Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cypress or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Waiting Tables

I had a succession of food jobs through high school and college. I washed dishes, waited tables, manned the grill, made sandwiches, worked cash registers, tended bar. It was great, deeply satisfying work. Compared to consulting, the problems solved while waiting tables are both more pressing in the moment and easier to let go of at closing time. There's immediate gratification, constant feedback, and a continual sense of providing (literally) substantial value to the people who have put their trust in you. Give me that on a project, and I'll be there in a heartbeat.

So tonight, we all went out to Cypress, just west of Monroe on Tennessee St in Tally. Cypress is a small, upscale, place in the same class as Mozaik in price, ambition and focus, and I think even better than Mozaik in execution and spelling. The ambiance of the place embodies the practicality of Tallahassee elegance: the walls are painted an artful array of rich, earthy colors; these walls are also made of cinder blocks.

The unifying idea here is Nouveau American meets Southern comfort food. I've seen a lot of places try this, but I think Cypress has an innovative angle - quirky uses of familiar, iconic ingredients - that was well thought out and nicely executed. Case in point: I had an excellent salad with local field greens and featuring (trust me, this works) peanut brittle. The main dishes were similarly designed, if a little less daring: my salmon arrived aside fingerling potatoes and a delicate sauce that evoked mango lassi. It was unassuming and delicious.

We were a large group - maybe 20 - and we were a little demanding. When we sat down, we placed orders for wine, hoped for bread, and selected some appetizers. Slowly, these things came to us. They were very, very good, but they were slow. And we were pretty hard on the waitress regarding the pacing of delivery. Her even, sincere, unfazed graciousness in excepting criticism was what got me thinking about how much I miss this business. There was something about the calm confidence in her response that neatly summarized how much this place does exactly right.

Cypress Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Closed: CoolGrindz: 3Ms is better than none.

I've noticed a disturbing trend here. Good, local places that seem to care about the food they serve are apparently named by suburban middle schooler poser skate punks: Moziak, CoolGrindz, Cool Beanz. I honestly have no idea how this happened. It's like the little scoops of potato salad everybody glomps on the top of an otherwise decent greek salad here. The vast mysteries of Tallahassee.

CoolGrindz is a respectable little coffee shop. It's bright and pleasant, with a nice patio, good cuban music, and a homegrown feel, right off Tharpe at Lake Ella Plaza. They've got a live music schedule, free wifi, comfy chairs and very non-starbucks bright orange walls. And they make a decent espresso. Well, three-quarters of a decent espresso.

There's an old italian formulation for a good espresso: the four M's.
  • Macinazione is the correct grinding of the coffee
  • Macchina is the espresso machine
  • Mano is the skilled hand of the barista
  • Miscela is the coffee blend.
CoolGrindz has an admirable 3-group Nero Italia Espressa, beans ground fresh for for the shot in Espressa K-1 grinders, and the barista did a reasonable tamp before pulling a 25 second 2-ounce shot. A little rough around the edges, but altogether way better than par. The Miscela is where this whole deal falls apart. These beans were past roasted. These were baked. The flavors were overpowered by an earthy, deep, charcoal. Not since I last visited Peet's have I had a shot with beans this dark. Not that it was all bad - there was a nice, lasting crema, the espresso was silky and substantial, and there was next to no bitterness.

In all, it was a pleasant surprise, and a far cry better than the Starbucks that has so far been my one Tallahassee espresso option. With a lighter roast, these guys could have something really memorable.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Monument Cafe: If Alice Waters had been born in Small Town Texas

This weekend, while visiting my sister's new class room in Georgetown with Tracy and the kids, we had occasion to have lunch at Monument Cafe. Both Tracy and I had been there once, and both of us shared memories of a place that made a hell of a chicken fried steak. Neither of us had much confidence that the place was going to stand up to the 3-year old memories.

