Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Taste of the Island - Jackson

It’s not often that new restaurants open in downtown Jackson, so I was seriously intrigued when I saw a different restaurant’s Styrofoam containers at the office. After a few quick questions, I was delighted to find out there was a new Caribbean style restaurant on Capitol Street. The next day, I called my buddy Sam to join me for an exploratory lunch. Sure, we were deviating from our bacon cheeseburger quest, but how can you turn down jerk chicken?

After finding parking and claiming one of the four tables, we took a good look at the menu. With less than 10 entrée choices, it’s not an overwhelming menu. However, after some recommendations and being told that they didn’t have jerk ribs on Tuesday, we decided to try three different items.

First up was the curry shrimp.

What a precious start to a meal. Although the shrimp were on the small side, each bite was full of delightful curry flavor. The shrimp did have a nice level of heat, nothing too excessive.

Sam and I soon made short work of the delicious, little shrimp. However, we can’t forget the bok choy.

Richard Higgins, the co-owner, wanted to make sure we knew what bok choy was before. With a childhood of Chinese cuisine under my belt, I had a good concept of the vegetable. Unfortunately, this bok choy was boiled down and had little flavor. I prefer the Asian style with its high heat and full flavors, but this was the sole low point of Taste of the Island.

Starting second in our Tuesday lineup was the jerk chicken.

I had great expectations for the jerk chicken and at first I was little disappointed in a slightly dry chicken breast, but the thick and delicious sauce more than made up for it.

Seriously, the jerk sauce is a potent mixture. At first you think there’s nothing too spicy about it, but if you dip the chicken to the bottom of the container, you’ll get a full dose of heat.

It took the suggestions of Chandra Higgins (wife of Richard and the other co-owner) and my urging before Sam would give the last Tuesday entrée a fair shake.

Oxtails are an underrated dish, but the Higgins worked magic with this simple cut of meat. Each bite of the meat was rich, tender, and had been cooked a smooth and buttery consistency.

Oddly, the oxtail had been cooked with huge, but tasty butter beans. Butter beans aside, the red beans and rice beneath the meat featured the best beans of the dish. I’m not sure what sort of flavors were at work here, but the red beans and rice had a certain richness that only comes from slow cooking with a good stock.

Normally, this would be the end, but Sam and I were so enticed by the thought of jerk ribs, we came back for lunch on Friday. Unfortunately, we got there too late, and all the ribs and all the meat pies were gone. Hoping to drown our sorrows, we decided to order pretty much everything else on the menu.

Our first choice for that Friday was a Wednesday and Friday special, curry goat.

I realize that some people might be turned off by the idea of eating goat, but you’ve got to give this dish a chance. Sure the meat was little chewy, but it was bursting with a rich, meaty flavor. Complimenting the goat was the great curry sauce, again nothing too hot, just very good. I love how most of the meats are served on the bone at Taste of the Island. Not only does it give each dish a little more flavor, it’s a nice rustic approach to food.

After the curry goat was….another curry, this time curry chicken.

I like that all three of the curry dishes have different color sauces. It’s comforting to know that the Higgins aren’t just slapping one curry sauce on all the different meats. Anyway, this curry chicken was served on the bone and was a little more cumbersome to eat the goat. However the lighter texture and taste of chicken gave more room for the curry heat and flavor to grow, a definite plus for the chicken.

While waiting on our third entrée, Sam and I began talking to Chandra about what else they had to offer. Since we had missed the meat pies, Chandra was more than generous and started to bake another batch of pies. After looking over the menu, Sam and I realized the only entrée we hadn’t ordered was the brown stew chicken. Again Chandra was to the rescue.

Richard described how he cooked the chicken and I immediately recognized it was a fricassee. Needless to say, it was an extremely rich born sauce that was only let down by breast meat. Too much sitting in a steamer tray had turned this chicken dry and stringy. I’m willing to bet this would be better with dark meat, and if it had been made fresh for that day.

Until this point, every entrée had been under $8, but now it’s time for the final and most expensive dish, the red snapper. At $12, it may seem pricy by comparison, but look at what you get.

I told Chandra to surprise us and as a result our snapper was steamed, and what a presentation. I can only imagine the scene this would cause if you tried to eat it at your desk. Digging in, I was delighted to find the meat lightly flavored and well cooked, if maybe a little dry in parts. Still there was loads of okra, onion, green peppers, and tomatoes, all lending a hand to flavor the fish. Even though it was a little tedious to eat due to so many small bones, it was well worth the effort.

Maybe it was lethargy, or maybe Sam and I were enjoying our lunch too much, but we had been there long enough for the meat pies to cook.

Fresh out of the oven, Chandra serves each meat pie in a paper bag, and at only $2.95 there’s a lot of pie to be had. Doing my best to cut in half, Sam and I each took a piece.

