Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Empty Glass - Domaine Pral Beaujolais

In my time behind the counter at the wine shop, I can only recall one person asking for Beaujolais by name and he was looking for an offseason bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau.  While people may not have come looking for that Gamay grape wonder, that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to extoll the virtues of the wine to anyone who would listen.  Come on, who wouldn’t enjoy the flavors of raspberry, black cherry, and black currant?

How did I join Marissa Ross as an evangelist for Gamay?  Like most people, when I started drinking wine, I really only knew of Beaujolais Nouveau, the first wine of the seasons.  However, a few years ago, I heard the advice from the America’s Test Kitchen podcast to look into Beaujolais Village as a tidy, reasonably priced, everyday wine.  I picked up a bottle of the ever-present Louis Jadot Village, and I was hooked.  Since then, I always have a case on hand and I’ve taken to scouring the liquor stores of the southeast for more labels.

 While I’ve had some great success finding Cru Beaujolais in Atlanta, Mississippi has proven to be a bit barren. In fact, besides nouveau and Louis Jadot Beaujolais Village, I found a single different label, Domaine Pral’s Beajolais.

Found squirreled away in the corner of Colony Wine Market in Madison, this Domaine Pral is a Beaujolais AOC, a product of one of the 96 villages in AOC.

And when we popped the cork, we were greeted by…yeast.  Yes, there were the usual black cherry and raspberry notes but all were overshadowed by the smell of just proofed yeasted bread dough.

Hoping a little aeration into a decanter would help, I soldiered on and, for me, the wine did improve a bit, but not for Carley, my wife.  She gave her glass the old college try but eventually poured the remainder into my glass and went searching for something else.

In a way, that sums up my feelings on this wine. I wanted to find a different Beaujolais label, I did, and I gave it a try, and once was enough.  Even though patience and air did let this Beaujolais grow into a decently palatable wine, it wasn’t worth the effort.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Weidmann's - Meridian

Just the other day, I received a notification that a comment had been posted to my last blog entry. Guessing that I had either been stripped of gainful employment or resigned myself to a diet, Mr. Anonymous wished me well. This isn’t the first time the inactivity of my blog has been questioned, but it did make me realize that it’s been an obscenely long time since my last post.  Does this mean the end of this little hobby of mine? Although five years is an exceedingly long life span for a food blog, I sincerely doubt that I’ll call it quits anytime soon. I can’t promise that I’ll return to the 200 posts in a year halcyon days of 2009,  but blog posts will be forthcoming starting with a little detour to Weidmann’s in Meridian.

This story, like so many others, begins with a trip on I-20 East towards Atlanta. However, instead of the usual mulling over Tuscaloosa or Birmingham spots, an extra bit of last minute work at the office left me hitting the city limits of Meridian a few minutes after one and just in time for lunch. Rarely stopping for anything more than a bit of gas and a pit stop, I decided that this time was a good as any to stop into Weidmann’s.

“I wish it was crunchy”, that was the first thought that entered my mind when I looked at the rather charming if a bit kitsch crock of peanut butter at the center of my table at Weidmann’s.
Handmade by a local artist and bearing all of Weidmann’s relevant details, the crock contained a plastic cup of smooth and slightly salty peanut butter.

A tradition that began with a butter shortage during the Second World War has become a Weidmann’s trademark and even with the lack of crunch, it’s a tradition I can support.

After starting with the peanut butter, it was on to another Weidmann’s tradition, the fried green tomatoes.
Despite looking a bit oily, these tomatoes were nicely breaded and were about as crispy as fried green tomatoes could be.
With a firm texture, these March tomatoes weren’t too tart, just enough to keep things interesting.
The comeback dressing was a different story; sweet and creamy as expected, this condiment was crying out for a touch chili powder or black pepper to combat the sweetness. When combined with the tomatoes, I quickly realized that the unripe tomatoes had no need for the comeback; they were sweet enough on their own.

Hoping to get a taste for the Weidmann’s menu, I also ordered a cup of their house seafood, chicken, and sausage gumbo. Unfortunately, the gumbo arrived at the same time as the tomatoes. Aside from being an annoyance, the time the gumbo spent lingering may help explain its thickness.
True to its name, there were chunks of sausage, nicely briny shrimp, large pieces of okra, but, strangely, very little chicken.
Also absent was much of a roux flavor.  Tasting more of an okra stew than the Louisiana gumbos I’ve come to know and love, this gumbo, while full of ingredients, was decent but lacking any real depth.