Monument is in some ways a completely typical Texas Diner. There's the black-and-white checked floors, the booths lining the windows, the specials chalk board with the day's pies, soups, and lunch features hanging above the counter. And the menu is pretty typical too: there's all kinds of burgers and fried chicken; there's meatloaf; there's fries, and onion rings and green beans; there's fresh lemonade.

But that's sort of the tail end of the typicalness. The food is unbelievable. All the standards were just as luminescent as we remembered them. Take the kids menu: nearly every time chicken strips appears on a kids menu, no matter how inspired the grown up food is, it's the same frozen crap from one place to the next. Here, the chicken was fresh, the breading home-made, and the taste was on an entirely different plane than is the usual. So too was the food we all had, down to the lemonade.

Which gets to what sets this place apart: The veggies are locally grown, the eggs from free roaming chickens at farm just down the road, the milk is organic, and the beef is all Kobe beef, from well-treated (to a point, naturally) cattle. What is says to me is that local doesn't have to mean health food, that supporting organics can lead to inspiration in menus that have been deadened by years of increasingly industrialized food production. It says that just because food isn't fancy or exotic or expensive doesn't mean that it can't provide first rate eating.

Georgetown is a hike from Austin, but we figure it's just a few minutes north of the new Ikea, so thankfully, we'll get the chance to back a little sooner next time.

Monument Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Hopkins Eatery - Further proof that we're clueless about Tally

Hopkins Eatery is sort of a responsible big brother to the occasionally brilliant flake that is The Main Ingredient. At the Main Ingredient, there's something like 14 million combinations you can order. At Hopkins, they've already figured all that out for you. You get the sense of a place rooted, with people who know exactly what the hell they're doing, and who love doing it. I had lunch at the Hopkins at Lake Ella Plaza, across Tharpe from One Fresh. The place is charming and homey, clean but not particularly updated. I'm guessing a mid-80s vintage.

It's an order-at-the-register deal, but not fast food. There's some marketing jargon for that, but I'm pretty sure that this place has been doing it before it was cool. The menu is dominated by maybe 3 dozen different sandwiches, the majority of which are quirky and fun. I think you could do custom orders as well, but a plain Turkey-On-Rye would be missing the fun of this place. I had a Hummer - smoked turkey, half a dozen different veggies, hummus, feta, some sort of light vinaigrette. It was awesome - everything in near-perfect proportion. I was particularly impressed by the bread (slices of marble rye/pumpernickel). In a time when just about everything is on baguettes or ciabatta, this was Old School sandwich bread, just thick enough to contain everything without strain, but not so thick as to dominate the tastes. And you've got to hand it to a place that is either oblivious enough or stubborn enough to name a sandwich The Hummer because, dammit, the thing's got Hummus. There's also salads, which looked great (excepting the potato salad on greek salad, which is insane, and is everywhere in Tally), and what looked like really top-notch brownies and cakes. Cheap, efficient, tasty, and not exclusively a college hang out.

Very lucky find, I will definitely be back.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Closed: Carlos' Cuban Cafe - The Food almost makes up for it

You know you're in ATL late when the place gets quiet. There's still people here, but they pass in clusters of 2 or 3, not the steady stream of people that were tromping past a few hours ago.

Most of this week, tonight included, has been unremarkable from a food point of view - the standards: MoMo's, Gordo's, Bonefish - and Atlanta Bread Company in the airport. On Monday, though, I branched out a bit, to mixed results. Carlos' barely counts as branching out, to be honest - I'd had lunch there once before a few months back, and it was just good enough to merit a return.

Carlos' starts off with good points in my book just based on the name. There was an amazing little hole in the wall in Santa Fe called Carlos' Gospel Cafe. Gone now, but they had a green chile stew that would peel paint off the walls and cure a hangover. The Carlos' in Tallahassee has the name in common with the Santa Fe establishment, but not much else. I stopped by around 8:30 - didn't seem late to me, but there was only one other table, and by 8:40, they were out the door. It was just me, a couple of wait staff, a cashier, a hostess, at least a couple of cooks, and I'm guessing a dishwasher. Lesson one: unless Carlos' does a raging lunch business, this place may have another thing in common with the Santa Fe Carlos' before too long. What may be a tendency toward overspending on staff did not extend to the physical space. This is a bare bones restaurant - not kitchy like Gordo's, but just a little run down.

