Tuesday, November 25, 2008

MF Sushi Bar - Midtown, Atlanta

MF or Magic Fingers Sushi Bar has been described as Atlanta’s premier sushi dining destination. The original location is situated on Ponce De Leon Avenue and it really eschews the image of a traditional sushi bar. Sure there is the standard sushi bar with highly trained sushi chefs hard at work, but the rest of the restaurant is a modern interpretation of the sushi bar. They still hold onto the light colored furniture and smattering of Japanese characters, but the rest is as modern as can be.

A quick glance at the menu reflects the style of the restaurant. There is the standard list of nigiri sushi and the usual rolls such as spider or California roll. However, there are a few standouts, namely lobster. The lobster dishes are the main reason I paid a second visit to MF.

First things first though, edamame was the first appetizer of the day.

It’s really difficult to mess up edamame, seeing at its nothing more than steamed soybeans. MF starts off well with a pleasing presentation of the pods complete with a healthy dusting of salt.

After the edamame, we arrive at what I think is the star of the show, the baked lobster tail tempura.

Even though it does look a little bit messy and overrun with sauces, I can say without hesitation that this is one of my favorite Japanese dishes. The lobster meat is perfectly cooked and balances extremely well with the cream sauce and other toppings.

Enough of the appetizers, it was time to focus on the sushi and to see if the name “Magic Fingers” was deserved.

My sister started it off by ordering some standard sushi fare, a Tony roll and a spicy tuna roll.

The Tony Roll may not sound like your average roll, but in reality it’s a shrimp tempura roll topped with a piece of boiled shrimp and drizzled with eel sauce. Both the Tony and the spicy tuna roll were pleasant rolls, and present the problems with this sort of sushi. It’s hard to make these stand out from other versions, it’s only when they’re done badly that you can truly tell a difference.

I took an entirely different route with my choice of sushi.

Pictured here is a dragon roll, a magic fingers lobster box, and an order of tamago for some variety. Let’s start with the most obvious piece, the dragon roll. The dragon roll is a rather simple concoction of a California roll topped with a whole eel and then drizzled with eel sauce. As much as I like eel, this roll was a meal unto itself and was really too much. I have to give MF credit for the presentation; the carrots really do make the roll look like a dragon albeit an ugly one.

Here’s a better view of the dragon's tail and the Magic Fingers Lobster Box which is a layer of flying fish roe and steamed lobster pressed into a sushi box. I’m not sure what sauce was on top, but I believe it was more eel sauce. That really seems to be the case for Japanese restaurants, when in doubt, use eel or teriyaki, nothing like a sugary sauce to make everything better. Anyway, the lobster box is an excellent little dish, and has been on the specials menu for over a year. It has one fault, that it is preceded by the lobster tempura appetizer. It just can’t compare.

The tamago or egg custard nigiri was pretty standard fare, nothing writing home about, so I’ll stop.

Sushi really has come a long way in the United States, particularly in the South. What used to be a novelty can now be found in grocery stores across the region. MF does a nice job with their presentation of both classic and new sushi dishes, but I feel like MF is more glitz than substance at times. When a bill can be upwards of $100+ per person (particularly at the Buckhead location), it just seems too much for a food than can trace its origins to mobile food carts. However, I would call myself a fan of MF if only for the lobster tempura.

MF Sushibar on Urbanspoon

Two Urban Licks – Atlanta

A nice thing about having my sister in Atlanta is that I always have a place to stay; on the other hand, I always have a car load of stuff to bring her.

Last week I decided I needed a quick break from Jackson. So I loaded up the Tahoe and hit I-20. Once I got to Buckhead, we decided to head somewhere different for Dinner. My sister suggested Two Urban Licks, and we soon made our way to the Virginia Highlands.

Two Urban Licks is the sister restaurant to One Midtown Kitchen and like its sibling, it is trendy to a fault. However Two Urban Licks is much bigger than its sister and has a fascinating décor.

When you first come into the restaurant, you can’t help but notice the wall of stainless steel wine barrels.

Forty two barrels make up this wine wall, and it features a nice variety of domestic wines.

After the barrel tower of wine, the kitchen in the middle of the restaurants catches your eye next, mainly because of the 14 foot wood pit rotisserie. Unfortunately, the rotisserie was inactive for my visit, and I was later told that it would soon be replaced.

I enjoy any restaurant that has a menu that changes daily, and for Wednesday, November 12th, there was a nice selection of dishes. I decided to give the empanadas a try for my appetizer.