Before I had a chance to finish my gumbo, my catfish entrée arrived at my table. Pushing aside the bowl, I was curious to see Weidmann’s version of crabmeat Belvedere.
Served with a side of butter beans and creole cabbage, this plate had a homey quality that may not win awards for aesthetics, but it certainly looked like a filling lunch.
Starting with sides, the butter beans were big, creamy, and incredibly pale. Oddly colored they may have been, they would be a fine addition to any meat and three.
The creole cabbage is something that needs to be on more menus. Tomato braised and with a definite chili pepper tail, their magic really came through when combined with the butter beans. Just those two made me wish I had ordered a vegetable plate.

That’s enough gushing over vegetables; the point of the plate was the catfish and its crabmeat Belvedere.

Crispy on the edges, juicy, and delightfully flakey, this was a well-grilled filet of Mississippi catfish.

Regarding the toppings, it seemed the addition of both a light cream gravy and crabmeat Belvedere was too much for even this sturdy piece of catfish to handle.

Visiting a restaurant with as much as history as Weidmann’s arms me with a certain amount of hesitation. Will a place that claims to be Mississippi’s oldest restaurant still exist because of pure nostalgia from an aging clientele? Is the kitchen running on a reputation earned decades prior and has since been stripped of any meaning? I can say that Weidmann’s did not reinforce my suspicions even though things were a bit of a mixed bag. The timing issues I can somewhat attribute to the busy lunch hour although that’s a piss poor excuse. While the gumbo and comeback left me wanting, there were some things that set a hook that made me want to come back namely the well grilled fish and the superb vegetables. With an exceptionally large lunch menu that warrants further exploring, there may be an order of Weidmann’s shrimp and grits in my future travels or at the very least some peanut butter and crackers.

Weidmann’s Address & Information

210 22nd Ave Meridian, MS 39301 // 601.581.5770 // Weidmann’sWebsite // Weidmann’s Menu // Weidmann’s Reservations
Weidmann's on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 22, 2013

Seoul - Birmingham

Kimchi, that polarizing combination of napa cabbage, gochujaru, ginger, garlic, gochujang, and fish sauce, though one of my current Korean favorites, was not always on my radar. While there may have been an odd mention of it here and there during trips to Houston, New York, or San Francisco, the cabbage based dish truly came into my world a little less than a decade ago when I was reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s excellent book “The Man WhoAte Everything”. In his book, Steingarten aimed to broaden his already well cultured culinary horizons and began this quest by creating a list of food phobias. Second on the list was the aforementioned kimchi. Although I highly suggest reading the book on your own, I’ll spoil the surprise by saying that Steingarten came to love kimchi by means of exposure and repetition. On the other hand, I was, for the most part, rather ambivalent towards the national pickle of Korea. I’d give it a try, say that’s not bad, and move along, but the past few years of venturing into Korean restaurants across the south have given me a new appreciation for the dish which brings me to the balmy January morning in Birmingham when I decided to cross the threshold of Seoul Restaurant.

I had hoped that when I walked inside Seoul that I would be hit with the smell of ashy charcoal, sizzling meat, and the sound of chopsticks clicking on bowls of banchan. Sadly, Seoul doesn’t offer Korean bbq, but at least there’s still bulgogi on the menu. But before the beef would arrive, an order of deep fried mandu would get the meal started.
Well fried, crispy, and not at all oily, these pork mandu were a fine beginning.
Despite missing any kimchi or glass noodles, the simple filling of pork and greenery was still quite satisfying.
Missing kimchi aside, these were well fried dumplings that were balanced by the rice vinegar tartness of the dipping sauce.

At this point, my table began to swell with bulgogi, japchae, and the full assortment of banchan.
There may not be any grilling involved, but it had the look of a damn good substitution.