I ordered Pollo de la Hija. The food, preceded by a small basket of garlic bread was definitely the highlight of the experience. Not inspired, exactly, but well thought out and well balanced. The chicken was tender and flavorful, served in a broth that was largely wine, but flavored with a little citrus (lime?) and a whole handful of interesting savory flavors I couldn't quite peg. The sauce was particularly good with the rice, which in turn was a great contrast to the sweetness of the maduros. Well thought out, and well executed.

And here's the funny thing - if this had run me $6, I'd have been raving about this little undiscovered gem. As it was, the chicken was one of the cheaper items on the menu at $18. Given the price of things, it seemed like the place was a little too up on itself; pretending to be fancy, when the reality had more to do with the plastic covered tables and uneven floor. Worth another trip? On the basis of the food, maybe. But not particularly soon.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Caffe Medici and Irie Bean. Fancy and Dumpy. New wave espresso in Austin.

For an updated Medici review, see my 6/6/2011 post here.

Visited a couple of relatively new espresso places in Austin over the last few weeks. These places are sprouting like weeds - Little City and Ruta Maya blazed a path, JP's brought in the big guns, and now there's a slew of new shops - Epoch, Clementine, Medici, Erie Bean - making Austin distinctly Portlandish in it's coffee options. It's sort of the same way we were Palo Altoish in our dot com boom (and crash).

Caffe Medici
is in Clarksville, West Lynn and 12th St, just a mile or so from downtown. It's a beautiful little shop, all rich woods and high ceilings. The building itself is an old Clarksville house complete with big paned windows and an open space that still suggests the individual rooms that were there before. The owner of the place is from JP's (the original Pacific Northwest level coffee spot in Austin), and they bring their coffee up from Cuvee Coffee in Houston. To top it off, they have what may be the prettiest espresso machine I've ever seen - a gorgeous cherry red La Marzocco FB70 with matching Swift grinder. A thing of beauty. So all of this matters not at all, or not much, if not for the coffee, and the coffee is really good. Cuvee makes a nice blend - it's bright with a sharp little winey bite at the front and really long finish. It's not exactly easy to drink - the sharpness is the opposite of the over-roasted mellow flavor that is the sort of running standard in corporate coffee - but I think it's extraordinarily good. Even better, the coffee blends effortlessly well with milk, which every barista there can actually steam. This is not a little thing - even good places fall down flat on this. But Medici just nails it. Latte Art. Good stuff.

Irie Bean is sort of the other side of the spectrum from Medici. The espresso is still obsessively good, but these guys are low budget and have an almost Flight Path Cafe level funk. It's in the little green shopping center on South Lamar, in the spot where Indie Pop used to be. Claim to fame: they also serve beer, and they've got a gorgeous back patio that includes, among other things, a bench made out of grass, and the back of a cement mixer truck turned into a playhouse. Like I said, funky. Irie Bean uses Texas Coffee Traders coffee, which is a much more conventional dark roast than Cuvee. It makes for a rich shot, though they tend to run a little long if you don't ask for them to keep to a short pull. Everything about Irie lacks precision but it has a lot of heart.

So there's two. Fancy and Dumpy. High budget and low brow. Both startlingly, surprisingly good, both raising the bar for what is rapidly becoming a really good coffee town.

Caffe Medici on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Roasters - surprisingly good espresso in Amarillo

With a couple of hours to kill before my flight, and a very limited set of options open (Amarillo is quiet on Sundays) I ambled over to Roasters to get a little espresso. Truth be told, I actually started at Starbucks, but a few hours is a long time, and the sameness of *$ in every singly solitary town on the planet gets a little oppressive after a while.

