Friday, December 14, 2007

Holiday Eats

It's the holiday season so my traveling and dining has been more limited than usual. It does give me a chance to spend a bit more time in my own kitchen, which generally has the best cooking and food around our area. I think I naturally tend to be biased to my own cooking as I cook what I like, the way I like it cooked. I completely cook the onions, well all the veggies for that matter, and do not care for this "tender crisp" stuff that restaurants try to tell me tastes better. I know what my taste buds like and those unnaturally green things are not it.

I'm breaking out the cookbooks and recipes I've wanted to try lately to make a few holiday goodies to share. I get a chance to taste something that looks interesting, yet not keep an entire desert setting around the house to taunt me into the guilty pleasure of eating it all in one calorie laden feast. My friends get to sample the results of my kitchen time without over-indulging as well. Since I enjoy cooking, it ads up to a happy day for all involved.

Over the past year I've worked to develop a little better sense of self control when it comes to what I eat. (I say this after scarfing down vast quantities of chips & dip at dinner.) I love to cook and I love to consume and offer no apologies for that. I do not love what it does to my hips when I over-indulge. I flat refuse to live on some bizarre restricted diet to look like what TV and magazines promote as attractive. I'll take the healthy body of a woman from Runner's magazine over Cosmo any day. When it comes to the holidays and the plethora of food choices constantly presented, one of my personal trainers really summed things up nicely. "Everything in moderation, even moderation." Take a bite, maybe even two. This year I might even try to make those holiday treat eaters feel a little less guilt by including some homemade breakfast granola in the mix. Hopefully they won't take it as an insult but rather a helpful gesture. I like getting a nice homemade batch of cookies just as much as the next gal, but I appreciate the baker providing a healthier option for when I'm consumed by the guilt of eating the entire plate of cookies first.

Best gift to yourself during the holidays? Don't give up on exercise and eating healthy. I'm glad I have held it together so far, just don't let me back in the kitchen tonight. There's these Peanut Butter Cream Brownies in there ready to be sacrificed, all in the good name of hip expansion.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Best Fried Chicken, Round 2

Lots of restaurants claim to be famous for their fried chicken. The vast majority of such places serve as proof that their patrons simply haven't tasted really good fried chicken. I found one this weekend where that isn't the case. Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken in downtown Memphis is best described as "joint." It's one of those small, rough around the edges sort of restaurants that appears even a bit rougher from the outside. Inside, food is served on disposable plates, with limited utensils and cups of cheap disposables too. It's all about the chicken, and they focus on it. So many restaurants try to broaden their appeal too far and lose their focus. What put them on the map can keep them there if they don't stray too far or neglect their claim to fame.

Choices of side dishes at Gus's aren't plentiful, but they do offer some interesting cajun fried rice and good french fries. (If I'm going fried, might as well go all the way.) It seems a bit odd that two best fried chicken restaurants I've been to skip the mashed potatoes; They both serve some form of cajun or dirty rice. According to my husband, they go together like salt & pepper, something is missing without the mashed potatoes. We didn't seem to have trouble eating the chicken regardless of the limited cooked potato choices.

My overall rating: 4.5 stars
Cons: Limited parking and since I was there at 3:30 pm on a Saturday I can only imagine the line to get in at noon. Very limited selection of side dishes. This location can be quite noisy, so it's not a great choice for those with hearing problems.
Pros: It's the second best fried chicken I've ever had, but a close second (Old Country Store in Lorman, MS is the best so far.) It's spicy chicken and they wisely focus their energies on their main dish. The slightly dive type feel of the place gives it great character.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Little Learning Never Hurt

I recently attended my second class at the Viking Cooking School and I have to say that the school and instructors have impressed me both times. The classes in their hands-on kitchen are both fun and informative. Clearly the design of the facility was well thought out, not just cobbled together by a crew of construction guys whose idea of a kitchen is a beer tap and a microwave. In the center of a large humidity-controlled "kitchen" is an island work surface, wide enough I can't reach the center and big enough to easily accommodate twelve students with good sized cutting boards. The two instructors I've met so far both had an easygoing demeanor but lead the class through the recipes and kept things moving at just the right pace so the time preparing the food seemed to vanish quickly. After talking with one of the instructors, I know I still have a lot to learn; yet seeing some of the other students unfamiliar with the simplest concepts around the kitchen is a reassurance I'm not reverting to my "culinary dark ages" either.

The class I just attended was one about holiday baking, all sweets and treats such as gingerbread scones and toffee almonds. I previously went to a class that was more of a meal, full of Italian dishes from a Roasted Red Peppers antipasti to the Chocolate gelato finish. The holiday baking class was little more fun as it let me participate in making every recipe, versus focusing on one dish and just stealing quick glances at others being prepared around the kitchen classroom. Besides, what's more fun than dipping sticky homemade marshmallows into delicious dark chocolate goodness? After attending the second class with friends, that's most definitely the way to go. Have a fun time cooking and enjoying the great food with great company makes the time zip by even quicker.

With the holidays coming up, if there's an aspiring chef or cook on the gift list and a Viking school nearby, a gift certificate for a class would make a great gift. Fun, educational, and an environment in which you're encouraged to play with all the fabulous Viking appliances? Here, twist my arm. Ok! I'll go for a class again... and again. Next up: The Steakhouse menu!

Monday, November 19, 2007

What a Diner Should Be.

I've found the ultimate in diners. Too bad for me it's in Phoenix, Arizona. Fast Eddie's Diner isn't all that much to look at from the outside, but step inside and there's plenty to see. Friendly staff, a menu with enough variety to feed just about anyone, and a quirky diner feel. The food is pretty good too, with properly sized portions on about everything I ordered.
One real unique thing about this restaurant that made me wish I could become a regular patron was the cleanliness. Not just a surface clean, like in so many places. This was clean down to the corners. Those little crevasses where crumbs and sticky drinks of days gone by go to hide when the bleach comes out to play; those were even squeaky clean. It was enough to impress me, and when it comes to cleanliness it takes a lot to make me take notice in a positive way.

Turning in to grab a bite a Fast Eddies was just on a whim, but it's those little "let's try here" places that sometimes turn out to be worthwhile.

Monday, November 12, 2007

In search of a road

This fall, while visiting the Crowley's Ridge Nature Center, I was admiring a large relief map showing portions of Crowley's Ridge. One area caught my eye toward the south eastern portion of the map, a national forest near the Marianna area. It had a couple of lakes and a road that resembled a 2 year-old child attempting to draw a piece of spaghetti. That's something nearing perfection in the eyes of a car or motorcycle enthusiast. It meets all the requirements for fun; Plentiful curves? Check. Scenery? Check. Relatively convenient? Check. Let's hit the road!

So we did. The map at the Nature Center and the state highway map gave a more rosy picture than was realistic. After ending up at a dirt road to a Confederate Cemetery (for history buffs a great find) and ultimately the Helena Police Station trying just to find the highway that would lead to the road, I should have see the big red flag waving wildly in front of me. If nothing else, I am persistent and would find this road one way or another. After a while longer of wandering somewhat lost, there it was... the road. It was one of the better roads, lined with trees and despite having virtually no shoulder it was still reasonably maintained and most of all beautiful. A good amount of twists & turns later and the road opened up to a lake area. That's when the gravel appeared. Thus ended the search for a good road that after less than 10 miles turned to gravel. My car isn't the kind you'd take down a rough gravel road, so after all that it was time to call it a day.

The entire day wasn't without something of note, a bit of good food at Ray's Dairy Maid in West Helena. Actually it's considered to be in Barton, but it's just on the outskirts of West Helena. Between the friendly staff and the good, home cooked food it was hard to go wrong with anything on the menu. The fried pies were excellent, and the variety of pies alone was a reason for the drive.

Between an interesting historical stop, some great pie and at least 10 minutes of good road made the day's trip worthwhile.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Memphis just got better

Living in small town America sometimes necessitates going to a larger city for things I can't get locally. One of the nearby larger cites for me is Memphis, Tennessee. There's several good things there, like a variety of great local restaurants and a Penzey's store, where I could camp out for days. Sometimes the trip requires an overnight stay, as was the case recently. Since I've stayed there a number of times in the past, I'm always on the lookout for a good hotel.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I stayed at The Peabody in downtown Memphis. Overall, we just weren't that impressed. It was nice enough I suppose, but between the extremely busy atmosphere, the lacking service and noise levels, it just wasn't worth returning. We tried The Peabody in Little Rock, and while it was more modern and the service somewhat improved, it too was noisy. I have a low tolerance for noise in a hotel. If I'm out of town, most often it's for leisure and one of my favorite leisure things to do when traveling is sleep in a bit without disruptions. Hotels that fail to provide a quiet environment to do so are promptly marked off my list.