Dumplings done, the bulgogi was up next.
Served in a crackling hot cast iron plate, this serving of bulgogi was still faintly sizzling 10 minutes later.
Thinly sliced and slightly chewy, it was brimming with beef flavor that was only augmented by the addition of sesame seeds and sesame oil.
 Erring on the side of being a bit too sugary, it was still hard to leave this bulgogi alone.

The nuttiness of the sesame carried over to the sweet potato noodles but this time was mated with caramelized carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and a little more beef for good measure.
Juicy, nutty, beefy, this was homestyle japchae.
Much like the bulgogi, these noodles were inundated with sauce and each piece of vermicelli was literally dripping with flavor.

Of course, I can’t forget the banchan.
It’s the usual array of side dishes with a few standouts
 The crunch of bean sprouts with the heat of chili paste never gets old.
I don’t often see kombu as the focus of the dish, but the combination of sweet and spicy with the kelp worked quite well here.
What would a visit to a Korean restaurant be without kimchi? Seoul’s kimchi was lightly fermented and a bit watery at first with just a hint of a chili pepper powder on the tail.

Despite numerous complaints about speed of service on Urbanspoon and Yelp, after my meal I had none of my own. Even though time and appetite forced me to leave the stews, seafood, and rice bowls section completely untouched, I still feel that the bulgogi, japchae, and mandu left quite an impression. While Seoul is far from pushing the boundaries of Korean cuisine, there’s a menu of familiar favorites that are prepared simply and well. Sometimes that and a little kimchi are all you need.

Seoul Restaurant Address & Information
430 Green Springs Highway #8, Birmingham, AL 35209 // 205.945.8007
Seoul on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Highlands Bar and Grill - Birmingham

Having spent the earlier part of the day enjoying a few snapper throats at the Bright Star and a little time at a bookstore, it was soon time for my next stop at a Birmingham institution, Frank Stitt’s original restaurant, the Highlands Bar and Grill.

Opened in 1982, Highlands Bar and Grill is Stitt’s combination of southern flavors and ingredients with his background in French cuisine. But for me, Highlands is more than a stalwart of the Birmingham restaurant scene, it’s been a goal that has been taunting me for years. Much like Hot and Hot FishClub, another renowned Birmingham restaurant, Highlands has been just out of my reach, largely due to its hours of operation. Try as I might, dinner in Birmingham is a rare proposition. Now, with this opportunity at hand, I planned to take full advantage of my first meal at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Friday night in late January and Highlands was bustling with activity as every table was filled to capacity. Despite having made reservations earlier in the week, I had time to enjoy a cocktail at the bar before my table was ready. Once seated, I was stuck with the typical dilemma of far too many attractive choices and general indecisiveness. Jokingly complaining to my waitress that they were in dire need of a tasting menu, she quickly scampered off to the kitchen. Returning just moments later, she was happy to inform me that a tasting menu could be made from any five dishes of my choosing.

However, before any of my choices had a chance to arrive at the table, it was time for a little taste of cornbread.
Appearing in the bottom left of the picture, this small piece of cornbread struck an ideal balance between salty and savory. Of course, it never hurts when cornbread is made sublime by the addition of a little butter.

Diving headfirst into the southern heart of the menu, things started with the stone ground baked grits.
Exceedingly creamy, this grit cake seemed to defy gravity.
If this dish confirms anything, it’s that country ham and grits are a salty match made in heaven.
Rounding out the dish were mushrooms and parmesan which while well paired on their own, I wasn’t quite sure what the mushrooms brought to the dish. However the only thing this dish truly needed was a good shot of black pepper, once applied this was a truly precocious start to the meal.

Apalachicola gigged flounder was the next dish in the tasting menu and it came with a Provençal sauce with roasted fennel, Niçoise olive, fingerling potatoes, and marjoram.
Crispy on the edges, moist in the middle, the flounder paired well with the bright and well rounded sauce.
The Provençal sauce was deceptively simple with a clean tomato flavor that finished with a bite of olive tartness.

Third in my tasting menu was the rabbit -  two ways.
First of the duo was a Tuscan kale stuffed loin and while the kale added a slightly bitter and green dimension to the loin, I was surprised at the grainy texture.
In stark contrast, the braised leg was achingly tender and sublime with the sherry reduction. At this point, I noticed that Highlands preferred their vegetables to have a toothsome texture. I won’t say they were undercooked but I like my potatoes to not crunch when I bite them.

