Friday, April 23, 2010

Bella Bella. First > Second.

In 1995, when I lived in DC, I used to eat at a place near Dupont Circle called City Lights. This isn't a review of City Lights, but it does go one step closer to proving a hypothesis I came up with there: At all but the most super-fantastic places, appetizers are better than entrees.

This is a review of Bella Bella, in Tallahassee, and nowhere have I seen the appetizer vs. entree distinction so starkly displayed.

Bella Bella is 100% Tally cute, from the homemade sign and painted windows to the mismatch mix of tables and chairs. It's a neighborhood joint, and carries all the cheery warmth that comes with that. The food is Italianish, mostly sandwiches and salads at lunch and mostly pasta at dinner. There's a chalk board with specials, but you get the sense that these are on a pretty fixed rotating schedule, not the inspiration of chefs after a morning shop at the farmer's market.

I've been to Bella Bella a handful of times, and have had exactly the same experience each time: eat more than I should of lovely steaming italian bread and whipped butter; order an exquisite if also too-heavy appetizer, and then -flop- get a giant dish of blah. This is followed by a selective memory operation in which I forget the blah, remember the exquisite, and, in another 6 months, I'm at it again.

For this trip, the exquisite was the Bubble Bread, a huge plate of Italian bread, lathered with butter and roasted garlic, covered with Gorgonzola and Mozzarella, baked until the cheese is gooey and bubbling and served with a small bowl of marinara. Probably 3 days worth of calories on that plate alone, but it was totally worth it.

The blah was the special, Penne Puttanesca, which was run of the mill penne rigate , slightly overcooked, in a bland, slightly creamy tomato and beef sauce.

This was confusing, since the really great thing about a good puttanesca is the salty complexity of olives, tomatoes and peppers together. I've eaten it with capers, artichoke hearts, even a little sausage, but universally the things that make up a puttanesca are salty and tart. It's sort of an antipasto in a bowl, where a good, hearty pasta can cut through the acidity and deliver a really pleasing balance.

Trying to critique the Bella Bella puttanesca is like critiquing the audio quality of a toothpick. It was an entirely different thing than its name suggested, lacking in complexity, lacking in character.

All that said, I'm likely to end up back there some day. The place has a certain pull, and there are definitely days when a neighborhood joint with good warm bread and a friendly bustle sound perfect. But next time: only appetizers.

Bella Bella on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 19, 2010

Buenos Aires - Can't Judge an Argentinian Joint by the Cover

Breaking News - as of August 2010, Buenos Aires Cafe is moving their South location to grander digs up at the Hill Country Galleria. Looking forward to checking it out.

Buenos Aires is as unassuming as it gets, from the hack-job sign in Papyrus out front to the tiny little pea-green stucco building; from the patio facing the small parking lot to the tippy and weathered tables.

But behind the lackluster facade is someone in the kitchen who knows just exactly what she's doing, which is totally mind-blowing food. The ambience is the food here, and everything rotates around it. Our waiter, full of laid back Austin casual slouch when we got there, just lit up when we asked about specific dishes. After we got into a little conversation on the wine (Cava De Weinert Carrascal, which was outstanding), he was downright friendly. And the food itself, while not bad looking, had its value locked up in the taste. On looks alone, this place is middle of the pack urban strip mall ethnic fare. On taste, it's off the charts.

We started with a couple of empenadas - the spinach was good - sort of spanikopita-ish - but the chicken was just awesome. Slow, slow roasted and shredded with an intriguing combination of vegetables and spice, the soft and layered flavor in the filling and crunch on the shell came together beautifully.

Tracy went for roast chicken on the advice of the now-friendly waiter, and I had a beef tenderloin and shrimp special. Like the empenadas, the dishes weren't universally fantastic. I thought my shrimp was a bit overcooked, and the asparagus would have been improved with a hint of butter or lemon. But where this place shined, it really seriously shined. My beef, with chimichurri was amazing. Cooked on the rare side of medium-rare, it was meltingly tender and flavorful, with the chimchurri giving the perfect zingy, sharp compliment. Also lovely, the mashed potatoes that served as a pedestal for the shrimp, and Tracy's roasted yukon golds and sweet potatoes.