For this trip, we stayed at The Madison Hotel. I have found my new home away from home in Memphis. It's quiet, with a modern feel yet the building is definitely not new. It doesn't have the wild flurry of activity feeling of The Peabody. One thing that's a must-see is the gym. Located in the basement, a portion of it is in an old bank vault. Grill 83, just a few steps away, is a good and convenient choice for dinner. I could have made a meal off the cheese fritters appetizer alone. The room service breakfast we ordered was one of the best ones I've found thus far and well worth the price. The hotel staff was friendly and I didn't get the impression I was merely an obstacle between them and their paycheck. They honestly cared about doing their jobs well or were great at giving that appearance anyway. That combined with the low noise levels will keep me coming back to this hotel for most any overnight trip to Memphis in the future.

I'm finding in my travels that for a more luxury or upscale hotel, what are deemed "small boutique" hotels are my preference. They tend to be quieter with a more relaxed atmosphere and are at least adequately staffed to accommodate my needs. I've spent better nights in even a simple Holiday Inn Express than in some ultra-swanky resorts and paid far less for it. I've quickly come to the conclusion that the price isn't always a great gauge of the quality of the hotel or resort, but the size and attention to detail tend to speak more to how much I'll enjoy my visit and the likelihood of a return trip.

Monday, October 15, 2007


In Greenwood, Mississippi, a town described as "it's all about the food," I found an interesting dish at Yianni's. I can't say I'd tried a fried hot tamale before then. Hot tamales? Yes, but battered and fried? That was a new one. Leave a group of good southern cooks alone in the kitchen too late on a Friday night and we'll take something already tasty and contemplate a bit on how to best deep fry it. The chefs at Yanni's must have had such a Friday night and the results were this culinary wonder. Lightly breaded and fried, they're served with Ranch dressing as a dip but it's not needed. What is normally the exterior of the tamale becomes extremely soft, almost to the point of melting. The flavors all blend together to make one oozy, gooey good mess.

My husband would have taken home an entire chocolate toffee cake, as he said it's one of the best he's ever had anywhere. The bit of remaining summer heat in the car might not have been to kind to the cake and he likes being able to fit into the car; eating that entire cake might not be so conducive to that.

Overall rating : 3.5 stars
Pros: Those fried hot tamales are worth the trip. Save room for desert as the chocolate toffee cake is great. The menu has plenty of choices, good for a group or family. Another good local restaurant.
Cons: While the filet mignon was a good cut of beef, it lacked a bit in flavor. The overall food was quite good but not spectacular, with a few previously noted exceptions. I was unable to locate a website for the restaurant, but you can see them on a Google map here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Best Fried Chicken

I probably should be concerned about my complete willingness to go drive over 700 miles on a weekend to get Fried Chicken, but I'm not. The consumption of some tasty bird may have been the official destination, but the other purpose of the trip was a change of scenery. Sometimes I just need to go and take in something different. Different walls, different roads, different air.

So with the trusty GPS as a guide, my husband and I headed south with the ultimate destination of Lorman, Mississippi. (See Lorman on a map here.) It's a tiny town and about the only standing building is The Old Country Store. It's questionable how it's still standing; it could be a testament to the old adage "they don't make 'em like the used to." Quickly assessing the building's ramshackle exterior, I know it was not a place I'd ordinarily stop but based on good word (Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt) it's contents would prove well worth the risk. Tempting me with a promise of the best fried chicken ever was enough enticement to make the drive and go for it.

As soon as we walked in the door, owner Arthur Davis, or "Mr. D" as he's known there, greeted us with a friendly reminder to leave our diets on the nail by the door. After driving over 300 miles to get fried chicken, any thoughts I might have had of a so-called diet were fading, and the heavenly smells from the kitchen were happily stomping those remaining thoughts to tiny bits. Walking through the restaurant, which is proudly announces its heritage as an old country store by the wooden floors, the shelves to the ceiling and the ladders on casters and guide rails.
A simple buffet of mac & cheese, greens, peas, dirty rice, cornbread muffins and of course, the chicken awaits the large open room of tables and hungry diners. One bite confirmed that every single mile of the drive was worth it because this really was the best fried chicken anywhere. The secret? Mr. D cooks the chicken and doesn't use chicken that has been frozen. I wouldn't be surprised if some of what was served at lunch was happily clucking and pecking just a few hours prior to meeting my plate. There wasn't a bad item on the buffet, but the chicken was outstanding. The dirty rice reassured me that the stuff Popeye's scoops into a styrofoam cup and call by the same name doesn't begin to compare to the real deal. At this point, I'm not so sure about that stuff Popeye's sells, but I've promised myself I will from here forward only consume it under the most dire of circumstances.

The drive to Lorman was a bit further than we wanted to make as a day trip, so we chose to make a weekend of it and stay in Greenwood, with a visit to Vicksburg as well. The weather was flawless and the change of surroundings was a welcome breath of fresh air. The people in the area exude southern hospitality. Any town that wants to attract visitors could learn from the relaxed and generous nature of the people in the small towns along the Great River Road in Mississippi.

More to come about this trip to Mississippi...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I know it's a chain, but...

I think this is the only hotel I have seen with labeled pillows. Accurately labeled too.

I have to give credit where it's due, and the Holiday Inn Express at Greenwood, Mississippi really deserves some credit. While it is the generic highway hotel for the most part, it seems to step a bit beyond that. It was the quietest hotel I've stayed at, ever. Usually I don't expect a 40-plus inch LCD TV in the room and solid surface counter tops in a Holiday Inn.

I've read recently that Holiday Inn is pushing to update and upgrade their hotels and overall image, going as far as to drop some of the older hotels from the chain that refuse to bring their hotels up to par. This was a new location that opened this summer and should be an example for the whole chain.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Return Trips

Several years ago, I used to go with a group of friends to Sheffield's for lunch. It had a certain charm that only comes from a restaurant housed in a old downtown building, complete huge glass windows in the front, brick interior walls, original hardwood floors, and a ornate ceiling that hopes to hide the sprinkler system. We'd catch up on the latest gossip and socialize while feasting on homemade quiche, soups and most often their notoriously good salads. It was these gab sessions that actually encouraged me to start eating salads; prior to that I generally avoided lettuce like it was a nasty and highly contagious disease.

Skipping forward to now, the friends have moved away and the restaurant has a new owner, but it is still there. Today I went for lunch after having not been in a number of years. The salads were still as good as I recall. I think if I had a blob of mud and could cover it in their Wine & Cheese dressing, I would probably eat it. It's not unique to their restaurant, but with what has to be an astronomical calorie count, I prefer to leave it for special occasions. The quiche wasn't quite as good as I recall, but the soup was quite tasty. I suspect I might have gotten the leftovers from yesterday's lunch, so I'll certainly give it another chance.

There was an unexpectedly great dish I sampled; my husband ordered a bacon cheeseburger and fries. At this haven of upscale, gourmet, light lunch foods he ordered one of their specials, the American Burger. It was great! It's probably one of the best tasting burgers I've had in quite some time, served with hot french fries that didn't taste like they'd had a long soak in trans-fat filled lard. The bun was likely a house-made bread, thus fulfilling its gourmet setting, but still good.

While I can't go back to my "girls day out" lunches of years past, it's nice to know I can go back to the restaurant and get the same great salads and a surprisingly delicious burger.

My rating: 4 stars
Pros: The burger is really phenominal. One of the best I've had in a long time even. The salad selections are plentiful and the "mixed greens" isn't a load of iceberg lettuce with some other things lightly sprinkled in. Toppings are varied and plentiful. Service is friendly and the atmosphere is pleasant and relaxing.
Cons: Parking. It's downtown thus parking is limited. This is one of those "club" restaurants that are popping up in the area. Membership is required just to dine for lunch, regardless if alcohol is served. (The restaurant is in a Dry County.)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Dinner to Wear

I must have a target printed on me somewhere that I can't see as lately I've worn part of dinner. One night, it was a glass of Sprite, which proceeded to pour out all over the place when the table got wiggled. In less than a week, I also had a plate full of french fries dumped into my lap. Both were of no fault of my own. Whoever is in charge of the accident distribution can aim another direction now, I'm completely caught up for now, thanks.

The interesting thing was how each restaurant handled the situation. The cleanup of the Sprite was just another thing that got between the employee and her paycheck. The french fries were another story. The employee who did it apologized repeatedly. Then came the assistant manager, who also offered his apology and sent over the manager next. They all simply wanted to make it right, whatever was needed. Their gestures made me reconsider my new vow to never return. I might actually go back, they did make such great efforts to correct an otherwise unpleasant situation.

I've been to a few restaurants that I've sworn off for life, such as the one where a fellow diner found a roach in her salad. Or the one where I waited too patiently for an hour for my meal. Then there's the one where the waitress dumped a glass of ice water down my back in a full room. That last one wasn't me, but I was at the same table. I can't describe the whole Ruby Tuesday incident; it just puts me in a foul mood thinking about their lousy attitudes. But I digress. With accidents, it's how they handle it. There are some inexcusable acts like the "extra fiber" in the salad. Those put a restaurant on my permanently banished list.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Speaking of Smoke

While traveling I've noticed more states where I don't have to request the "non-smoking" section in restaurants. For me, that's great. Inevitably as a non-smoker, I was the one stuck at the table that is right beside the smoking section. If I walked into a restaurant and saw great billowing clouds crawling across the room, I would leave. I've actually walked in and turned around and left before event talking to a soul because the smoke was so thick.