Proving the allure of pork wrapped in caul fat, the pork crépinette and grilled rabbit liver was the fourth dish on my menu.
With plenty of give from the caul fat, the highlight of the crépinette was the combination of the pork and vinegar flavors of the honey crisp apples and frisee salad.
 In contrast, the grilled liver began with a crunch of finishing salt and fruit but quickly soured with the addition of overdone liver.  Letting my waitress know about the state of the liver, I was expecting an apology at the most but I wasn’t prepared for a new piece of liver to be brought from the kitchen.
Skewered with a sprig of rosemary, this liver still had the big salty introduction but in lieu of the apples, the woody flavor of rosemary and citrus highlights of fresh peppercorns took its place.

For the last course, I decided to switch gears and try a little fowl with the stuffed South Carolina quail.
Sticking to bold flavors, this quail was mated with a cornbread and foie gras stuffing, green lentils, and a sorghum gastrique.
With the lentils baring a stronger resemblance to a piece of chalk than any edible legume, I was relying on the cornbread and foie stuffing to support the quail. Unfortunately, the stuffing completely dominated the bird with a mealy sweetness and none of the rich foie gras flavor I was expecting. This quail was far and away the weakest part of the meal.

At this point, I expected the meal to be finished and an after dinner drink would be that all that stood between me and my drive back to the hotel, but that was not the case. Chalk it up to either voicing my complaints or having a productive dialogue with my server, a complimentary order of the braised pork cheeks and potato dumplings was brought to my table.
Like many of the vegetables in this meal, including the hedgehog and yellow foot mushrooms in this dish, the pork wasn’t fall apart tender but the dense flavor of the cheeks was ample reward.
When this dish was first brought, I was expecting the potato dumplings to create a starchy mess but each flavor in this dish was distinguishable and played off the others quite well.
One particularly nice touch was how each potato dumpling was pan seared, the contrast of dense dumpling with crisp seared exterior was delightful.

If I took away anything from this long awaited meal at Highland Bar and Grill, it’s that while the flavors and the subsequent combinations are supremely important, the addition of excellent service can make a good meal a great one. Even taking the liver and quail into account, the dishes at Highlands were prime examples of Stitt and his kitchens taking full advantage of the bounty of the South. I can see why Highlands Bar and Grill has been open for more than 30 years.

Highlands Bar and Grill Address & Information
2011 11th Avenue Birmingham, AL 35205 // 205.939.1400 // Highlands Bar and Grill Website // Highlands Bar and Grill Menu
Highlands Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bright Star - Bessemer

Despite my frequent visits to the city, it’s rare that I get the opportunity to spend more than a few hours in the magic city known as Birmingham, Alabama. Late January proved to be on of those precious times as I was in town for a two day stint at a conference.  Flushed with time to spare, I decided that I should pay a visit to some Birmingham institutions, starting with the only Alabama recipient of the James Beard “America’s Classic” award, the Bright Star in Bessemer.

I’ll be quite frank, I was blissfully unaware of the Bright Star’s national accolades until I began researching this piece. My knowledge of this Alabama institution stems from John T. Edge and his book “Southern Belly” as well as his 100 Southern Foods list he penned for Garden and Gun Magazine. In the southern foods list, Edge tells the virtue of The Bright Star’s snapper throats. Now I’ve spent my fair share of time in Greek diners in the Southeast from comeback and crackers at the Mayflower in Jackson to the temptation of a gyro meat and tzaziki omelette at the White House in Atlanta but that was the first time I heard the idea of fried snapper throats. Knowing the succulent textures of a well cooked yellow tail throat with hamachi kama, I was interested to see how an oft discarded piece of the fish would take to a little deep frying.

But before getting to the raison d’etre of this lunch, it was time for a gumbo interlude and The Bright Star does a fair job with this Louisiana specialty.
Hot and thick, this gumbo was brimming with tomoatoes and okra not to mention a chili pepper tail to finish each bite. 
While there was a substantial amount of shredded chicken in this cup of gumbo, the time spent at a simmer left its mark on the white meat.