Roasters is shockingly good. First clue - a gorgeous 3-group La Marzocco GB5 and a trio of San Marco SM90s. A GB5 in a slick scandanavian style coffee shrine in some hip neighborhood in Portland or Atlanta or Austin is a sign that an owner knows what it takes to play in a crowded market. A GB5 in a low-budget strip mall shop in Amarillo is a sign of someone seriously obsessed.

The double is a little long - maybe 3 oz - but rich and earthy. The body is a light (very dark roast) but the char doesn't overpower the shot, and there's a woody lingering finish that is close to the level of shots I've had from JP's in Austin. Another couple of unexpected touches: Espresso is served in pre-heated thick ceramic cups and the beans are roasted on site in a small batch Probat.

At risk of severe jitteriness on my flight back to Tally this afternoon, I'm considering a small latte to see if these guys can pull off a decent rosetta.

Heads up, EspressoMap - this one may merit a spot on the list.

(FYI - stick with the straight shot - cappuccino a bit of a over-foamed chocolate sprinkled (!) disappointment)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pappadeaux in IAH. Not gross airport food.

It's 9:53, about two hours after I landed, and another hour to go before my next flight takes off. I've bought a couple of amethyst fragments for my girls, a Scharfen Berger tiny little chocolate bar, and a cup of *$ espresso. But the one perk of an unnaturally long layover in Houston is Pappadeaux.

Houston used to be a really severely crappy airport. Not old Detroit crappy or current Memphis crappy, but it was the standard fare low ceilings and maze like walks to get from one gate to another. Then, about the time I started flying regularly, maybe 97 or 98, they opened up Terminal E, and stuck an actual decent restaurant down by E7.

I've been there maybe a dozen times over the years, and they've done an admirable job keeping the place together through what must be thousands of people a day. The menu is relatively simple - choose a fish, choose a style, choose a sauce; or go with one of a handful of New Orleans themed entrees. Nothing I've had there is earth shattering, but at the same time, everything seems remarkably fresh, and well prepared. Tonight I had a salad and a couple of crab cakes. I have no idea if this is relevant for everyone else but my first impression of this stuff is knife work. Whoever prepped the tomatoes and little cubes of cucumber in the salad did so with a real actual knife, and did so with care and precision. And not that long ago. The crab cakes too, were surprising - served on a bed of spinach and crawfish with a "light" butter sauce, that was delicious and light relative only to hollandaise. There was even some neveau froo froo garnish on top and fresh parsely sprinkled around the perimeter.

Before I gush too much, let me say that this is a long way from inspired cuisine, it's just inspired for being in an Airport. There's still some glaring failures - the plastic utencils clash mightily with the brass and dark wood feel of the place. The service is great but infrequent. The food arrives very slowly, and the layout of the place provides no space for waiting for the inevitable 15 minutes it takes to get a table. Still - if you've got time to kill, and a bit of per diem left, it's a great way to kill 45 minutes in Houston and forget for a minute that you're stuck in an airport.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Closed: Kameels: Wierdly good mall food in downtown Atlanta

You know why Atlanta is cool? It's cool because you can get curried goat in the mall food court. I didn't actually get it, but opted instead for the Schwarma from the surprisingly good Kameel's Cafe at Peachtree Center. When I grew up the most exotic food at the mall was the supreme pizza from Sbarro's. I like this lots better.

The original plan was to meet up with an old client and friend at Dailey's. There were 3 of us, then one pulled out (sick), and another (sick kid), and then it was me. I actually went by Dailey's but the thought of sitting down alone to a expertly prepared power lunch at an iconic local business haunt seemed sort of depressing. I'm not sure why, but table service is a bunch more lonely than going through a cafeteria line. Still Dailey's looked good. I may grab a novel and head there for dinner.