Made with a smoked brisket and covered with diced tomatoes, bean sprouts and a garlic aioli, this was a pleasant first dish. Brisket is a tough cut of beef to handle, and brisket got the best of Two Urban Licks. Maybe I missed the non-geriatric section on the menu, but the meat had been overly cooked, to the point where it was practically mush. Granted it was well flavored mush, but still mush. I also was not a fan tomatoes and sprouts on the empanadas. Those little touches seemed to fly in the face of the idea of empanadas as hand held meal.

My sister tried another route for her appetizer by choosing the free form ravioli. When we first saw that on the menu, we had a lively discussion about the term “free form” and how it applies to ravioli. I had to play my role of the cynic and say that “free form” is a nice way to saying that it isn’t ravioli at all.

When the dish arrived, my cynicism was validated as the dish was little more than shrimp, spinach, grape tomatoes and ravioli sheets in a lemon butter sauce. I had a taste, and while it had the appearance of disheveled pile of food, it delivered on flavor. Still, they really should rename the dish to something more descriptive and stop trying to pass this off as ravioli.

In between the appetizer and main course, Two Urban Licks takes the chance to fill you up on cheap carbs, but they are delicious, cheap carbs.

Our waiter brought us this dish of house chili oil with balsamic vinegar complimented with warm, chewy flat bread. This dish did bring up the opportunity for my sister and me to commiserate over the definition of heat in the South. Our waiter told us that this oil was spicy and that we should be careful. Once we had a taste, we both agreed that it was very flavorful, but there wasn’t the slightest bit of heat. It really seems that “spicy” food in Atlanta is far from it. In fact my sister put it best: “When something is spicy here, it tastes normal, otherwise it just tastes bland.”

As soon as we arrived at our conclusion on spicy food in Atlanta, our waiter arrived with our entrees. I had chosen the tanglewood farm duck breast.

I have to be honest; this was as delicious as it looks. The duck was delightfully moist yet still retained the crunchy skin that I always look for in a duck breast. I’m glad to say that the ancho bbq jus was a background player in this dish. The Italian sausage that was stuffed into the duck breast was a nice touch, but I wish there had been more. The only real complaint about the dish was the sweet potato puree. I’m really not a fan of sweet potatoes, and this puree was potent. It completely overpowered the duck and I spent the remainder of the meal trying to think of a dish that I would pair it with.

For my sister, the bistro tender was her choice for entrée.

This was a busy dish with herb whipped potatoes, corn, poblano peppers, shitake mushrooms, and chimichurri all sharing a plate with the steak. The steak was very well cooked, but I was disappointed in the chimichurri. I was expecting a potent sauce and was met with an insipid and watery pool of liquid.

When we were leaving, my sister brought up the fact that she and all of her friends had been to Two Urban Licks, but not one of them had ever been back. It wasn’t because the food was bad, it was because there too much to try in Atlanta, and Two Urban Licks didn’t have anything to make you want to come back. I believe that summarized my sentiments exactly. This was a nice meal at a lovely restaurant, but Two Urban Licks isn’t something that I have to go back to immediately.

Two Urban Licks on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Matzo Ball Soup by a Goy

Growing up in Mississippi, one is not often exposed to Jewish cooking, but that all changed once I arrived at college. At GW, with a 45% Jewish student body, its impossible not to have Jewish friends. As a result, I had my first true exposure to Jewish cuisine, and one dish that captivated me was matzo ball soup.

Matzo ball soup, or “Jewish penicillin”, is really a simple dish, nothing more than a good chicken stock and matzo balls. As simple as it sounds, my friends told me that no goy can make a good matzo ball soup. This past weekend, I finally set out to prove them wrong.

Per my friend Marsha Rose, the key to a good soup is the chicken, and it must be a kosher chicken. Being in Jackson, kosher chickens are hard to come by. Luckily, my sister in Atlanta lives near a kosher market. So, when I last went to Atlanta, I made sure to stop by and pick up a few chickens for the ride home.

I began by washing the chicken and then placing it in a pot of cold water.

I brought it to a boil and made sure to skim off the scum from the bone marrow.

While the chicken was coming to a boil, I set to work on chopping up my vegetables for the stock.

First off celery, and with about 6 stalks, I might have over done it. The stock did have a distinct celery taste, but it evened out in the end. At my dad’s suggestion, I made sure to use celery stalks with a lot of foliage, because the leaves are full of flavor.

Next up, five carrots, coarsely chopped, organic off course, were added to the bowl.

Rounding out this nice mirepoix were 4 medium sized yellow onions.