So in my little search for the effective date for Tennessee's new smoking ban, I found a nice list on Wikipedia of what states have bans and to what extent they cover. I thought it might be handy for anyone else traveling, so enjoy!

Interstate Bar-B-Que in Memphis

I've heard for a number of years that Interstate has some of the best BBQ around, and it's a prime example of the Memphis style. Self proclaimed connoisseurs of the meaty stuff know that there's a significant difference between what is labeled BBQ in various parts of the country, and around the globe too. Memphis style is a either pork shoulder or pork ribs, with a thick sauce that's a sweet and tangy blend. Most BBQ joints in the area offer a mild and a hot version of their sauces, giving the diner options in how much heat they want to endure. Head east into the Carolinas and the sauces become thinner and more vinegar based; the meat is expected to carry more of the flavor. Move southwest into Texas and it's all about Beef. Brisket is the pinnacle choice with a bold and usually thick sauce. Memphis style falls somewhere in the middle in flavor and sauce thickness. When it comes to BBQ in the south, one thing is certain. Never, ever argue about who cooks it best. I imagine it would be like arguing with a Samurai that there's a better sword than their own; they are not likely to believe it even after trying the supposed better option.

Since this is really supposed to be about Interstate BBQ, I will move on. Their location is one I wouldn't visit after dark. It also lives up to what I've heard about many good BBQ institutions, which is the food will be great and the service will not. The BBQ is quite good, not what I would consider spectacular but very good. It beats many I've sampled in that the fat is rendered out well so it's moist but not full of gristle. The sauce has a great sweet and spicy balance that works well with the pork. The spaghetti is really where things happen. I would endure the service again just for the spaghetti. It's a generous serving of spaghetti noodles topped with pulled pork and their in-house sauce. After tasting it, it's one of those dishes that makes me think "Why didn't I think of that?" Skip everything else on the menu and go for the spaghetti. It's really that good.

I'm looking forward to the indoor smoking ban taking effect in Tennessee, because this is one of those few restaurants left where the few remaining smokers are intermingled with the non-smoking majority. The law went into effect on July 1, but will be actually enforced starting October 1, 2007. My visit was in August, so clearly they will be one of those businesses that will make the leap at the very last moment to stay in compliance.

Overall Rating : 3.5 stars
Pros: The spaghetti is amazing. Portions are generously sized and in some instances enough to share. The pork has a great texture and isn't at all dry.
Cons: Location is a bit unsettling and the whole smoking issue does really put me off from going there. Any business that won't comply with the law until absolutely forced into it sets off warning bells to me immediately.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Sambuca Restaurant - Nashville, Tennessee

Last weekend I had the pleasure of a relaxing dinner with friends at Sambuca. Located in the trendy Gulch area, whatever a "gulch" is, it definitely lives up to the reputation. It surpasses what some of the new hot restaurants tend to be, which is overpriced and overbearing. When I walk into a restaurant and get that instant feeling I am the most dull, uninteresting person there and am merely and impediment to the staff getting to someone who is actually worth serving, the food has to be something pretty spectacular for me to forgive the attitude.

Fortunately this wasn't that type of place. While the atmosphere was trendy and cool, the staff was friendly and the menu quite inventive. I can't say I've had or even heard of Lobster Enchiladas until last weekend. They're tasty and I haven't a clue what I ate exactly. For those who've known me since childhood, this is a huge statement coming from me. I was the pickiest of eaters as a kid and I'm not sure what caused the transformation to make me the culinary guinea pig I am today but I prefer my newfound willingness to my past days of limited range. The variety of tastes available to sample at a place like this is downright fun. From the appetizer list, the Shrimp with Thai sauce was quite good. The Zebra Pasta (at right) is a visually interesting dish with it's zebra patterned pasta sheets, plus the person at my table eating it seemed to have no trouble making the dish disappear. The Chevre Macaroni and Cheese with Prosciutto was probably my favorite dish of the evening. The sauces on just about every pasta I tasted were generous with the heavy cream, so this is not exactly a dieter's domain. It does make for some really great gourmet mac and cheese though.

Then there was the Wedding Cake Martini. The name alone was tempting, then after reading the ingredients list of vanilla vodka, tuaca, pineapple juice and cranberry juice I couldn't resist. Any drink that can smell perfectly like a beautiful white cake can't be all bad. It tasted just as good as it smelled, but the flavor struck me as Dump Cake. It's that cake where a bunch of fruit is dumped in the bottom of a pan, then a mixture of cake mix and a few other ingredients is dumped onto that. It's baked and it all blends together to make a moist, fruity white cake. Despite the name, it's pretty tasty stuff. This reminded me of that flavor instantly. In short, it's really, really good.

Something noteworthy about the atmosphere is the live music. The night we were there it was good, and surprisingly not so loud you couldn't hear the conversation. No shouting was necessary and we were seated nearby the stage. So many restaurants cover up their food with loud music and very low lighting. At Sambuca the balance was perfect.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Pros: Atmosphere is relaxing yet fun, the variety of selections is good and the wine list is extensive. The Wedding Cake Martini is definitely something to write home about, or at least make it to my blog. It didn't last long enough for a picture.
Cons: The food quality was good, but I'm not sure I liked the almost overuse of heavy cream in so many dishes. Portions were adequate to me, but some who are used to the indulgent sizes of most restaurants may find themselves wanting a bit more. The heavy sauces did fill me up so I wasn't able to finish my dinner.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Cheap Seafood Ain't Good

My rule of thumb about seafood is this: if it's more than 100 miles inland, realize that most shrimp/fish/scallops/other seafood is not going to be really fresh. If you take that into consideration, your expectations will be adequately adjusted for the food you're about to consume.

The title of this post comes from the marquee at Who Dat's Cajun Restaurant in Bald Knob, Arkansas. I am inclined to agree with their assessment of seafood quality and have to give them credit for doing justice to good seafood. To say the portions are generous is an understatement and considering that, the $15 to $20 for most entrees on the menu doesn't seem overpriced. Most also include their food bar, which when added to the meals makes for more food than I can eat in one sitting. Everything I tasted was in single a word, flavorful. Many restaurants like to substitute heat for flavor and treat Cajun as label meaning "hot." That's not a real definition of all things Cajun. These guys get it. They understand that while heat has it's place, it's not a stand-in for good flavor and a disguise for poor quality. The gumbo was the best I've had anywhere and I can't honestly say I could identify everything in it. Sometimes I know it's better that I don't know the complete contents. Other things on the menu and food bar that were good included the fried catfish, hush puppies and blackened catfish. I'd expected the blackened fish to have more heat, as I've become accustomed to the whole "hot" in place of flavor versions most places serve. This was quite the contrary as it had a warm flavor but was not intensely hot. The seasoned rice (or any of their rice for that matter) was also a nice complement to about any dish. The one real surprise was the roast beef on the food bar. I'd rank it in the top 5 of roast beef dishes I've had, which I would have never thought to look for in a Cajun restaurant. The selection of deserts was plentiful and delicious as well, so despite having really no room left after all the feasting, I had to sample the Peanut Butter Pie and the Carmel Pecan Chocolate Cake. I certainly wouldn't send either of those back to the kitchen, they were a fine finish to a large but tasty meal.

With eager patrons lining up out the door before 6pm in this small town, I was glad I arrived early. As I was leaving I saw a framed copy of a magazine article titled "Ten Places Worth Driving For" based out of Little Rock. After seeing, smelling and tasting why it's on their list, I'm anxious to ask, what are the other nine?

My Rating: 4 Stars
Pros: Leaving here hungry won't be the fault of the restaurant, there's so much food available at every turn. Most everything on the menu is good, and there's plenty to choose from. Even the seafood adverse folks will find something here. Family friendly atmosphere. I could put the seasoning they use on several dishes in a bowl and eat it, it's that good.
Cons: Gargantuan portions, so big I couldn't make a real dent in my meal and that was after I chose to forgo 99% of the food bar. A little pricey for those with a light appetite, but if you're really hungry and have hollow legs, it's not a bad value. The shrimp are on the larger size and tend to have more of a prawn than shrimp taste; unless you're a fan of prawns, I'd steer clear of them.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Small Town Blues

It's the middle of a hot summer and that always leads to a need to see some new scenery. Or at least new walls and new roads, even if it is still hot and hopelessly humid. In my case the craving for newness usually involves a new-to-me food related destination.