So I walked a few blocks further, unable to settle on anything in particular (Ray's Seafood? No. Faux Irish Pub? No. Hooters? Good lord no.), and ended up in the mall. I'd actually seen Kameel's on City Search, so I know it was either decent or had enough money to pay for the user-reviews. Turns out to have been the former. Kameel's is in many ways, just what you'd expect from a middle-eastern themed, homey, local food court vendor, except significantly tastier. The Schawarma is turkey (in itself a little wierd), but it's cooked on big gyro-style rotesseries, and the sandwhich is loaded with lots of fresh cucumber, lettuce, tomato, and a tasty, subtle tahini-based sauce. The pitas are giant and vaguely sweet, and the portion is gigantic. They've got all the standards, baba ganouj, hummus, falafel; and they seem to do them all pretty well. I had a cucumber and tomato salad as a side item. Altogether it was double what I could eat.

The ambience is, well, its a food court. I sat down with my styrofoam food container in a molded plastic chair at one of a long row of tiny tables pushed together and was struck full force with how much this was just like 8th grade. I was braver then. In 8th grade, I'd probably have gone for the goat.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Momo's - You can't possibly imagine the size of this calzone

Momo's makes big pizza. I mean really outlandishly, 3 times the size of any other pizza you've ever seen giant pizzas. An Extra Large momo's pizza is 30 inches across - 700 sq inches of gooey goodness. Calzones? Also big. That's a normal size knife and fork in that pic. So size is the gimmic here, but the real trick is that the pizza is just outstanding.

I said earlier that Tallahassee is not a food town. Momo's illustrates the one clear exception. Pizza here rocks. Even the very-cheap-open-late-greasy places like Hungry Howies are a step above. And places like Momo's and Decent Pizza are as good as I've had anywhere.

The Momo's I ate at this evening was on Market St near Timberlane and Thomasville road. There's another, much seedier and marginally more fun location on Tennessee near campus. My Calzone was Artichoke, Spinach, Ricotta and Mozzarella. Out of some attempt at moderation, I only ate half the thing, though at this very moment, the remaining half beckons, wrapped in foil, sitting on the other side of the desk. The crust is thin with this tiny edge of crispness, and the cheese is perfectly proportioned. There was also a "side salad" (also huge), and a couple of little tubs of marinara. The whole deal is homemade and awesome.

There's a vibe at Momo's. The staff isn't unfriendly exactly, but it's not exactly customer centric either - there's a certain cool-kid confident aloofness to the whole lot of them. They seem to be having a good time with each other - the pretty girls that work the register and the tall scruffy guys that make the pizza. To be honest, its kind of nice - the vibe works, and it all comes together effortlessly. Hanging around all those skinny college kids makes me feel really old, but that's a occupational hazard of eating all but the blandest corporate crap in Tallahassee. Actually that's not true. Skinny college kids work at the bland corporate locales as well. Youth here is inescapable.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

One Fresh Happy People Stir Fry

OneFresh is a complete staple for the team out here. In my mind, it's about the most innovative place in Tallahassee, and maybe the best managed. There are a couple in town - the one we generally frequent is on Monroe at Tharpe, not far from Downtown.

OneFresh does a couple of things well, but the hands down best is their stir fry. The process goes something like this - you start with a laminated menu, and use a dry erase marker to select brown or white rice, a bunch of ingredients (veggies, chicken, tofu, etc), a sauce or two, and a little garlic or scallions or cilantro for on top. Its something like 18,000 choices if I'm doing my math right. Then these guys in back with gigantic woks over huge gas burners go to town and come up with your stir fry. Takes about 5 minutes costs about 6 bucks.

It stays crowded and seems to be doing well. As an added perk, there's a mailing list which puts you in line for some of the most bizarre, entertaining stream-of-conciousness emails I've seen from the owner of the place, Bill Poole, and occasionally gets you a free drink or some extra veggies.

