Wednesday, May 26, 2010

F. Jones Corner - Jackson

It usually takes some convincing for me to head down to Farish Street. I know its revitalization has been a part of the Jackson ideal for quite some time, but it’s still not a place I would hang out. That being said there are a few food related reasons to head to Farish Street. First is Peaches, the soul food bastion, second is Big Apple Inn, home of Pig Ear sandwiches and pretty good hot tamales, the third reason is a new one to me, F. Jones Corner.

Actually F. Jones corner has been open for more than a year, but I figured it would quickly fade into the landscape. However in the past few months I’ve been hearing more and more about F. Jones being the late night location in Jackson. With that in mind, it took a coupon and lunch with a friend before I actually ventured to Farish Street for lunch.

F. Jones Corner looks small from the outside and inside is no different. A dozen or so tables fill the floor space, but the center of attention is the stage at the end. Two of the three times I’ve been to F. Jones, there’s been an act on the stage, ranging from a 2 man combo to a single man on the fiddle and guitar.

Looking through the single page menu, it at first looks to be standard fried bar food, but looking a little deeper reveals a few surprises. First in the appetizer section is the Fried Gritz.

Yes, fried grits, it’s that southern favorite made even healthier by a quick dip in hot grease. Truth be told they are a little salty, but you quickly forget that as each bite confirms just how delicious and addictive these little blocks are. The only thing that bothered me about this dish was a dipping sauce. For some reason, I had the insatiable urge to dip these in some sort of sauce. It took a little trial and error but I eventually decided that bbq sauce or mustard worked the best.

The second appetizer that Kate and I shared was called Chili Pie.

F. Jones Corner may call it Chili Pie, but this is that old Texas favorite, Frito Pie, in all of its cheesy, crunchy, and slightly spicy goodness. The chili is pretty plain jane, the cheese is simple shredded cheddar and the Fritos are straight from the bag, but it all works beautifully.

This is simple comfort food and it’s begging for a cold, winter night.

Seeing as I’m always on the hunt for a quality burger, I decided to try out the F’n Burger.

Served on a chiabatta bun and dressed with cheese and caramelized onions, the burger is a student of the smashed burger school of thought.

That smashed effect pays off as you can see the caramelized patches that form a crispy crust that you can only achieve on a griddle. One thing this burger is lacking is a little extra salt in the meat. However with the toasted bun, the caramelized onions, and that griddle sear, this is a quality burger that only needs a little tweaking.

Apparently once at F. Jones Corner wasn’t good enough. So a few days later, before his overseas departure, I convinced Sam to join me for lunch at F. Jones. At first he was just as skeptical about the location as I was, but I was surprised when he said he had been to a Late Night at F. Jones before and it was packed.

One thing Sam hadn’t tried was the food. After introducing him to the glory of fried gritz, Sam wanted to try their Fried Pickles.

Fried pickles are something I rarely encounter, at least rarely outside of a chicken on a stick, but after these pickles, I might have to seek them out more often. The menu describes them perfectly “crispy, hot, and sour”. I wasn’t really sold on the ranch dressing accompaniment and there were more pickles than either one of us could handle, but these are still a solid appetizer for the pickle lover.

As far as entrees, Sam went for the F’n Burger, but his was a little different than mine from before. He went with a side of sweet potato fries in lieu of the regular.

Sam said these were the best sweet potato fries he’s ever had. I found them perfectly cooked and quite tasty but with an odd feature. It wasn’t until the very end of each bite that I actually taste sweet potato.

Per a recommendation, I went for something different this time, the Pulled Pork Sandwich.

At first I was a little confused, the menu says they used Lumpkin’s Signature smoked pork but something looked odd.

That looks like pork that’s been on a griddle. After asking the server, I was given the background. Apparently F. Jones has their own jalapeno rub they use on pork shoulders that are then smoked in Lumpkin’s open smoker. The meat is pulled and then reheated on the griddle, hence the grilled marked crust.

Dressed with some of the house bbq sauce, you get a great pork sandwich. You first get the crunchy toasted top of the bun, the juicy and slightly greasy pork, and a completely soaked bottom bun. Each bite is a real pork sandwich crescendo. Honestly, the peppery pork, the bun, the jalapeno rub, the sauce, all combine to make one of the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve had.

Third time back at F. Jones Corner and I know exactly what I want. Since the first day, I’ve had my eye on the F’n Crab Burger. “A ½ pound crab cake seared to perfection with zesty aioli” sounds quite promising.

Well, at this point it looks just like all the other sandwiches.

Underneath the bun, there is a huge crab cake complete with caramelized onions, lettuce, and aioli. Going for the first bite, I make a humorous discovery. The second you try to bite this sandwich; the crab cake flattens like a pancake.

Even flattened, this is a well fried and spicy crab cake. A real nice feature is the aioli. It avoids the pitfalls of many remoulades, aiolis, and sauces in general by complimenting the crab cake not overpowering it. Yes there is a decent amount of filler in the crab cake, but you’d have to be daft to expect a full ½ lb of lump crabmeat for 10 dollars.