I've found there's a serious lack of sources online to help find good local restaurants. I like finding those kinds of places I see featured on Food Network shows that make your mouth water and your arteries wish they had a spare body where they could run and hide. There's sites like Expedia and Trip Advisor, but that covers hotels, airfare, and all the other necessities of bigger city destinations. I have a more small town question of sorts. Where in Toad Suck, Arkansas do the locals go when they want a good meal? While I am all in favor of the improved quality and portion control available by dining in, sometimes it's necessary to let someone else do the cooking, even for those that aren't leading the 24/7 Manhattan lifestyle. What about Amagon, Arkansas? (In the case of Amagon, it's a little roadside stand that I've heard pretty good things about.) Maybe towns that aren't quite that small, but are a good enough size the draw from the surrounding one-stoplight communities; where's the repository of good restaurants to be found? Given the wide reaching nature of the internet, it seems there should be a good space out there for this, but alas I've found none so far.

Then again, finding a destination in advance can take away from the fun. Where's the sense of adventure in having an exact stopping point planned in advance? What about those fun "let's go drive and see what we find" type trips? Sometimes I suppose I should unplug a bit and simply go. That's how I've come upon some of the best food and fun along the way.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Mixing Things Up

This week I had the unpleasant experience of poor culinary judgment. Placing hot soup in a Blendtec Blender, then covering the steam vent on top with a towel and hitting the pulse button will cause you to have nasty burns on your arms, not to mention a kitchen covered in soup. Suffice it to say now that the burns are healing and the kitchen will be right once more with a bit of paint, I am still impressed with just how great a piece of machinery the blender is.

I was out in the Provo, Utah area recently (as is clear by previous posts) and one afternoon of "lets go exploring," which in my book equals out to driving around until something looks interesting and makes me want to stop, led to an interesting discovery. While trying to get to some unknown body of water in the distance, my husband and I passed through a light industrial district.
We both spotted the building and the sign and the same time. There it was... headquarters to one of the coolest kitchen devices on the planet and we'd accidentally found it. Feeling either slightly brave or crazy from the higher altitude, we went inside. The friendliest woman at the front desk was more than gracious, taking us into the small factory store as it was while chatting with us the whole time. She asked if we'd seen the "Will it Blend?" series of videos. Of course we had, it's what sparked my original interest in the device, and anything that can turn over 50 matchbox cars into dust in mere seconds can surely be an asset in my kitchen. Who doesn't need to decimate something at some point, right? Anyway, she offered to show us the set where they film the videos. I think walking onto that set was the high point of my entire trip to Utah, making the time spent in delayed flights and uncomfortable airline seats worth it. It's actually in a corner of what appears to be a factory employee break room. The table to the side holds a variety of soon-to-be-dust items such as plastic toys and cans of Spam, while several rakes sit waiting their impending doom nearby too. Yes, I think that this really was the highlight of my entire trip.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Provo, Orem and Salt Lake City, Utah

I spent a week in the Provo, Utah area and I have to share about this interesting area. I found one commonality among the vast majority of the businesses there. The staff seems friendly, if not eager, to do their jobs and do them quite well. A strong work ethic and positive attitude dominates the general public and those working to serve it. Waiters and waitresses were friendly, store clerks were pleasant and helpful. Stopping in at a local bakery, Kneaders, one night 10 minutes to close I found the typical teenage staff working, except they didn't treat me like I was in the way, but rather a welcome customer. Kneaders, by the way, makes some fantastic cookies, pastries, croissants and muffin tops. I will be spending a bit of extra time at the gym making up for my excessive enjoyment of their delectable goodies. The area itself is beautiful and the drier climate a pleasant change from the normal 70% humidity of my home in Arkansas.

While I was in Utah for the week, I visited a few other noteworthy restaurants. A few were something worth writing home about, as bakery I already mentioned. One afternoon for lunch I made the trip up to Park City, about an hour drive, and stopped in at Zoom. Despite it's attempt to appear gourmet and swanky, the macaroni and cheese was the best dish on the menu; using a blend of Havarti and White Cheddar, I'd rank it in my top 5 of mac & cheese dishes around. The bacon used in their dishes was also exceptional, but overall it was overpriced for a just so-so meal.

After nearly a year long hiatus, I finally had the opportunity to return to one of my favorites of all time, Ruth's Chris. Their location in Salt Lake City did not leave any room for disappointment. The restaurant itself is fascinating in its design. The feel is though it is a place to be seen, with a long, slightly stair-stepped room, accented with archways and a look of that classic elegance that you don't see in restaurants anymore. Oh yes, and the food was excellent as always. I did sample a different desert, their bread pudding. I think I have decided to stick with what I know is always fabulous, the creme brulee. The bread pudding wasn't bad, but the whiskey in the sauce was a bit overpowering. Besides, as the waiter told a table of Ruth's Chris newbies at the next table, "We have other dishes, but really it's all about the steak." Well said indeed.

An interesting find was a chain that it turns out isn't all that far off from my own hometown, Mimi's Cafe. The variety on the menu alone makes it an excellent choice for families or groups. My husband tried the chicken fried steak, and we both agreed it was some of the best we've had, and ordinarily I do not like chicken fried steak. I will definitely put this on my list of places as I travel as a safe bet when I'm not feeling particularly adventurous.

Wingers is another good local chain, featuring their own in-house wing sauce. I'm not a huge wing fan, but their diner car type restaurants have a level of kitsch that makes them fun. The large menu can satisfy the wing fans and those who aren't into wings as well.

Probably one of the more pleasant surprises was the Megaplex Theater at Sandy, Utah. If the theaters in my area were this great, I'd go at least once a week, even to see the movies I'd normally catch on a movie channel later. Set up similar to what I've seen in Las Vegas, the inside is like that of a city walk. It has multiple restaurants like a small food court, including a deli, ice cream shop, pretzel shop, soda fountain style diner and of course the requisite popcorn and sodas. The food at the diner was good, and not as overpriced as I would have expected. Also their option to purchase tickets online is wonderful; buy the tickets from the comfort of home, or in my case the hotel room, at the theater walk up to a kiosk, feed it my credit card and there's the tickets. No lines. For some screens they also offer reserved seating, making a crowded or likely to sell out movie more pleasant. I know I'll get a good seat without having to get their an hour in advance, or more. Catching a movie on the Imax doesn't hurt things either; the insanely huge screen and clarity is something to see. Throw in some 3D action and the extra cost is money really well spent.

The Courtyard by Marriott in Provo, Utah is a clean, nice hotel with a very friendly staff, of course. My room included hi-speed internet access that was reliable and most notably, it was very very quiet. Very quiet. I've come to appreciate that in hotels, many find it not a worthwhile investment to add a bit of sound deadening to the walls and doorway areas. I rarely heard a peep in the hallway.

Overall the area is beautiful, the people are friendly and it's simply put a nice place to visit.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Utah meets Italy

Ottavio's, located in downtown Provo, Utah, has some utterly fantastic garlic cheese bread. That's just the starting point for a very delicious meal. Their house meat sauce served on the dish I had, Rigatoni Ottavio, was wonderful. Pizza also is a good choice, as the pepperoni had a fresh-sliced taste. If I have one complaint, it's that the portions are huge. I can't imagine one person eating a whole dish from there; which at the pricing makes it quite the good value too. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxing.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Cons: Portions are beyond generous, they're simply gigantic. Sharing with a friend is a must for any dish. Parking is a bit limited in the downtown area. It's also located in Utah, and who knows when I'll get back out that way!
Pros: The taste is fantastic and the garlic cheese bread some of the best I've ever tasted. Everything seems fresh, or had at least a fresh enough flavor it fooled me.

Rising From the Dirt

Panchos is one of those quirky places that has changed and evolved over time using the same base structure. I grew up eating at a location in my town, but several years ago the building caught fire. The owners apparently didn't think it was worthwhile to repair or rebuild, so they closed permanently. Its a shame too as the restaurant has a different flavor than most other local Mexican or tex-mex blends. Their cheese dip, hot dip and house dressing are popular enough local grocery stores sell it packaged. My own favorite dish is called Shrimp Veracruz and is a mixture of seasoned rice and cheese topped with grilled seasoned shrimp and more cheese. While the locations across the river in Memphis are strikingly more upscale, the Arkansas location has an interesting character. Its a bit of a dive but not unclean. Its not a place I'd stop without knowing its safe and good; its not in a swanky retail district. I've been told that the dirt floor was finally tiled over in recent times (I'm not making this up, really.)

My rating: 4 stars
Pros: unique tasting Mexican cuisine, oh and that fantastic dip.
Cons: the location in west Memphis is in an armpit of an area. The location in downtown Memphis requires parking and walking, usually a block or so. I'm not accustomed to having to do that so its a strike against it in my book.