Everything was thrown in the pot and brought up to a boil, and then lowered to simmer. Again, at the recommendation of Marsha Rose, I added a couple of bay leaves.

After an afternoon of light simmering, I ended up with this.

Kosher chicken or not, that’s a pretty healthy looking pot of stock. I knew that I wouldn’t have time to make the matzo balls today, so I let the pot cool on the stove. I then strained out the vegetables and picked the meat off the chicken and then put the stock in the fridge outside.

The next morning, after church, I pulled the pot out of the fridge, and I was expecting a big disc of chicken fat, but was greeted with this.

I was in a bit of a dilemma at this point. On one hand, Marsa Rose told me to take out the schmaltz and save it for cooking later. On the other, my mother had always told me to leave the fat in for an extra rich soup. Seeing as it would have been annoying to fish out those little droplets of fat, I left them in there.

Next up was the main attraction, the matzo balls. Now the gentleman at the kosher market had told me to use Streits matzo meal, but all they had at the Brookshire was Manischewitz.

Using the recipe on the box, I put a cup of matzo meal in a mixing bowl and added two tablespoons of oil. I’ve read that people use the schmaltz in place of oil for extra flavor, but I hadn’t saved any chicken fat, so oil it was.

I then added 4 beaten eggs and 4 tablespoons of seltzer water. Why seltzer water? Everyone I had asked told me to use seltzer water instead of tap water. The seltzer was supposed to make the matzo balls light and fluffy. I suppose it was due to the carbonation.

After mixing, I covered the bowl and left it in the fridge for 20 minutes or so.

I picked this out of the fridge and set to making matzo balls.

Luckily, I had read that matzo ball dough is extremely sticky, and I had the foresight to dip my hands in a bowl of cold water.

That’s it! 15 matzo balls, and in retrospect, I should have made them smaller.

Again, I was at a crossroads. Several recipes had said to boil the matzo balls in a separate pot, but I decided to boil them in the chicken stock.

They began to grow almost immediately.

After about 15 minutes, I decided to add the shredded chicken to the pot. I know many recipes call for just a matzo ball in broth, but I like my chicken soup to have chicken damn it!

30 minutes soon passed, and when I opened the lid, I was greeted with this.

Doesn’t look too bad for a goy’s first time does it?

It looks even better in a bowl, and needless to say it was delicious. In fact, my dad and I had two bowls before we decided that we should save some for later.

At the end, I realized that I should use a bigger pot next time. There just wasn’t enough broth for all the chicken and matzo balls. Being in a cooking mood, I decided to get a jump on next time.

The pot on the left features a package of chicken bones, and the one on the right has a whole chicken. Now there are three containers of stock and two containers of chicken meat, ready for the next time someone has a cold, or I just want to make some soup.

Anthony Z's - Madison

As I mentioned in my review of Nick’s, a number of Jackson’s best restaurants are run by Greeks. Anthony Z’s, in Madison, is no exception, and like all good restaurants in Jackson, it has a good bit of history to it.

Anthony Zouboukos, is the son of Mr Zouboukos, the founder of the Elite in downtown Jackson. After the death of this parents, the ownership of the Elite changed hands and in the opinion of many loyal patrons so did the quality. As a result, Anthony founded Anthony Z’s a few years ago.

For any of you who have frequented the Elite, you will notice many of your old favorites in Anthony Z’s, but many of the nuances cannot be replicated. The wait staff at Anthony Z’s is young and prone to error. They lack the know-how and experience of the Elite’s staff, mostly because they haven’t been serving for 30-40 years like the Elite’s employees. Also gone is the familiar diner style interior, replaced with new take on the Zouboukos name.

Although many things are missing, Anthony has done his best to replicate the menu.

The beloved yeast rolls are in abundance, but they are missing some intangible ingredient. Rumor has it that Mr. Zouboukos took the recipe with him to the grave. As good as Anthony has done with the rolls, each table sorely misses the house dressing in a bottle.

When you order the house salad:

You get a taste of the wonderful dressing, along with crisp iceberg lettuce and fresh cucumber slices.

Greek owned restaurants in Jackson have some of the best shrimp in town, and Anthony Z’s follows suite.

With an appetizer portion of fried shrimp, you get a plate of cornmeal crusted and butterflied shrimp. The shrimp have a delightfully crunchy crust and are well complimented by the tartar sauce.

The main attraction of Anthony Z’s is familiarity, and for me that means the hamburger steak.