The empenadas and the entrees both were but prelude to the dessert. The dessert is actually why we came here, having seen a picture of the Quatro Leches cake a friend of Tracy's posted on FB a few weeks back. It did not dissapoint. We got a cylinder of the aforementioned Quatro Leches, and a slice of a completely over the top sponge cake-kahlua-strawberry-dulce de leche-whipped cream invention called Pionio. Not low fat. Not even all that pretty, but oh my, these are desserts that pick you up out of your chair, spin you around, and drop you on the floor only so you can crawl back to the table, begging for more. Amazing. And the dessert menu isn't shy about it - there are maybe 8 entrees here, and something like 15 desserts.

So, if you go, be prepared to look past appearances, and, by all means, get dessert.

Buenos Aires Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 12, 2010

24: Excellent Menu, Top Notch Ingredients, Screwed With

24 emerged into the Waterloo Ice House space at 6th and Lamar a few months back, putting a retro-modern-local-foodie spin on a hallowed space. At first glance, and first bite, it works brilliantly. But the sheen fades a bit by the end.

The menu is almost all classic diner fare: waffles, burgers, and platters like pork chops and shepherd's pie. And the ingredients are nothing short of stunning: locally sourced organics with a list of the daily deliveries from local farms. It'd be hard to go wrong with that combination (see Monument Cafe, for example). Even their coffee is from solid local roaster Owl Tree Roasting.

But at 24, it just doesn't quite come together. The primary issue here: failure to follow the "if it ain't broke..." rule. The waffle, for instance, was infused with a sharp, almost boozy flavor - Grand Marnier, perhaps? Perfect otherwise - nice and crisp, prettily arranged, served with real maple syrup. But screwed with. Tracy's burger had the same issues: full of flavor at first bite, but then, with the eggy challah bun and the smoked aioli, too full of flavor by the last. It was a good burger, but it was screwed with.

Full disclosure here: I'm not a fan of adornments in my food. I like my chocolate chip cookies without nuts, and my cinnamon rolls without raisins. It takes a lot to improve on these things.

And that's really the issue I had with 24 - trying to improve on every classic it could get to - trying too hard to make the highlight reel, and not paying enough attention to the basics. Where they simply let the ingedients do the talking, as they did with coffee and with perfectly crispy bacon, this place shines. But where they infused, braised, and seasoned, they lost their way. I'm sympathetic to foodies who want to sling comfort food with a twist, just not interested in eating much more of it.

24 Diner on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 03, 2010

I Had a Dream, And That Dream was Frank

In all honesty, it'd be nearly impossible for me not to love Frank. Downtown Austin, impeccably cool, chicago dogs, black cherry soda, killer espresso, and a full bar. Seriously, if I were nodding off, drooling, into an afternoon daydream of food, this is what would be in it.

Frank is in the space that used to house Gilligans, and then Crimson, and then Starlight. It's kind of a strange space for a restaurant, long and exceptionally narrow, but it's light and airy, with a nice view of downtown for the first floor, and it's right in the heart of everything. They've done a fantastic job with it - keeping the rustic old brick wall and adding a ton of warm dark wood. It's comfy and casual (jam jar waterglasses), but completely intentionally done down to the tiniest detail (the best ceiling fan in existence).

The menu centers around, well, franks, and these are taken to their logical conclusion - local, house made sausage; truly transcendental hot dogs. Among a whole range of options including some pretty outrageous combinations are 100% authentic no-screwing around Chicago dogs. There are other things I would like to try, but this time, it was all about the Chicago. And it was perfect, sport peppers and all.

Waffle Fries are another staple here, fresh cut, skins on, with pepper and kosher salt. There's another dozen options for stuff you can have delivered on them, and a bundle of dipping sauces. We had the waffle fries au natural and tried the buffalo blue, bacon buttermilk, and the horseradish sauce. Buffalo was not my thing, but the other two simply rocked. Something awesome about horseradish, cream and salty potato.

There are a dozen other things to eat. I plan on eating them all, even if I have to singlehandedly keep this place afloat (I won't, it was pretty packed even early).

On the way out, I looked up to see a gleaming La Marzocco FB/80 espresso machine, bags of Intelligentsia beans, and a 3rd place trophy from the 2010 Southwestern Barista Jam. Just to put this in context, restaurants NEVER place in these competitions. Ever. So I stopped and tossed back a rich, velvety macchiatto, on par with any I've had anywhere save maybe Victrola in Seattle.

Quibbles: for a place with cold beer in the URL, it'd be nice if there were a few more options on tap. And there was a little "store" that was out of, well, everything. Details. This place is truly one of the best places on the planet, and I plan to return. Often.

Frank on Urbanspoon


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