Also to note: this is not the same restaurant chain found in southern Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. That one is a buffet. Its ok, somewhat bland and nowhere nearly as flavorful as the group based in Memphis.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Headed for Utah

A bit later this month I'll be traveling to the Provo, Utah area for business. I've been doing a little brief research of things to do and restaurants to try while I'm there. I have discovered that while some towns that are tourist-oriented tend to do a reasonably good job with self-promotion, others that aren't quite the usual tourist destinations lag behind. Even many large cities do a better job of providing a "must see" list of places to check out while visiting the area. Tiny tourist towns like Eureka Springs have more readily available info about local dining and accommodations than areas with a population that many times over exceeds that of tiny Eureka Springs. Even my old standby research tool of has little to say about the area, short of what hotels to visit.

So I beg, plead of anyone who is familiar with the area to shed some light on what I can do while there to entertain myself after hours. Good food, things to see, you name it. Enlighten me!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bonefish Grill

For Father's Day, my dad wanted seafood for dinner. Of course I'd offered to cook, but we'd decided to attend a Italian & Exotic car show in Memphis so we opted for something in the area. After a quick stop at Red Lobster to find a 45 minute wait, my husband and I thought of Bonefish Grill. While it's a chain restaurant, it's one of the better thought-out concepts. The food was surprisingly good and fresh, and the atmosphere very inviting.

Their special of the day, Imperial Tilapia, was a tilapia fillet stuffed with a mix of crab, scallops, and shrimp, topped with a cream sauce. The creme brulee was in the top five I've sampled anywhere. A word of caution about the crab cakes appetizer is plated with two sauces, a green almost pesto type sauce and a red sauce. The red sauce is not for the fainthearted, it is most definitely hot. Not spicy, hot; while it was good, the heat I suspect would be a turn-off to many diners.

For those who aren't seafood fans, the beef filet is better than in many steak restaurants. Try the au gratin potatoes on the side too, they are simply fantastic.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Pros: Being a chain, there's several locations in the eastern US. The variety of fresh seafood is a seafood fanatic's dream.
Cons: I don't have a location nearby. The location I went to is a bit dimly lit, so take a small pen light to see the menu!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cool Cupcakes

These have to be some of the coolest looking cupcakes I've ever seen. Found on the blog Vegan Yum Yum, the baker provides an explanation and photos demonstrating how she created these little charming delights. Pretty nice!

They're almost too cute. It steps just past that boundary, where food has become so attractive I almost feel bad for consuming. Note I said almost. Cute will not save you from being consumed, oh dainty little cupcakes.

Then there's these delicious delights. While the knitting theme cupcakes are truly adorable, the chocolate cupcakes with chocolate icing at left are perfect in their own right. They look delicious. They are delicious. They do look great, better than the photo can do them justice as I didn't have the nice little white rectangle plate for display. They are what I consider "honest" food. It's made in a real kitchen with simple ingredients that don't require trips to the specialty stores of New York or some other major metro. It simply doesn't get much better than that. These I can eat.

Thanks to the wonderful neighbors who made these and have promised me more cupcakes and a recipe. Yea!

Brave New Restaurant

Creating a lunch special featuring baked tilapia topped with a blueberry sauce is definitely brave. It's fitting to find such a dish at a place called Brave New Restaurant. Thanks to the friendly folks at the BMW Motorcycle dealership, I've put this quirky little hot spot on my "must repeat" list of restaurants. I've heard from several individuals ravings about the grilled cheese sandwich on the lunch menu, but until recently I've only been for dinner. Finally I had the opportunity to try the sandwich, and fortunately for me I had my husband with me so when I was tempted by the unique lunch special, I could order it and still sample the ever-so-famous sandwich. They were right about the grilled cheese, it is pretty spectacular. He ordered it sans brave new shrimp, which I think would have made it even more sensational. I didn't regret my decision to order the fish special, despite the odd sounding combination. The blueberry touch was nice without being overpowering.

It's a bit out of the way to get there, but well worth finding this gem. A varied menu and simply perfect atmosphere make it even more outstanding.

My rating: 5 Stars

Cons: A little bit challenging to find the first time, as it's on the 2nd floor of a nondescript office building of sorts. Parking may be a bit limited during busy times. If this is all I can find to complain about, it's a really good sign.
Pros: If everything on the menu tastes the way the few dishes I've had so far taste, it's nothing less than spectacular. The food is clearly very fresh. The atmosphere makes this place great for a quiet dinner for two, a business lunch or a nice change from the standard fare with a few friends.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Never Again.

Never, never again. I know, "never say never," but in this case, never again. I will make a promise to myself that the next hotel room I walk into, I will promptly walk over to the window, look below, and if I see a swimming pool, club or other such noisemaker I will go back to the front desk and request a different room.
Last night I stayed at the Wingate Inn in Little Rock. Nice enough hotel, good location, reasonable price. In theory it's catered to the business traveler, thus the good sized desk and working space, refrigerator and microwave, etc. It's just a well laid out room for those on a business trip or maybe one night passing through town. The continental breakfast, included with the room, is adequate in selection but a better quality than several others I've sampled in the past.
However the location of my room is awful. It's directly above the pool. Well past the 10pm closing time last night, the raucous band of kids with parents watching on were running, screaming even to each other. Finally the noise settled down around 10:30pm. I wasn't thrilled but was willing to forgive. My generous nature is tested however, when I awake just after 7am to the sound of more kids filling up the pool below. For a "business" oriented hotel, there's a lot of little noisemakers in the pool going strong into the night and starting well before I intended to emerge.
I am still strongly debating if I'll give the hotel another chance. When I called the front desk this morning to ask about the unplanned early wakeup call (almost 2 hours prior to my real wake-up call) the lady who answered offered no apologies or even the slightest bit of concern. We'll see what is said when we check out. This is one instance I'll be stopping by the front desk to voice my complaint.

There's a lot I'm willing to forgive in a hotel, but excess noise is not one of them.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hotel Rants and Raves

I've posted about a few things in hotels that are pleasant surprises and some not so pleasant. Since I've been traveling again a bit lately, I think it's about time to add to that list.

I like glasses made of real glass, not just plastic. While I might be a bit of a klutz, I don't need a hotel reminding me they trust I'll break whatever I can in the room.
When traveling with two of us, I like having two chairs for the desk, and room for both to view said desk.
When the hangers can be removed from the hanger bar, that's the good hangers.

No rooms should be above the pool or bar / restaurant areas. Use that space for offices, maintenace, laundry facilites, vending... Anything is better than listening to the thump of club music until 1 am when you just want to sleep. Or waiting for the heathens let loose at the pool to be reeled in by a relunctant parent or chaperone.

Here's a bonus question to ponder... When traveling with your spouse, who gets the bucket of ice? It seems like it's always the same person with every couple. I almost always grab some ice shortly after checking into the hotel.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Chocolate cake?

If you're in the vicinity of Little Rock, stop whatever you're doing and go get the chocolate cake at the Peabody. Now. You won't regret the decision. It will be worth every little bit of extra exercise you may do in payment for your crime. Now go... eat.

I had a relaxing room service dinner tonight at The Peabody in Little Rock, provided by Capriccio Grill. Started off with the ravioli, which was excellent. The steak was cooked properly and needed nothing extra; the rosemary potatoes were a good complement to the steak. The french fries, not so hot.
Then there was "chocolate cake." I don't know what it was, it wasn't like any cake I've had before. Either way, it was unbelievable. Topped with fresh blueberries and surrounded with droplets of chocolate raspberry sauce and lime sauce, plus a fresh strawberry holding more of that green liquid delight, it was both visually attractive and truly as delicious as it looked. Probably even more.

I'd have taken a photo, but one of me licking the plate might not be such a proper thing to display.

Time for a Break

With all my travels as of late I've tried to keep a better log here about my "adventures." I don't know it helps or entertains anyone all that much, but for me it's handy to be able to reference it when someone asks for recommendations.

While I've been on the road, I've finally taken that extra few minutes to read a book or two. Right now I'm working on Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. His show on the Travel Channel, "No Reservations" is a glimpse into how the other half lives. His book on the other hand, is a revelation into what makes someone as interesting as him tick. What on earth would posses a man to willingly sit on a kitchen floor in Alaska and eat raw seal innards? Reading his book elaborates as to why he does it. That doesn't mean I want brave all the culinary oddities and risk my entire digestive tract, but it does explain his rationale and make me want to stick my big toe in the crazy food pond.

It's also making me really look forward to diving into my own kitchen again; I really do miss my own cooking when I travel.

Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co.

If you want a place worth driving to, this is it. Starting with a building, decor and menu all with character and food that follows that home, this is one quirky dining dream.
The pizza of course is excellent, can't go wrong with about anything in that department. I found the quesadillas to be as good or better than those at many Mexican restaurants. This restaurant was what made me want to come back to Asheville and explore the area more.

My rating: 5 stars

Pros: Everything I've eaten there has been exceptionally good. Decor is fun and entertaining in itself. Reasonably priced and portions are large enough to share.
Cons: It's all the way out in North Carolina so I can't get there as often as I'd like.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Residences at Biltmore

This fantastic new "Hotel" of sorts is a great getaway from the standard fare of hotels that line the Interstate. Asheville itself is an escape from the big box and chain life that dominates most towns. With local boutiques and interesting restaurants on nearly every corner, I could spend weeks here and never get bored with the variety. I could see something new on the menu every day!