So the stir fry rocks, but the trick of OneFresh is its people. They're really happy and really friendly and extremely competent. They're also there a while - the same people are working there as when I first went, a year ago. My hotel has switched staffs twice in that time, and they've got it a heck of a lot is easier. Its as if the OneFresh guys really like being there. Despite being the place being tasty and trendy and well decorated, these are folks who are slogging through the lunch rush, cooking stirfry over gazillion degree burners in a noisy kitchen and making change. My hunch: they're happy because they like each other. I don't know who sets that tone - if its just a matter of hiring, if its the line managers, or the owner. I don't know what you do to a business to make it lovable, what you do for a team to get it to stick, But somehow that's what someone did here. Lovable place creates lovable people creates lovable food. Which is something Bill might say in his weekly ramble.

Despite tornado watches and drenching downpour, Continental claims my flight is on time. So off to the airport to watch the delays stack up there.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

CrepeVine - surprisingly tasty strip mall lunch

Tallahassee's exposure to French cuisine seems a little light, particularly on the Pensacola drag not far from the FSU campus. And now that there's the CrepeVine nestled in between the Gold's Gym and Hungry Howie's, well, the connection's still pretty light.

That said, the CrepeVine is an attractive little lunch spot - trendy and clean - with admirably creative wraps, and solid execution across all fronts. The menu is small and split into savory and sweet. The savory side is made up of half a dozen pre-configured crepes - generally a few meats (roast beef, chicken, ham), a couple of veggies, gooey mozarella, and a sauce - and some options for build-your-own. The sweet side is basically the same deal, with nutella and various sweet creamy things as fillings. Good? Yes, surprisingly good, if a bit greasy. French? Nope. Think of this things as smack in the middle between a gyro and a burrito and you've pretty much got the picture. The crepes are thick (for a crepe), substantial, and slightly sweet, and served gyro style with the bottom wrapped in parchment paper to hold the drippy sauce. Eating is a hold and chew operation - this is not a forkable crepe.

There are maybe 4 or 5 tables, mostly with low stools instead of actual chairs. The music is loud but not to the MoMo's in-your-face standard. There are two big LCD TVs playing nothing in particular, but it adds to the chic look of the place. One minor but welcome perk: they have Fiji water - almost every ther spot I've been to here is Dasani or the tap.

All told, I had a pre-config crepe (The Wobbles) and a bottle and spent a sliver more than 8 bucks. Good deal. This one gets onto the regular list.

As a side note: I may have had a significantly more enthused reaction had a not recently been introduced to one of the most phenomenal lunch joints I've ever encountered - the similarly themed, much lower budget, and much better FlipHappy on South Lamar in Austin.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Restarting the blog at solid cuban dive Gordo's in Tallahassee

It's been a couple of years - no less travel, no fewer interesting meals, just sort of lost interest after the first post or two.

For the last year, its been Tallahassee. In on Monday, back out to Austin on Thursday. A few other spots between.

Tallahassee is not a food town. Mostly, that sort of sucks, since food towns are much more exciting places to eat on a regular basis. But there are a few perks: quirky local places survive that in more sophisticated cities would be bulldozed to make way for look-alike asian-fusion upscale diners with rectangle plates. The lower bar means, well, lower bars: holes in the wall abound, and even the places that make at a go at fancy end up doing much more of their own thing than in places like Atlanta or DC or even Austin.

Today I ate lunch Gordo's near Pensacola and Ocala. It's a well worn place, a little dirty, with decoration flourishes primarily made up of beer posters, tropical-themed murals, and a tiny old television perched precariously on a shelf near the mens room. The food is cheap and solidly decent. Today I had the yellow rice - arroz con pollo. Very subtle, mild spices - not sure what all was in it, saffron and maybe cumin, chunks of tender chicken, rice and peas, fried plantains on the side. I've been a couple of days. The service, especially sitting outside is friendly and really really slow.

And that's more or less what it takes to get back on the circuit. I'll try to up my average 1.5 posts per year, and see where it goes from here.

Gordo's on Urbanspoon


Related Posts with Thumbnails