbed Nose Dive, this gastropub featured some novel menu items that included a culinary tour of the globe.  French, Vietnamese, English, German, Italian, Southern, Northeastern, you name it.  Whether you're in the mood for fish and chips or pho, a lobster roll or pasta with bolognese, a bratwurst or a burger on brioche, you'll find it on this ambitious and adventurous menu.

I opted for French influence with a frisee salad topped with a poached egg and a starter of French onion soup.  The soup had the requisite floating bread covered in Gruyere cheese, nothing spectacular, and I suspect the stock contained the dreaded commercial bouillon base due to the aftertaste I later experienced.  Bouillon makes me burp.  Sorry.  The salad had an egg on it all right but it certainly wasn't poached, at least not properly since the yolk was totally cooked and, making matters worse, the egg was totally cold.  The French would be appalled, but I am a forgiving American home cook who knows this place just opened and will work out the kinks.  It's too bad about the egg because the bacon, candied pecans and a pecan vinaigrette gave the French salad a tasty Southern twist.

Menu hits at our table of four included oxtail tacos, a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich and duck confit over risotto.   Sister Foodie and friends smiled and nodded their approval of their entrees.

Although my meal wasn't memorable, the appetizer certainly was.  The table shared the Trio of Fries. 

Fries, you ask?  A highlight?  Oh yes, when they are fried in DUCK FAT! 

The trio included three cones of french fries: one sprinkled with lime and sea salt, one dusted with porcini mushrooms and herbs, and the third stuffed with sweet potato fries.  They were accompanied by dipping sauces of a citrus chipotle blend and a white truffle aioli.  I have never been a dip-your-fries-in-mayo kind of girl but the duck fat-fried herb fries dipped in that white truffle mayo ranks as a Food and Loathing Totally Tasty Find.

The other appealing features of Nose Dive were the cool vibe created by the energetic crowd of young professionals imbibing delicious craft brews, a cutiepie waitress who was all smiles as well as efficient, and the sleek atmosphere, especially the upstairs lounge, which features private dining booths and comfy chairs grouped for conversation.  

This place is incredibly reasonable with straightforward pricing:  appetizers are $6; soups $5; salads $6; sandwiches $8; mains $14; and desserts $5.   

Next visit will see a pork cheek pierogi on my plate. 

Restaurant Info:
Nose Dive
116 South Main Street
Greenville, SC 29601

Nose Dive on Urbanspoon