I had wanted to make this a seafood afternoon, but transportation was working against me. F. Jones Corner hadn’t received their shipment of catfish that day, so looking for something else I went with the Chicken Fingers.

I don’t like to end on a sour note, but these chicken fingers were the worst thing I ate at F. Jones Corner. These weren’t bad chicken fingers, they were a little juicy and thickly battered but they were bland and a little ordinary. I expect this from some mediocre sports bar, not F. Jones Corner.

Well, what can I say? In a few short visits, F. Jones Corner has quickly gone from that random place on Farish Street to one of my favorite downtown restaurants. The people are friendly, the music is good, and the food has been delicious. I may not make it to late night as often as I’d like but at least I know I’m only a short drive from fried grits.

F. Jones Corner on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sophia’s Restaurant – Culinary Tour – Tour of Spain

Despite being a slowly dying industry, newspapers still prove themselves to be quite useful. For instance a few Sundays ago, I picked up a copy of the Clarion Ledger and happened to see an article about a culinary tour. Seeing as I am interested in anything culinary, I read further to find that The Fairview Inn’s Sophia’s Restaurant is holding a monthly culinary tour. The idea is that two nights a month the restaurant will feature a menu that represents the cuisine of a certain country. Unfortunately, I had missed the first stop, Italy but last Friday I drove to Sophia’s Restaurant to see their take on Spanish cuisine.

Apparently the article had created quite a buzz as the restaurant was decently full by 6:30. Taking a look at the menu, I saw a pretty basic overview of Spanish cuisine, but I didn’t expect an in depth examination from one meal. I had to choose four courses from a choice of five. I immediately made the carnivorous decision and eschewed the salad plate for something a little more beefy.

The first course arrived under the guise of a Tapas course with a Montsarra Cava.

Not exactly what I expected from Tapas, but with a Shrimp Croquette, Asparagus wrapped in Serrano ham, and Galician Scallops au Gratin, it was quite a nice introduction.

Going for the scallops first, I was immediately a fan of the well flavored au Gratin topping. The scallops were slightly overcooked but they were quite nice and a little garlicky.

Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables and it can only be made better by wrapping it in cured pork, but these spears were a disappointing part of the dish. It seemed like the asparagus had been steamed without any seasoning and then wrapped in barely cooked Serrano ham.

The Shrimp Croquette, after the first bite immediately reminded me of a callas. There was no real visible shrimp meat inside, but there was plenty of shrimp flavor. The red pepper aioli was a wonderful complement and really made the croquette the star of the plate.

Primer Plato or the second course to me came with a choice of Beef Carpaccio with Manchego Cheese or Basque Crab Casserole. As I mentioned earlier, I went for the beef.

What immediately surprised me was the lack of any sear. I know that Beef Carpaccio is thinly sliced, raw tenderloin but to get past U.S. standards it usually has be seared to kill any nasty bits.

Served with a basil aioli, I was annoyed to discover that the aioli completely dominated the dish. Either the beef was flavorless or it was obscured by the aioli. Even the hearty Manchego cheese was absent from the flavor profile.

At least the drink for the course, a Homemade red wine Sangria, was pretty tasty.

The third course was titled Pollo & Pescados and presented the choice of a Paella Valenciana, a Grouper Basque Style, or a Chicken Garibaldi, all with a glass of Tres Picos Garnacha. Seeing as Paella simply does not exist in Jackson, I knew that would be my choice.

Well, they certainly don’t skimp on the amount of protein in this dish. With mussels, shrimp, clams, oysters, crab, chicken, and chorizo on the menu description, there were a lot of flavors at work here.

There might have been oysters, crab, and chorizo on the menu, but I certainly didn’t see any. In fact, all I really found was saltiness. Yes, the chicken was overcooked, but I’d overlook that. However, the saltiness was too much and there was no proper way to enjoy this. On the plus side, the seafood was all well cooked, there was sofrito in the dish, and it was generally a good effort, but that saltiness….. It makes me wonder if they used a canned broth.

Dessert, the last course, came under the name Postre, and with a choice of Valencia Orange Flan or Warm Rice Pudding, I went with the flan and the accompanying Alveas Cream Sherry, Montilla.

You can’t help but notice the playful look of the caramel, but digging past that I found this to be a well made flan. Syrupy with a subtle orange flavor, it was a nice ending to the dinner, or so I thought.

The waitress brought a cup of the Warm Rice Pudding with Raisins and Cinnamon by mistake. Not wanting to let it go to waste, I gave it a try. There was plenty of cinnamon and plenty of raisins, but I don’t understand the appeal of rice pudding. I felt like I was eating well flavored baby food. However, as unappealing at that was, the Sherry trumped that. It was simply too sweet for me to enjoy it at all.

