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


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