It’s a simple dish, nothing more than a large hamburger patty smothered in onions and brown gravy, but it was my favorite dish at the Elite when I was growing up. Anthony’s take on the dish delivers the same satisfaction, although the dish is missing the rice and gravy side to which I am accustomed.

My buddy and webmaster, Sam, choose his favorite Elite dish, the veal cutlet.

Again nothing too fancy, a simple breaded cutlet in cream gravy, this is a trademark dish of the Elite. I thought that it was a faithful reproduction of the downtown classic, Sam differed in his opinion. Sam summarized that this was a good dish, but the Elite’s was just better.

What can you really say about Anthony Z’s? On its own, Anthony Z’s is a fine restaurant and is sure to become a fixture of the Madison landscape, but it is its own worst enemy. By trying to recreate the old Elite, Anthony Zouboukos has set an unachievable standard. No matter what he does, he can never attain the 50+ years of meals and memories that his parents had at the Elite. Still, I will continue to be a patron of Anthony Z’s and remember the days when the Elite was run by Mr. and Mrs. Zouboukos.

Anthony Z's on Urbanspoon

Chili Redux

Chili really is an enigma, there’s no such thing as a standard recipe. As I wrote before in Chili, An American Pastime, my chili changes every time. This instance is no different.

I was asked by my mother to make a batch of chili for our Vicksburg branch, and I was told that they love spicy food. To me, that meant free rein on the heat with peppers aplenty. Using whatever was at hand, I set to work on my batch of fire breathing chili.

First up, cascabel, New Mexico, and tien tsin peppers were all placed in a bowl of hot water to rehydrate. I’ve used New Mexico peppers a number of times before, and I seem to have a lot of packages of dried one lying around the kitchen, so that explains that one. The cascabel was a new one to me. In fact, I only knew of it because Mr. Brown used dried cascabels in his recipe for chili powder. They seemed to provide a nice flavor. And of course, the wild card of the bunch, the tien tsin peppers. I actually bought these from the Spice House website to use in stir fry, but there were so few left, I decided to use them in the chili.

It’s amazing how different this brisket looks from the one from Flying M Farm. That’s a solid fat cap; I suppose it’s a product of industrial beef. My guinea pig/webmaster, Mr. Sam, said that the meat was still tasty in this batch but lacked the quality of the free range batch. I had to agree, but it’s hard to get a hold of beef like that on a regular basis.

To give this chili a real kick in the ass, I tried to pull out the big guns. Enter the home grown habaneros. These are the ones that have frozen in liquid nitrogen, and they seem to have held up remarkably well.

It may seem like a redundancy, but I’ve found that charring peppers imparts a subtle smoky flavor to the chili. The reason I say redundant is that these are fresh New Mexico chilies in addition to the rehydrated ones. Oh well, it’s my chili and I’ll do as I damn well please.

That’s a good char. If you don’t have a gas range, you can do this in the oven, but it’s not as much fun.

Much the same greenery as before, bell peppers, jalapenos, garlic, the dried peppers, the charred ones, and onion, as with the spices.

I wanted to include this picture as a comparison to the bowl of free range brisket. The visual differences are subtle, but the taste is where it really counts.

Chipotles in adobo is an ingredient that I was using back when I started this recipe a few years ago, but it’s one of those things that slips my mind every time. If you’re going to make your own chili, you have to give these a try. They just smoked jalapenos in a sauce, but it’s a great addition to any chili, and one that you and your guest will appreciate.

I have no reason to put this in here, other than I like a picture of seared beef. Salt pepper, beef, and oil meet in a hot pan and make magic.

Now here is a major difference from other chilis, the reintroduction of shiner bock. I used a 99 helles shiner in my last recipe, and while it had its own qualities, the king of chili will always be shiner bock in my mind. I has that perfect flavor to complement the spices and beef.

A second major difference in this batch is the issue of beef stock. I didn’t have any in a carton, and so I used my mother’s trick of boiling beef trimmings for a half hour to get a quick and easy beef stock. I suppose it does pay to save the trimmings.

That’s full of beefy goodness.

The end of day one, and it came together quite nicely.

Aside from a few major changes in the liquids, this batch was remarkably similar to the first posted batch, but I expected that. Each instance of this recipe will bring its own subtle nuances to the table and this one delivered a richer flavor but with a slightly lesser cut of beef. Mr. Sam and I did to come a startling conclusion though, freezing peppers saps away some of their heat. Even though I used five habaneros, seeds and all, the heat wasn’t overwhelming. While that may have allowed all of the other flavors to truly shine through, I was a little disappointed. Still, I know that next time the results will be different once again, and I’m looking forward to that.