It’s like a small pool of beefy lava. I should have known better but I went straight for the kill and burned my mouth in the process. Still, Sam and I were delighted by the flavors of the beef patty. I tasted hints of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg and they were fantastic. So, the fresh patties were hugely hot, messy to eat, but delicious and well worth the wait.

Having tried practically everything on the menu, I can say with full confidence that Taste of the Island is an excellent establishment. Not only are Richard and Chandra Higgins gracious hosts, they serve a fine slice of the Caribbean that has been sorely missing from the Jackson area. I only hope that the word spreads and the Higgins experience the success they deserve, I know I’ll be back soon.

Taste of the Island on Urbanspoon

Mayflower Cafe - Jackson

Slowly but surely, I’m making my rounds of the downtown Jackson icons. Next up is the Mayflower Café, a part of the Jackson landscape since the mid 1930’s. Known for fresh seafood, you should have no problem finding the Mayflower Cafe as its neon light up Capitol Street.

Unfortunately, they look pretty derelict during the daylight hours.

It’s been a while since I paid a visit to the Mayflower, mainly due to a number of incidents involving added tips on my bill, but it’s a new day.

The first thing I order is the seafood gumbo. I love trying different gumbos and the gumbo at the Mayflower had promise. At first glance, it had a rich, dark color and a fair amount of rice and shrimp. However, once I actually tasted the gumbo, I was disappointed by the lack of depth in the flavor. There were strangely large chunks of green bell pepper and okra, and tiny pieces of odd sausage. It wasn’t andouille, I know that much. After digging through the bowl, I couldn’t find anything besides shrimp. I figured there would be a token crab claw or piece of fish, but nothing. Still, there was a nice bit of residual cayenne heat, but overall it wasn’t really that great an example of gumbo.

As part of my entrée, I was brought a house salad.

There’s too special about the salad, sure there were a few olives and nice chunk of feta cheese, but the real feature is the house comeback dressing.

Like The Elite down the way, the Mayflower is known for their comeback, and one I poured a little on the salad, it all came together.

While the salad is good, the best way to enjoy the comeback is over crackers. This way you can really appreciate just how thick, spicy, and delicious this mayo based dressing really is.

Before I could fill up on comeback and crackers, the waitress arrived with my entrée.

The redfish Orleans is simply a redfish fillet with a sautéed soft shell crab. To make things more enticing, both are soaking in a liberal amount of the Mayflower’s seafood sauce.

Instead of a baked potato or French fries, I went with one of the daily vegetables. I loved the little flecks of pork in the green beans, but I was put off the odd taste and texture of the beans. Also, there was a surprising lack of pork flavor, even with the chunks of pork that littered the bowl.

More important than the green beans was the seafood, and the soft shell was pan fried, crispy and really soaking up that seafood sauce. Needless to say it was delicious, although the crab was a little on the small side.

Before enjoying the redfish, I tried to figure out what was in the seafood sauce. My best guess is a mixture of oil, butter, lemon and Worcestershire sauce. Anyway, the redfish was an extremely well cooked piece of fish. With crisp edges and a crisp interior, the only real downside to this dish was it had taken on a little too much lemon flavor of the seafood sauce.

It was nice to be back at the Mayflower Café as it really is one of the better choices for seafood in Jackson. In addition to well prepared dishes, the wait staff was friendly, prompt, and made for a quick and easy lunch. Thankfully there wasn’t any tampering with the tip line of my credit card. It looks like Mayflower might just be back in my rotation of Jackson lunch spots.

Mayflower Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Epic Bacon Cheeseburger Quest Part 6 - Mugshots Grill - Jackson

It’s been a while since Sam and I have made a stop on our quest for the best bacon cheeseburger in Jackson, but the release of Mississippi Magazine’s “best of” issue was just the impetus we needed. In that issue, the fine people of Mississippi voted Mugshots as having the best burgers in the state. Wanting to see for ourselves, Sam and I met at the Mugshots off Lakeland.

After being led to our table by the waitress, I couldn’t help but notice how much this felt like a college bar. Maybe it’s the mostly college locations (Jackson, Hattiesburg, Starkville, Tuscaloosa), or the prominent stage, but I felt like I needed to find my frat letters and order a mug of something domestic, light, and cold.

Atmosphere aside, Sam quickly pointed out our target. Named the Savell, this burger features an 8oz patty of ground round. Dressed with hickory smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, mayo, lettuce, tomato, and red onion, this burger sounded right up our alley.

I was immediately a fan of the presentation. For only 8 ounces, the Savell seemed like a large burger with an even larger bun.

Taking a look under the bun, I was happy to see well melted cheese and a few slices of tasty looking bacon.

Looks aren’t everything, so we dug in. The first thing I noticed was just how cumbersome the bun was. There seemed to be half a loaf of bread wrapped around this piece of beef. Sam made the keen observation that the bun was sugary, yet bland. We both agreed this would be better with a classic sesame seed bun.

Unfortunately, our problems with the bun persisted.

