Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Blue Rooster - Flora

It’s a common conundrum; where should we eat? Kate was out of town, so it was up to Alvin and me to find something to eat. Of course the usual suspects, Thai, Sushi, gyros, are thrown out there, but I wanted something different. I wanted something substantial, I wanted something beefy; enter The Blue Rooster in Flora, Mississippi.

The Blue Rooster has actually been on my list of places to visit for months, but I’ve used it’s location as a convenient excuse. Even though Flora is only a 15 minute drive from Madison, I never think of going there for dinner. Well, it was time to change that. So Alvin and I hit highway 49 and went looking for The Blue Rooster.

After navigating the “expansive” downtown of Flora, we found roadside parking and made our way into The Blue Rooster. It’s not a large restaurant by any means; I think max capacity was 45. With a mix of booths, barstool tables, and sport paraphernalia, I could see this being a decent place to watch a game, minus the obscenely large tube tvs.

Anyway, appetizers were ordered and soon brought to the table.

Alvin’s Fried Dill Pickle Spears were the first appetizers. Served with a choice of ranch or Hollerback (I assume it’s their take on comeback), this pickles had a really nice breading. Well seasoned and well fried, they went perfectly with the ranch.

For some reason I can’t quite remember, I decided that it was a good idea to order the egg rolls, Asian style. I completely ignored the fact it was the only Asian thing on the menu. At the time it made sense to order eggrolls at a burger joint.

Well, here they are, and I have to admit, they are well fried.

Actually these struck me as the best buffet eggroll I’ve ever had. Yes, the filling was all cabbage. Yes, there wasn’t a lot of meat, but they weren’t greasy and the wrapper was crispy.

I will make fun of the dipping sauce. This is nothing much than a small cup of La Choy soy sauce with a few chili flakes thrown in. There’s nothing like soy less soy sauce from Middle America to make you feel extra vanilla.

Moving past the appetizers, it’s time for The Blue Rooster’s raison d’etre, the burgers. Alvin’s burger made the first appearance; this burger is called The Big Nasty.

This is an aptly named burger. With two patties, sautéed onions, bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and pepper jack cheese on a jalapeno cheddar bun, it was a beast of a sandwich. All the right things were here, the patties were big and thankfully full of beefy flavor. I didn’t get to try much of Alvin’s burger, but his one complaint was the bacon’s flavor was nonexistent.

For my burger, I went for something with a more subtle name, The Flame Thrower.

Actually when I ordered the burger, I was a little confused about the description. “A hamburger patty with sirloin steak, sautéed onions and jalapeno peppers, ranch, and pepper jack cheese on a jalapeno cheddar bun”. I had no idea how the sirloin steak fit into the equation.

Opening the burger, I found that the sirloin steak comes chopped, undoubtedly the same steak they use in their Philly Steak & Cheese.

Once I figured out how to handle this behemoth, I found it to be a huge, greasy, juicy, and frankly delicious burger. The patty was beefy on its own but with the addition of sirloin steak, the burger only got better. I was worried that so many toppings would muddle the flavors, but in practice I found that The Flame Thrower was a beautiful mélange of flavors, but the beef was still king.

It’s hard to have a good burger without a side of quality fries. Thankfully, The Blue Rooster delivers on that as well.

The fries are battered and delightfully crisp.

They were painfully unseasoned but still an excellent accompaniment to my burger.

If you saw a dessert labeled “Funnel Cake Fries”, you’d be interested too. Despite being full to the gills with burger, I convinced Alvin that we needed to try the Funnel Cake Fries, especially after our waitress’ enthusiastic description.

Well, what you see is what you get. It’s funnel cake batter that’s been poured into a fry shape. They were as tasty as funnel cakes get, but there was a serious lack of powdered sugar. I tried them with the optional chocolate sauce and was happy but slightly underwhelmed, especially when I couldn’t decide if it was Hershey’s or Nestle Quick.