The Residences at Biltmore is still under construction, but one building is already open. Some units are for sale, sized from Studios to 3 bedroom spaces. My unit was a one bedroom with all the amenities. The complete kitchen is outfitted with with marble counters, stainless higher end appliances and a kitchen table to seat four comfortably. The living room has a gas fireplace, 42" flat screen tv, comfy sofa, leather chair and an over-sized coffee table. The bath is generously sized with a glass walk-in shower, deep garden tub and marble to match the kitchen. The king sized bed and 32" flat tv in the bedroom with more than adequate closet space and drawer space finishes off their great use of the just over 750 square feet of living space. It is bigger than most hotel suites and I have certainly paid more for a whole lot less. The furnishings are good quality, with decor that touches on rustic and contemporary. They have an overall look I wish I could accomplish with my own home, but when the last interior decorator I hired wanted me to put two large bright red sofas in my living room, I decided to stick to my own blend of style, however unbalanced it might appear.

For travelers planning to stay more than a night, this is a great alternative to the standard fare. Coming is a pool pavilion and possibly an on-site restaurant. Also available is twenty-four hour concierge service, which anytime I called was more than helpful. This is the second recent hotel I've found that has a staff that truly seems happy to do their job.

My rating : 4 3/4 Stars

Pros: A quiet escape right in the heart of a bustling but relaxed and fun city. Plenty of space, friendly staff and impeccable service.
Cons: No room service. Still under construction, so there's a few amenities that are not available yet but are coming. Also make sure to stay on the side away from construction, as rooms there have very minimal to no noise.

Carmel's in Asheville, North Carolina

The Grove Arcade is a unique shopping and dining spot in Asheville, combining an eclectic mix of local boutiques and eateries. Carmel's is located at one end, accessed from outside the building. With beautiful weather, dining al fresco and doing a little people watching over lunch proved entertaining. The Kobe Hot Dog, while it is an $8.50 hot dog, is large enough to call it a meal. A variety of cheeses make the possibilities seem endless for their grilled cheese sandwich, and in honor of April having been national grilled cheese month I decided to indulge in one of Smoked Mozzarella and Jarlsberg. It's only 2 months late, better late than never! On the side, their house dressing is excellent, the pepper cornbread a nice blend of sweet and spicy, and the sweet potato fries are noteworthy.

My overall rating: 4.5 Stars, well worth the visit!

Pros: Good variety and large enough portions to share. Sides dishes are creative and delicious.
Cons: Parking to get there can be a bit of a pain, most spaces are metered and the area does seem to stay busy.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Blowing Rock and the Meadowbrook Inn

Blowing Rock is a charming little resort town in the high country of North Carolina. It's a great starting point for cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway and taking in all the "scenic overlook" stops that appear at very regular intervals. Without lots of access points along the way, traffic can move smoothly, with the exception of the occasional driver paranoid of making a fatally wrong left turn and thus driving at about 15 mph below the already scenic stroll speed limit of about 45 mph.

The town has several little shops, some full of tourist trapping gifts, others with a bit of real local charm. A variety of restaurants, also mostly small local places make dining an easy and fun adventure. After talking with the staff of some of the local businesses, it's clear that none of them live in Blowing Rock; it's simply too expensive. Housing prices reflect the escape destination that is Blowing Rock. Overall though, it's a nice small town with plenty of friendly people and easy going charm.

I spent several nights at the Meadowbrook Inn, on main street in the historical district. While it's not the most modern hotel, it's very comfortable and does have all the modern amenities. The continental breakfast is adequate and the room service food is good. I suggest the fruit & cheese plate, great late night snack. Fresh pineapple, not something I'd have expected at 11pm in the middle of the mountains. The small bar has a creative staff that knows the options well. I stayed in a VIP Suite, and the size and features for the moderate price is impressive. A separate living room, wet bar area, fireplace and large jacuzzi tub are a few of the details. What makes the hotel really stand out to me is the staff; they're always friendly. Every single one seems upbeat and genuinely interested in making sure your stay is good. They're great actors or it's a pretty good place to work, either way it adds up to a good experience for the guests.

My rating = 4.5 stars
Pros: Great hospitality, convenient location to the historical area. Very good value for the money with the suite rooms.
Cons: Slightly dated style and overall feel. Continental breakfast is limited, and room service is only available in the evening. Most parking is uphill from the hotel.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hannah's BBQ

My rating: 4 stars
Located in Lenoir, North Carolina, Hannah's BBQ has the single best hush puppies I have ever eaten. Ever. Anywhere. They're really that good. The bbq pork is vinegar based and very North Carolina style. It has a bit of bite but is tasty. The chicken is moist and falls off the bone, no knife required.

But those hush puppies... I could sit and eat them all day long.

Cons: Small restaurant, don't order the water.
Pros: Best Hushpuppies anywhere. Oh and the bbq is pretty good too.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hotel Review: Country Inns & Suites, Knoxville East

My Rating: 4 Stars
A simply quiet, comfortable hotel and a reasonable room rate. When it's a one-night stop along the way, it's hard to beat the combination. With a clean indoor swimming pool, maybe too clean as that much chlorine does burn a bit and a simple but free breakfast it's a good choice. The location is close to a few food choices, including Puleo's Grille I recently mentioned and near I-40.
Pros: Quiet, reasonable price and good sized rooms. Indoor pool and whirlpool are good for relaxing.
Cons: The single worst blow dryer I've ever used. Whoever cleans the pool is the person I want cleaning it, It might be clean but that much chlorine can't be healthy either.

Lunch at the Sandwich House in Greeneville, Tennessee

Sandwich House in Greeneville, Tennessee

My rating: 3 Stars

Finally a place that knows how to properly cook tater tots! Crispy & brown outside and potato goodness inside. It's nothing like the blonde mush passed off as tots by places like Sonic. Or the dry potato shells that once had potential.
The burgers and turkey sandwich were good diner style fare, and watching the patrons it's clear they do a healthy take out & drive through business. Located in 6reeneville, Tennessee less than a mile from hwy 11E, its a nice break from the chains.

Pros: varied menu, something for everyone. Great tots.
Cons: mostly fried foods, not 100 percent homeade. Traffic on the bypass in Greeneville is filled with suicidal crazies. Drive careful!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review: Puleo's Grille in Knoxville

Listed as a "best of the best" local restaurant, Puleo's Grille lived up to its reputation, providing this tired traveler with a very good dinner. The Chicken and Things dish featuring grilled chicken breast topped with black forest ham and fontina cheese was good but more than I could eat. The chicken tortilla soup was good, but had a bit lengthy list of ingredients. The spaghetti was good, the sauce had a very strong tomato flavor. Finishing off with the Chocolate Lasagna was a great finish.

Service was exceptional, and the atmosphere relaxed.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Climbing a Mountain - Part Three

The restaurant has one great thing going for it: the view. With a huge fireplace adding warmth to the room even when not filled with burning wood, and opposite that a wall of windows all in a rustic setting, it's charming but with an upscale feel. Enough about the atmosphere, let's get to the good stuff, the food.

We went for dinner on Friday night, and choices are varied but a somewhat limited selection. Of all the meals at the table, we all agreed the meal was good but not exceptional. I had the Bleu Bliss Chicken (at right), which was a chicken breast filled with blue cheese and apricots with a sauce. I sampled what others at the table had, and the shrimp and scallops were good but a bit small for the price, the ribs were very mild but good. Desert however was fantastic. The white chocolate creme brulee was in the top five creme brulee dishes I've had anywhere. The red velvet cake and chocolate cake both were good as well. Then there's Blueberry Bread Pudding (at left, what's left). Wow. It was absolutely delicious. I'm not a huge bread pudding fan, but this was something as they say "to write home about." Or in my case make a note in my blog. As evidenced by the picture, I finally put down my fork long enough for a photo. It meant giving up a bit to my mom since we were sharing the dish, but sometimes I have to sacrifice for the blog.

A word about breakfast at the lodge... don't try it. Order the blueberry bread pudding the night before, refrigerate and heat it up instead. You'll be far better pleased.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Climbing a Mountain - Part Two

How I can possibly go on about the view and then not show a picture is absurd even to me. Let's see if I can't remedy that mistake...

I think the picture speaks for itself. This was taken from the deck off the cabin.

You can click this image or the one below for a bigger version of the photo.

Climbing a Mountain

Rather than fight the weekend holiday traffic over Memorial Day, I decided to go to Mount Magazine with my husband and parents last weekend. We had planned a weekend last year but didn't get to go. Now, after over a year of waiting and wanting to go there, was it worth it? It was well worth the wait and the drive, but I'll let a few pictures demonstrate that as well.

