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.