It’s hard to make a fair assessment of a restaurant with just one visit. There are so many variables that make up a quality dining experience. There were some long periods of inattentiveness from our waitress, but with a substantial Friday night crowd, it’s understandable. Actually the one thing that bothered me was the lack of spiciness from The Flame Thrower. With jalapeno peppers and a jalapeno cheddar bun, I was expecting a burger with some kick. While it was an excellent burger, I was left wanting that spiciness. Even without a bit of pepper sourced heat, I will not hesitate to make a return visit to The Blue Rooster. Sure, it’s a few minutes drive from Jackson or Madison, but these burgers are some of the best I’ve had in and around Jackson.

The Blue Rooster on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lumpkin's - Jackson

I realize it’s a parody but there are few things that get me more in the mood for bbq than this song. With The BBQ Song, Rhett and Link make a pretty fair assessment about bbq across the South, but I always get hung up on their description of Mississippi. “Pork shoulder is the cut of choice in Mississippi, and they pride themselves on BBQ that’s totally vinegary.” Now, I may be looking a bit too intensely at a song sung by men with fake beards, but it certainly inspired me to seek out some que in Jackson.

Lumpkin’s has been on my “must visit” list since I tried a few of their ribs at the Belhaven Farmer’s Market. Of course that’s been more than two years ago, but reports from other Jackson outlets, Carpe Jackson and Eat Jackson say the bbq is still topnotch. Well, I figured that I’ve been delaying my next bbq post for long enough, so with Sam in tow, we set out to asses the offerings of Lumpkin’s.

One thing that’s been keeping me from visiting Lumpkin’s is their buffet setup. I know that buffets are a Southern favorite, but I’ve had more bad experiences than good with that line of steamer trays. I was even more apprehensive when I saw it was all you can eat for $8. Either Lumpkin’s is operating on a razor thin margin or there’s something iffy about their product.

With our plates in hand, Sam and I made our walk down the buffet line, stopping only to wonder which container was the bbq sauce. A quick question for the cashier answered our question, and we made it to the table to survey the spread.

It’s not a bad sampling for the first plate, but I was most interested in the ribs.

Smoked with hickory wood, they looked the part.

Yes, you can see that wonderful smoke ring. Thankfully the taste was there as well. Truthfully, they were a little greasy but that was overshadowed by the great combination of pork and hickory smoke. Curious about the sauce, I dabbed a rib or two in it and came away completely puzzled. The sauce was sweet, too sweet. It almost tasted like pie filling.

Moving on to the pulled pork, the quality of the bbq continued.

Tender, a little greasy (but it is pork shoulder), and with a more subtle smokiness, the pulled pork was well complimented by the sauce, a much better combination than the ribs. One thing that surprised me was the lack of flavor outside pork and hickory. Most of the time pulled pork has a residual rub flavor, not on every piece but at least some of the crust.

Taking a quick break from bbq, I turned to a piece of fried chicken.

There’s really not much to say here. The chicken, while well fried, was under seasoned and generally underwhelming. Granted, I compare every fried chicken in Mississippi to Mr. D’s at the Lorman Country Store. That might be an unfair comparison, but I will say that Lumpkin’s makes a pretty solid fried chicken. It’s not something I’d drive 3 hours to eat, but not bad for around the corner.

You might be wondering what this charred nugget is.

Well, when I saw a tray of these on the buffet, I was floored. I suspected this to be a burnt end from the brisket. You just don’t see these very often, and for good reason. The burnt ends of bbq brisket are so full of smoky beef goodness that most people shrink in fear at the first bite. I later confirmed that this was a burnt end, but soon found that the people at Lumpkin’s prefer the term caramelized.

The burnt end marked the last piece of the first plate, and with room to spare, Sam and I went back for seconds.

This time I was able to get a taste of the normal cut of brisket.

I’m curious about how Lumpkin’s cuts their briskets. Instead of the long slices I usually see, this were much shorter, almost like the brisket was cut in half or even thirds.