The road leading to the park is Highway 309. It's not recommended that trucks with long trailers (like boats, large RV's, etc) attempt the climb as the road is somewhat crooked and steep. For a sports car driver or a motorcyclist, it's right up there among the best places to visit. There are a couple of overlook stops along the way, but they pale in comparison to what is available at the Lodge.

The Lodge at Mount Magazine is simply impressive. In terms of Value for the Dollar, I've mentioned before that Kentucky's State Park system was exceptional. However, this has a different good value for the cost. It's more what I'd expect from a higher quality resort than a State Park. The Lodge itself contains sixty guest rooms, most with balconies and a spectacular view. It also holds the indoor pool, several areas to walk or relax and enjoy the surroundings, a gift shop and a restaurant with one of the best views anywhere. Staying at the lodge even means room service! This, from a state park?

My abode for the weekend was a two bedroom, two bath cabin located not far from the lodge. The living room was spacious with leather sofas and a large fireplace. A full kitchen with all the necessities including full-sized appliances would make this a great space for a more extended vacation. Each of the bedrooms had a king sized bed that would take quite the determined three year old lots of scheming to find a way to scale the side and sneak in at 4 am. It required me to have a little forethought about it anyway. The view from the cabin was equally spectacular to what I found at the Lodge, except here there's privacy. Windows are abundant in the right places, but the best view is from the deck across the side and back of the cabin. There's a surprise on the deck too, a 4-person hot tub that is ready to go.

More details coming soon...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Wrap up some Flavor

After deciding that the whole process of going to the grocery store, buying the needed items, returning home and finally firing up the grill to cook might take a bit longer than our impatient stomachs would allow, my husband and I decided tonight to try BA Burrito. It's a new local restaurant that features a create-your-own burrito. The burritos start with a huge tortilla they warm in a press. Then it's filled with with rice or beans, a choice of meat which is then topped with garnishments including peppers, salsa, lettuce, cheese and the like. It's wrapped up and served with a side of fresh tortilla chips and their queso. It was exceptionally good and while very flavorful, it's only as spicy-hot as the ingredients inside. It's refreshing to find a restaurant with such vivid flavor, not the same bland food-service preparations with a little dash of salt & pepper in an attempt to call it "home-made."
While the decor and atmosphere is contemporary and quite pleasant, it's definitely a small local restaurant that's not backed by the cities most wealthy financiers. I certainly will give them a strong two thumbs up and am hopeful the concept is a success. If my first visit was any indication of their food flavor and quality, I am optimistic I'll be returning to find a thriving restaurant.

I've not included a link to this restaurant because I could not located their website, if they have one. You can get a map compliments of Google Maps here. There was an article about them in a local newspaper but the newspaper website's archive is pathetic. BA Burrito is a new small operation and I think they're a bit busying wrapping up burritos to be worried with a website. I think this case, I'll let that slide for now.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Little Rock Restaurant Reviews

Monday I was in Little Rock, Arkansas and had the opportunity to try a couple of new restaurants.

I had heard good reviews of US Pizza Company in the past and was not disappointed. The house salad dressing is very good; the waiter described it as a cross between Ranch and Creamy Italian. His description was accurate, and it had a bit of a pepper kick. The pizza reminds me of what I get at my local favorite, Upper Crust Pizza Co. The cinnamon sticks for desert were well worth saving some room. Their breadsticks are cut lengthwise and brushed butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar; since that isn't enough, they top it all with warm vanilla icing. It's sugar overload, but in such a good way all is forgiven. The restaurant location we visited at the Heights was a converted building of some sort, but the conversion gave the place a bit of added character. It was clearly a popular spot with locals, as it was quite busy even past the noontime hour.

For dinner, we went to Capers on a recent recommendation from friends. I have since thanked them for such a good find! Everything from start to finish was excellent. We started with the BBQ Shrimp appetizer, which arrived with fresh shrimp served atop yellow pepper grits all with a Cajun cream sauce. I recommend the chicken vegetable soup, but the soup selections do vary daily. For entrees, we both opted for the Filet Mignon, served on a pool of Crawfish Cream Sauce. The beef is a good quality aged Angus and the filets are hand cut. I've had steak graded prime that was of lesser quality than these. My complements to the chef too for cooking them exactly as ordered, somewhat of a rarity these days. The cranberry rice I ordered with it was good but sweeter than I would have paired with the steak; my husband's blue cheese mashed potatoes made for a better combination of savory tastes. Desert choices were plentiful, but the chocolate layer cake was one of the best I've ever had. Served warm, it is sweet without being overpowering making it easy to eat the whole slice!

Both of these are well worth visiting, and Capers would make an excellent choice for a quiet dinner for two or a great gathering spot for a group.

Friday, April 27, 2007

New Restaurant Review

While it might not be really "new," but new to me so it qualifies in my book. A Taste of Chicago in Jonesboro, Arkansas is a small local eatery that focuses on the Chicago style of sandwiches and hot dogs, along with a few other choices like nachos. I could eat their Cheesy Italian sandwich every day and no longer fit into my car or house but it is really quite good. It is similar to what most restaurants in our area refer to as a "French dip" except it's already dipped in the au jus. What impressed me most about it was the au jus and roast beef didn't taste like the chef's favorite ingredient is salt. Most au jus served with a roast beef sandwich at other restaurants such as McAlisters or Quiznos has a heavily salted flavor.

The atmosphere is a little spartan at best, and clearly they're running the place on a tight budget when the drinks are Big K, but the food well overcomes those small challenges. They do provide Chicago newspapers and the restaurant appears very clean. Besides, with that big beefy sandwich or the two hot dog special, do you really need a 44 ounce big gulp of sugar?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cruising - Part One of Several

If I'm going to dive into the good stuff of the cruise (the food) I think it's best to start at the beginning.

After spending the morning moving through the airport, we arrived at the ship about 3pm, all starving. With no trouble at all we were able to find the buffet available all afternoon to welcome you aboard. It was a good start with a variety of fresh seafood, meats, deserts, whatever your liking, all in abundance. The food overall was good in quality, excellent in presentation and ridiculous in massive quantities. As a complete picture for the entire cruise, I'd give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

With a cruise, we had to choose in advance an early or later dinner time. This applies only if dining in the main restaurant, which we did the first night on board. Since we booked our cruise a bit last minute, we were assigned to early dining. Dinner the first night was very good, we could watch as we left port from the windows around us. The sunset was beautiful from there, if a bit blinding at times. One of my goals on the trip was to sample as many new dishes as possible. My new one for that evening was to taste the Terrine duckling with Ligonberry creme for an appetizer. It was a good way to start with the experiments!

That evening after dinner we found our new evening-hours home for the trip, the Martini Bar. One of their two signature items is the Martini Flight (photo at right). Comprised of six small or mini martinis, it's a way to sample a variety of the specialty martinis they offer. Included is a gray goose vodka martini, appletini, raspberry martini, raspberry lemonade martini, pineapple martini and their signature which had a mix of pineapple and orange. The presentation made this drink notably cool, but all of them were quite good.

The bar itself had two walls of ice, a bar made of ice and overhead lights that gradually changed hues. The atmosphere was relaxing and our waiter was a really friendly guy from Jamaica. He explained a bit of the crew's lifestyle and their daily routine. The cruise crew works long hours, but the pay apparently is reasonably well. They get to visit most ports, as well as have time off during the year to spend with family. He returns home about once every two weeks; another waiter said he goes home about two or three times a year. In some countries, the cruise ship pay is so significantly better than any job they can acquire otherwise, the compensation is worth the frequent distance from family. Most of the staff we spoke to had been in the cruise industry for five, ten or twenty years. Many had been with Celebrity for several of those years and commented how working there had only improved since Royal Caribbean purchased the company.

There's more to come...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Lessons of a First Time Cruiser

Monday evening I returned home from a 5 day cruise. It was the first time I've been on a cruise ship and I had a wonderful trip. For the uninitiated, I think it's important to share a few lessons I learned along the way. I'll post more later about all the adventures into both the culinary and cruising world I enjoyed.

Take extra time in selecting a cabin on the ship. While time in the room isn't usually plentiful, it should be a comfortable experience. A mid-ship location will get you convenient to everything, while a spot closer to either end will leave you with less foot-traffic wandering by your door at all hours.

A spot aft of the ship (in the rear) isn't necessarily quiet. It can be directly above the thrusters or engines, and when those big beasts roar into action it's noticeable. The bed will vibrate; just think, a vibrating bed for no extra cost but it does start and stop at random around 5am. Also as you pull into port the walls will rattle, the ceiling will rattle, your teeth rattle and the ice in your glass rattles, on some floors the ice breaks. This too occurs about 5am.

Being mid-ship is no guarantee of quiet either. Look at what is one floor above and below the cabin. If located directly one floor below there is a bar that doesn't close until 1 am where guests can partake in karaoke (poorly) right up until closing time, it's definitely going to be audible in the room and will also shake the floor. And the walls, depending on the song being butchered.