So what were the final impressions of Sophia’s Restaurant Spanish stop on their Culinary Tour? Well, there were some definite hiccups specifically the asparagus and the saltiness of the paella, but overall it was a pleasant meal. Granted, I might be giving Sophia the benefit of the doubt. Why? I’m giving them slack simply because they’re trying something different and with future meals from France, Greece, India, Argentina, Germany, and New Zealand, I look forward to their takes on these very distinct cuisines.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Petra Cafe - Clinton

It’s not often that I make my way out to Clinton, but when Sam and I were looking for a lunch spot, I couldn’t think of a better time to pay a visit to Petra Café. I’m not exactly sure when Petra moved from their Old Canton location, but I believe this is the third incarnation of the restaurant. According to their website, Petra Café opened on Old Canton in June 2008. I’m not sure why, but the restaurant was originally named Sphinx; I remember eating there a number of times in 2007 and early 2008. Regardless of past locations and names, owner Ayman Al-Bataineh and his café have setup shop in Clinton and I aimed to see if the food was still up to snuff.

Seeing as I had a voracious dining companion, I had no qualms delving right into a variety of appetizers, but first a lovely beverage.

Sure it was 80 something degrees outside, but it’s never a bad time for Arabic coffee.

There’s a real richness to the crema in that coffee pot.

The glasses may not be as traditional as the coffee put but the flavor was excellent. There was a distinct cardamom flavor, a beautiful color and most importantly, no separating.

Since it was such nice weather, we decided to sit outside on the shaded porch. While that made for a lovely lunch setting, the shadows did wreck havoc on some of my pictures. Anyway, the first appetizer to the table was an order of falafel.

Those look almost hand made or at least not pre-frozen.

While these were a quality example of falafel, they were quite greasy.

Greasiness aside, these were delectable patties. Each bite was full of a great nutty flavor and that green wasn’t just for show. There was plenty of parsley inside. The accompanying tzatziki sauce was a nice touch, its yogurt base cut through some of the grease of the falafel.

One of my favorite Mediterranean dishes is fried haloumi cheese.

Despite the name, I’ve never seen deep fried haloumi cheese.

Usually slices of the cheese are pan fried with garlic and olive oil, but this adds a layer of texture to the dish that I wasn’t expecting. Actually this dish was quite salty and I found the lack of garlic and parsley to be a little annoying. While I like the idea of deep frying the haloumi, I’m a fan of the more typical presentation and its juicier approach.

Another favorite, fried kibbeh, rounded out our appetizers.

Much like Jerusalem Café, Petra apparently favors the single large bomb shape kibbeh.

Unlike Jerusalem, this kibbeh was well seasoned and quite tasty. Well fried on the outside and juicy on the interior, Sam and I were taking guesses at the spices they used. I could pick out allspice and cinnamon. Unfortunately there was no real evidence of garlic. Still this is a pretty good kibbeh.

One of the real selling points of Petra Café is the personality. Ayman runs a very customer oriented business and was constantly checking on us and chatting to see how things were and to make the meal more pleasant. On the other hand, I can’t say the service at Petra was quick. After the appetizers there was a significant lull before the entrees appeared.

When the entrees did appear, the grilled meats came on one platter.

On the left is the Kafta Kabob and on the left the Beef Shawarma.

Looking to the Shawarma first, I found each piece to have a huge, beefy flavor but not much else.

I even found the Shawarma to be overcooked, but Sam was raving about how good these were. Maybe that’s a subtle difference in an American and Arab-American palate?

As much as I was uninspired by the Beef Shawarma, I was in love with the Kafta Kabobs.

Ayman had proudly told us this lamb was ground fresh for these skewers. I don’t know if that’s the secret but these are some of the best kafta I’ve had. Each bite was beyond juicy and full of parsley. Oddly there wasn’t much onion or garlic or least that I could see. Still, the kofta alone was worth the trip.

That should have been enough for lunch, but when I saw Hummus with Lamb on the menu, I knew I had to try it. Truthfully, I wanted to see if this version was any different from what Jerusalem Café sold as “Israeli Hummus”.

Well, it’s amazing how good a dish can be when you use quality lamb. What had been a throw away dish at Jerusalem was one of my favorites here. It’s that combination of big, tender chunks of lamb and creamy hummus that made me use the entire basket of pita bread.

There aren’t many choices for Mediterranean food in Jackson, well not very many good choices. I’ve really found that each location has a few dishes they do well and a number they do on a poor to mediocre scale. Petra Café is no exception to this rule. They do serve dishes that are average at best, but I’ve yet to have a completely poor dish at any of Ayman’s restaurants. Even better, Petra does a number of things quite well, and I wouldn’t hesitate to make the drive just for the Kofta Kabob, but a side of Hummus with Lamb never hurts. So make the drive to Clinton, enjoy some lamb, and a bowl of shisha. Finish it off with some quality coffee and you’ll wonder why you don’t do this more often.

Petra Cafe Address & Information
104 West Leake Street, Clinton, MS 39056 // 601.925.0016 // Petra Cafe Website

Petra Cafe on Urbanspoon