Still, the smoke ring is there and the brisket was fall apart tender, literally. I actually had a hard time getting my first bite; the brisket kept falling apart. One thing I picked up on was how the hickory was much more subtle here than with the pork ribs or even the shoulder. Even though I generally prefer mesquite with my beef bbq, the hickory smoked brisket at Lumpkin’s was excellent. Maybe their claim of best brisket in Mississippi isn’t so far fetched.

Unfortunately all was not well at Lumpkin’s. The mac and cheese was the first of these casualties.

I had tried a spoonful on the first plate and was appalled. When I went for the second plate, a brand new tray was out. Hoping things would be better, I took a helping. There’s just nothing here. The noodles are overcooked, there’s no flavor to the cheese, there’s nothing.

The black eyed peas were next in the misses column.

There’s not much to say about these peas, they were completely forgettable.

I’ll at least end on a slightly sweeter note.

With so much bbq on the buffet, I expected there to be slices of white bread at the end. Instead, there was a big tray of cornbread, and this wasn’t too bad. The cornbread wasn’t dry, but it was oddly sweet. This was like a taste of DC. I’ve never had sweet cornbread this far south.

While making a few to go boxes for coworkers, Sam and I got in a conversation with Monique Davis, the owner of Lumpkin’s. Apparently there’s a perfectly good reason for the vegetables tasting so bland. In an effort to make things healthy, Davis broke the cardinal rule of Southern cooking and left out the pork. I’m a bit perplexed by that idea. I admire her goal of making things healthy but when you serve plain veggies beside a mountain of bbq meat, it seems like you’re shooting your right foot to save the left. Regardless of the vegetables, Lumpkin’s serves up a quality selection of BBQ and is definitely worth a visit.

Lumpkins BBQ on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cooking the Book – The Korean Table – Pork Ribs with Fresh Ginger (Jeyook Kalbi Chim)

The first time I cooked from Taekyung Chung’s “The Korean Table” was to satisfy a craving for Korean bbq, particularly kalbi. An integral part of that recipe was the marinade and that required the construction of a batch of sweet soy base sauce. Since that recipe for kalbi only used 2/3 cup of the 6 cups of sweet soy base, I’ve been occasionally thumbing through “The Korean Table” trying to find another recipe that used the sauce. Well, a few weeks ago, I found one that fit the bill, Pork Ribs with Fresh Ginger or Jeyook Kalbi Chim.

This is not a complicated recipe. Looking through the ingredients and instructions, it seems like a sort of stew, something perfect for winter time. Seeing as it’s a constant 90+ degrees outside, this dish may be a little a seasonal, but I’ll still give it a try.

Oddly the first step to the recipe is to separate your 2 ½ lbs of meaty pork ribs into individual ribs, put them in a large bowl, and cover them with water and let sit for 20 minutes. Apparently this will draw off the excess blood from the ribs.

With the 20 minutes up, the ribs were drained, the soaking liquid thrown away and the ribs added to a large pot.

First 2 ½ cups of water were added to the pot.

Next the sauce ingredients were added in.

The sauce consisted of ¾ cup of the sweet soy base sauce, ½ cup of minced green onion, 2 oz of peeled and thinly sliced ginger, ¼ tsp black pepper, and ½ cup of wine, red or white.

A lid was added to the pot and the whole mixture was brought to a boil. I lowered the heat and simmered the ribs for 30 minutes. This gave me plenty of time to do the rest of the minimal prep work.

30 minutes of simmering later, it was time to look at the ribs.

I’ll be frank, it looks pretty boring.

To add to the stew like consistency, a number of root vegetables were added to the pot.

¾ lb of potatoes cut into 2 inch cubes, 4 carrots peeled and cut into 2 inch pieces, and 7 oz of peeled pearl onions were added to the pot. This was all allowed to simmer for another 10 minutes or until the potatoes were soft.

10 minutes later, as if on cue, the potatoes were ready.