My room was an interior room, which overall has it's pros and cons. There's no window or balcony so the only light is what is overhead or from lamps. Lighting was more than adequate but there wasn't morning sun gleaming in to greet me. On the plus side, there wasn't any sun blinding me awake at 6am. It also makes a 3pm nap after a walking tour very nice. The interior rooms are less expensive, and for a first time cruise I think it was a good choice.

Enjoy the opportunities to let the ship photographers take pictures. The pictures will be available throughout the cruise, so the best time to buy pictures is at the very end. The ship I was on provided a free folio with a photo of the ship if I purchased four 8x10's anytime during the cruise. The pictures also make a great souvenir to bring back to family and are easier to pack for the trip home than a sombrero or an econo-size bottle of vodka or Mexican vanilla. Even if they're a bargain in Mexico, it's really no fun to go through the airport with anything liquid. If it's bigger than a thimble it must be packed and checked with luggage. I don't even want to think about the delay I could have faced going through customs...

Before the cruise, I had done a little research and found out that packing in a carry-on bag what I would be wearing the first night was a good idea. It did take a little time before the rest of the luggage arrived, so I was glad to have the items with me just in case.

It's impossible to try every single dish and every place to eat. I made a valiant effort, but failed. To keep from gaining an obscene amount of weight, I just sampled a little of everything. A sample is a couple of bites, not an entire serving. Speaking of servings, they are generous with the portions so it's very easy to lose a sense of how much is reasonable to eat. I can see how easily the average weight gain on a cruise is about five pounds. Food is available 24 hours, including room service!

The midnight buffet is worth trying at least once. Twice if there's something that strikes your fancy.

Take sunscreen and use it everywhere if the cruise is in the Caribbean. Even if you think you won't burn, you will without the sunscreen. Remember, if it's exposed to the sun, it can burn; this goes from the top of your head to your partially sandal covered feet.

Reserve any spa treatments or specialty restaurants as early as possible, preferably the day of embarkation. Excursions can be booked later, but if there's something specific that sounds exciting or very interesting, I think it is best to book in advance. I did and was glad I did so, it was one less thing to think about once the trip was underway.

Note the "Ship Time" and make sure to wear a watch set to that time when departing at port. It's entertaining to watch those souls who didn't want to be encumbered by the weight of a watch while off the ship make a frantic mad dash for the gangway as they realize it is rapidly leaving the dock. The ship does not delay it's departure because someone was drinking tequila shots in a bar in Cozumel and forgot that the bar clock was two hours behind the official "ship time." Those left behind have to find their own way to get to the next port, at their own expense. The moral of this tidbit: Don't miss the boat.

I had a great first time experience with the cruise and would certainly repeat the trip. I've actually been browsing around a little looking for the next one and where I'd like to go. I must admit my fear of not seeing land at certain points along the way faded rapidly once on board. Maybe it was just a mental barrier to not go until now, but I'm very glad I put my fear aside and took the plunge.

More on my first cruise is coming soon. My husband & I traveled with another couple and he has a few photos that I want to share here on his camera. I don't have access to those yet but surely he'll be getting me a copy of those pictures soon, right? (Ahem... hint, hint.)
After about the second day at sea my attempts at documentation of most meals tapered off a bit, but I'll cover things as much as possible based on fragments of notes and a blonde's happy memories.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Highway 9 is nice!

This weekend I had the opportunity to go back and see Highway 9 again. If you've read my blog in the past, you know I went there last year and was disappointed by the horrible condition of the road surface. It had been "resurfaced" with a layer of dusty chat. Since then, it's had a year of time and traffic to pack down the layer of loose mess and it's returned to a fun road to drive. I would still highly caution motorcyclists to use extreme caution taking this road as there are spots of loose rock in some of the curves.

The change of seasons was noticeable and beautiful with the vast of hues of green, and with several overlook points you can see views that rival some of the best I've seen in the state. As it's a small, not heavily traveled stretch of road, there are no markers for the overlook spots, but if you watch for the wide shoulder areas on the right (heading north) you can stop for a moment to take it all in.

I did take advantage of a chance to get a picture of one of the most beautiful sights all day long. Those signs always make me smile.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Old Becomes New

Captain D's restaurants just recently opened a new location in our area and closed their old one. It's a good thing too. The old store was the type where you'd go through the drive-thru because you really just didn't want to see inside of the place. It had been there for many years and while it wasn't falling apart, it had such a coat of grease on everything and in every little nook about the only thing that could cleanse it would have been a dump truck of bleach. Maybe it was a candidate for that cleansing by a good coat of fire. I'm not sure what will happen to the old building, and while there's a little pang of nostalgia for the years I went there as a kid, I don't think it's disappearance would be a bad thing. But if someone else were to open a restaurant there, I'd recommend a sizable investment in cleaning solvents.

On to the new location. They've added a few grilled selections to their menu, which I ordered from this evening. The grilled Tilapia had a good flavor and the portion was more than adequate for me. It is served on a bed of rice, which while on the very mild side, was still flavorful enough to go well with the fish without overpowering it. As I'm trying to avoid the battered and deep fried world, I think it's a good alternative and will give me another choice on the list of fast food places I don't have to avoid.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

I forgot a restaurant!

I somehow managed to forget a restaurant on our trip to Atlanta. After our stop at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, we had dinner at Santa Fe Cattle Company in Moody, Alabama. It was a good family restaurant with a fairly varied menu. The cheddar soup was good, as was the salad and grilled shrimp. At least the shrimp was as good a quality as to be expected that far inland.
What really stood out was the ceiling fan. It was labeled by the company name "Big Ass Fans." It was pretty huge, and since the ceiling wasn't all that high, it was a little strange if you looked up. Somewhat distracting but definitely added to the character of the decor.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Weekend in Atlanta - Part Two

It's taken a few years, but I think I've found a hotel chain that I can feel pretty confident if I reserve a room, I won't be terribly disappointed upon arrival. We stayed at the Country Inns & Suites in Atlanta; this was the second location in the area we've visited. (I would provide a link to the exact location but their website is down at the moment.) The hotel is new, the staff there was exceptionally friendly, the rooms were quiet and the breakfast was good. The thing I like about this particular chain is that I have almost come to expect this level of service at all their locations. Amazingly enough, I've yet to be disappointed. The price is always moderate, the rooms quiet and spacious enough and all seem to be well maintained. This particular location had the best iteration I've seen of the hotel "night light." Usually they consist of a flickering orange light tied to a light sensor but this one didn't flicker and had an on/off switch. I also like hotels that have the curved shower curtain bar. It keeps the curtain from blowing in and sticking to you when you're showering. Maybe it's just my inner germ freak coming out, but the idea of a shower curtain that's been rubbing on several someone else's smelly bodies as they shower then blowing back on me just has no appeal whatsoever. The shower curtain isn't an item I would expect to be changed out or even cleaned top to bottom between every single guest. I really should never take one of those CSI type flashlights into a hotel room if I ever want to travel again.

While I was very pleased with the hotel, I'm struggling for positive words about the Georgia World Congress Center. The phrase "completely chaotic nightmare" immediately comes to mind, followed by "a vast monstrosity" and the notably inadequate signs for anything of consequence. I won't even go into the pain that is parking. There were numerous events at the facility, all going on at once and several were of similar interest areas, just adding to the confusion. I saw a lot of frustrated and utterly lost looks from others trying to find their way to an obscure location like "Building C, Rooms A through G." The bright spot in the locale was an unexpectedly good lunch. I had thought lunch that day would be an overpriced hot dog, chips and a bottled soda. Instead, we stumbled upon a food court of sorts with a nice variety of options available. I had a very good BBQ Brisket sandwich and bottled water (priced at the expected overcharged rate of $10 of course.) Avoid the Minestrone Soup though; my mom made the mistake of buying it first and I think someone who is on a low-salt diet might end up hospitalized after just one spoonful. Just around the corner was an Italian restaurant, with a full buffet for just under $20. It smelled good enough to make me wish I were still hungry.

The International Motorcycle Show, once we found it, was packed full of people and bikes of every flavor. Despite roaming through display after display and trying several to see how they fit, I've not found that elusive bike that says "take me home" yet. The Moto Guzzi did have a lot of appeal, but we'll see.

For dinner we went to Houck's Steak & Seafood Restaurant. I would highly recommend it! While I may be minding my girlish figure, I couldn't pass up sampling something called "The Best Shrimp in Georgia." It was really good shrimp, I'll give them that. The pork tenderloin was very good and the Red Velvet Cake made the entire trip worthwhile. What was most notable were the portions. Normally restaurants like to load plates with enough for three people, or they go the opposite extreme and provide about two bites, just to taunt your taste buds. The portions here didn't leave any of us hungry, they were sized just about right. It was a little out of the way to find but a sign just inside the door indicated they would be moving this spring to a new location. If you're in the area, I would suggest making a dinner reservation at Houck's anytime.