With more bread than burger, it was surprising when this burger ban to slide apart with ease. I found the best way to actually taste the patty was to ditch the bottom of the bun. Moving on to the bacon, it had a nice bit of hickory flavor, but each strip was too thin and was quickly lost in the mélange of bread and burger.

Once we finished, we both agreed there was simply too much mayo on the burger. There seemed to be almost as much mayo as there was bread. On a higher note, Mugshots serves some pretty tasty fries with their burgers. With a mix of crispy and not so crispy potatoes, my only real complaint was the uneven distribution of the great seasoning.












It was nice to be back on the hunt for Jackson’s best bacon cheeseburger, but like their choice of Amerigo for best Italian, I think the readers of Mississippi Magazine missed their mark here. I’ll admit, we were both fascinated with the challenge of “The Mugshot”. With 3 seasoned patties, 6 strips of bacon, cheddar and swiss cheese, mayo, mustard, lettuce, onion on the burger and beer battered fries, onion rings and a beer battered pickle, “The Mugshot” has to be finished in 12 minutes or less or you’re in the hole for $20. That’s quite a challenge, but Sam and I had our own challenge, and unfortunately, Mugshots is an unlikely choice for best bacon cheeseburger. They produce a solid burger, but I’ll wager it’s far from best in the state.

Mugshots Grill on Urbanspoon

The Auditorium - Jackson

In the past few years, the Fondren neighborhood has undergone a significant change. The latest product of this transformation is the re-emergence of the Duling School building. No longer an elementary school, the Duling building is now home to various boutiques, a salon, and the Auditorium. Literally situated in the former auditorium of the Duling School, the Auditorium hopes to be “redefining the dining experience in Mississippi”. Always looking for a new place to eat, I paid the Auditorium a visit for lunch.

As soon as you walk into the restaurant, you can’t help but notice the Peavey sound stage. I’m not sure if Peavey sponsors the Auditorium or if the restaurant spent a ton of money, but they seem to have the whole Peavey catalogue on one state.

While I was admiring the stage, my friendly waiter stopped by and took my order. In no time at all, the first appetizer arrived.

I’m always interested to see how each restaurant approaches the simple onion ring, and the Auditorium had gone for the extra small, extra crispy approach. While I enjoyed the crunch, I kept searching any real onion taste. Eventually, I did find a larger ring that had enough flavor to overcome the dominating batter. In addition to the standard Heinz ketchup, the onion rings came with a two small bowls of comeback and ranch. The comeback really complimented the onion rings, while the ranch was too vinegary to enjoy. Oddly enough, the best way to eat these onion rings is with plain ketchup. Score one for Pittsburgh.

There’s something more interesting than onion rings and that’s gumbo. I’ll admit it’s always hard to resist the call of smoked chicken and andouille sausage gumbo.

Even though I liked the presentation, I was worried about how watery the gumbo looked.

Fortunately, the Auditorium hadn’t skimped on the proteins. Diving in headfirst, there was a pleasant bit of cayenne kick, but the gumbo was lacking. I realized that this gumbo lacked the depth of a labor intensive dark roux. It’s a shame, the gumbo had good potential.

Luckily, there were soon plenty of entrees to divert my attention.

First up was the stuffed crab platter with diced fries, hushpuppies, and coleslaw. It’s great to see that the Auditorium doesn’t skimp on stuffing. The stuffed crabs were completely full of big, lump crabmeat. In fact they were nearly overflowing. Unfortunately, someone in the kitchen had been overzealous with the lemons as every bite was overpoweringly tart.

When the menu read smoked chicken breast, I was expecting a paltry boneless, skinless piece of meat that was dry and overcooked.

The kitchen at the Auditorium had something else in mind. Essentially a half chicken that had been smoked with a combination of hickory and pecan, this was a well flavored fowl. Each bite was deliciously moist, coated with a great bbq sauce and not at all overpowered by the smoke. Hoping for the same magic with the fries, I was disappointed to find the diced fries to be too salty, even for French fries.

Even with the crab and chicken, there was room for a southern favorite.

The Auditorium’s shrimp and grits feature their “signature bbq shrimp” served on smoked gouda grits. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot going on. Hoping to get a taste of each component, I tried the cheese grits first. Alone, the grits are bland and lacking any real cheesy taste, but with the sauce in the middle of the bowl, they are absolutely dynamite. Moving to the shrimp, I was delighted to find them well cooked, but to be honest, the best part of the dish was the ham, mushrooms and the sauce. Literally swimming with well seasoned butter, I knew there were few if any healthy aspects to this dish, but all together it was superb.

While wrapping up the meal, I was able to recount the various parts of my meal at The Auditorium. Sure there had been some marvelous high points such as the shrimp & grits and the smoked chicken, but there had been some real lows as well. The Auditorium has some real potential, but there are some definite kinks in their system. Luckily, the amicable wait staff eased any pains, but I still have mixed feelings. Maybe a second visit would give me a more definite footing, but that will have to wait.

Auditorium on Urbanspoon