Everything was fished from the pot and I did my best to skim the oil from the surface.

The veggies look pretty well boiled.

For the next 5 to 10 minutes, I put the pot back on medium high and tried to reduce the sauce. However a hungry audience kept me from reducing as much as I wanted.

Here’s the finished product.

It really is a big underwhelming.

Served over white rice, I was a little disappointed in this dish.

In my limited exposure to Korean cuisine, there have been a lot of bold flavors.

There was a nice Asian undertone to the dish, but I really found it to be a little too bland. However the hungry masses disagreed. They declared the dish a rousing success, but agreed it would be better suited for winter.

That’s only two recipes from “The Korean Table” and I can’t say that I’ve been entirely impressed. The kalbi was an outright success, but this dish left me wanting. However, I can see how these ribs would be immediately comforting to someone who was raised on them. Either way, I think the next recipe I try from “The Korean Table” will be more along the lines of Korean bbq.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dogwood - Atlanta

It’s that time again. My sister has decided to move to another apartment. What does that mean? That means eventually the whole family will end up in Atlanta to help. Well, I decided to head over a day early, but come Friday the parents made it to town. After moving the washer and dryer, it was time for dinner. Of course all eyes turned to Jennifer, who immediately suggested Dogwood. It doesn’t take much to persuade me to try a new restaurant, but promises of quality terrines and a grit bar (whatever that is) can only help to seal the deal.

Once we were seated and handed the menu, the grits bar began to make more sense. With Red Mule grits from Athens as a base, you get a choice of three toppings, pork belly & chow-chow, pimento cheese, and crawfish butter. Since pork belly is irresistible, that was my choice.

It certainly looks interesting, like someone put salsa on top of grits and pork chops. The chow-chow was actually quite sweet and served cold.

The pork belly was damn close to perfect. Each piece had a beautiful crust with tender, well cooked meat inside. When you combined the belly with the grits, everything tasted divine. Even with the combo of pork and grits, there didn’t seem to be much cohesion to this dish. Separately the components were excellent, but the chow-chow seemed like an afterthought addition.

Annoyed that the terrines were no longer available, I decided to take out my frustration by ordering the sweetbread appetizer. Pan fried and served with fresh peas, wilted arugula, Benton’s bacon, trumpet mushrooms, sherry brown butter, and a quail egg, this seemed like a very busy dish.

The sweetbreads had a very thick crust, and were actually quick thick on their own. I soon noticed that the sweetbreads had a poor surface to mass ratio. If something’s pan fried, I want more crispy crust than what I got here. Still, they were quite tasty. As for the rest of the dish, the beans were small but uncooked and with a definite bacon taste. Speaking of bacon taste, I was surprised at how subtle the flavor was. Usually Benton’s bacon will completely dominate the dish, but at Dogwood they’ve learned to use it as an accent, and it’s a refreshing detail.

Looking to break my pork addled trend, I took Aaron’s recommendation and ordered the Georgia Trout. Again pan fried, this fish was served with herbal cous cous and a blistered tomato vinaigrette.

Well the skin of the trout was definitely crispy from the pan frying but the meat was dangerously close to overcooked.

Actually the fish seemed to be missing something and it quickly took a backseat to the cous cous and vinaigrette. The cous cous was creamy and full of lemon flavor, and that vinaigrette.

I’d love to know how this was done because the lemon from the cous cous and that subtlety of the burnt flavor from the tomato was an excellent combination.

Billed as upscale Southern cuisine, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Dogwood. They certainly have the amenities in place. The staff is friendly and prompt and the open kitchen is always a welcome sign. I still can’t get behind the combination of pork belly, grits, and chow-chow, but it’s hard to go wrong with well cooked pork and grits. The fish was also a minor let down, but not as much of a letdown as the missing terrines and charcuterie. Even with a few faults, I wouldn’t hesitate to stop at Dogwood before an event at the Fox, but it will be a little while before I go out of my way to return.

Dogwood on Urbanspoon