When it came to the snapper throats, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Would it be an entire throat, dipped in batter and fried to a hearty crisp? Would it be chopped bones with tiny nuggets of meat?
The snapper throats were nothing of the sort. With nary a bone in sight, these snapper throats were remarkably easy to eat.  For each “throat” a nugget of sweet and incredibly juicy meat was wrapped in a thick but surprisingly crispy batter.
Beautifully paired with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper, this was a unique cut of gulf fish prepared remarkably well.
After eating, there was a sizeable pool of grease left on the plate, but it was a necessary evil like the thick batter. It may have been a bit clumpy and unwieldy but the succulent fish inside was worth it.

The rest of the meal was much of your standard southern fare, butter beans, black eyed peas, etc, nothing particularly remarkable apart from the cornbread.
Tiny, crusty and crisp on the edges, and a bit salty, it was crumbly and sublime when paired with the vegetables.

Initially I was skeptical of the Bright Star’s age and status. It seems that with many storied and established restaurants, the kitchen is fueled by memories and tradition rather than the current quality of their food. Thankfully, The Bright Star escapes that trend and offers a unique, well crafted dish in a setting with charm and atmosphere to spare. In my mind, their award and mentions in John T’s writing are well deserved; I just hope that The Bright Star keeps earning that James Beard award.

Bright Star Address & Information
304 19th Street North, Bessemer, AL 35020 // 205.426.1861 // Bright Star Website // Bright Star Menu
Bright Star on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The General Muir - Atlanta

It’s been a few years since my last post on a deli and in that time I’ve been pacifying myself with half hearted Sysco sourced Reubens and the occasional slice of pepperless, insipid pastrami. Recently, my pining for the true deli experience was  worsened by a shipment of sublime bagels, blintzes, pastrami, brisket, and spreads from my friend Merry and her family’s Florida deli. Fortunately, there have been signs of promise in the Deep South, namely the opening of The General Muir in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta. With promises of glistening matzo ball soup, homemade bagels, and pastrami poutine, it didn’t take much convincing from Jennifer for me to make the drive from Brookhaven to The General Muir.

Typically late March is full of pleasant, sunny skies and the not so distant promise of blistering hot summers, but this March was an exception. With flurries filling the sky, it was still the weather for scarves and overcoats not to mention a steaming bowl of matzo ball soup.
Often times I’ll find that matzo ball soups are either a single matzo ball floating alone in a bowl of broth or a matzo ball lost in a sea of chunky vegetables and dry shredded breast meat, The General Muir aims for a comfortable middle ground.
By itself the broth is thin but the glistening globules of fat give a delightful lip smacking texture. Adding interest and body is a medley of celery, onion, carrot, and dill, the result is a soup that is nicely seasoned and a bit vegetal.
As for the matzo ball, this was a airy and fluffy specimen and far from the heavy as a stone examples that some delis offer.
Perfect for a cold, light in texture, and well suited to the broth, this matzo ball soup didn’t feel too substantial but it offered plenty of comfort for the chilly spring day.

With pastrami on rye on the way, the side of fries arrived first.
Sadly, the pastrami poutine would have to wait for another day but this order of fries gave an inkling of my next visit to The General Muir.
Grains of salt aside, there were a few crispy ends on these fries and a fair amount of textural contrast but I couldn’t help but wonder if they were hearty enough to hold gravy, cheese, and pastrami?

So just how does the featured pastrami stack up?
From the beginning, this is sandwich simplicity: meat, mustard, and rye bread.
While the pastrami doesn’t look too heavily peppered, each bite begins with a salty beefiness that gives way to a definitive peppercorn punch.
If there is a weakness to this sandwich, the rye is a bit listless compared to my favorite hearty rye breads of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor but it makes an excellent vehicle for grainy mustard and the exceedingly tender, fatty, and bristling with salinity pastrami. On the whole, this is a fine example of the breed and I can only imagine how it works on top of poutine.

Maybe after my next trip to Atlanta I can attest to the quality of The General Muir’s breakfast, pastrami poutine, or if the burger that chef Todd Gingsberg popularized at Bocado survived the trip. However, based on this first look at The General Muir, I’m pretty sure that Goldberg’s is no longer my go to deli in Atlanta.

The General Muir Address & Information
The General Muir on Urbanspoon