Thursday, September 30, 2010

Big Bowl Asian Bistro - Oxford

It’s been years since I’ve eaten any sort of Asian cuisine in Oxford. The first and only time was some odd strip mall buffet with a friend, and I wasn’t too impressed. Apparently things have changed quite a bit since that time, as evident by the existence of Big Bowl Asian Bistro. An outpost for Asian cuisine is usually the first thing I seek out in a new town, but it took the guidance of Alvin & Kate along with Molly and Nick to introduce me to what this Asian bistro had to offer.

Thumbing through the menu, there are your standard Chinese dishes, e.g. General Tso’s, Sesame Chicken, Beef and Broccoli, and a number of familiar Japanese offerings but there’s also a fair amount of Thai dishes as well. I’ll admit they aren’t much more than a smattering of meat and vegetables with Thai curry paste, but there is that selection. Truth be told, I’ve never been too interested in restaurants that try to mix different Asian cuisines, but I was willing to give Big Bowl Asian Bistro a chance.

Refreshingly the meal started with a complimentary plate of fried dumpling and wontons.

There wasn’t much to either one of these. The wontons were doughy, but with crispy edges and a simple, decent flavor. The pan fried dumpling was much the same, just all right, but you could tell these were greasy and likely frozen, not fresh.

It’s hard to resist a good spring roll, but I was curious what would be inside the Shanghai Crispy Spring Roll.

Pretty well fried, at first I thought these were all veggie and rice sticks

but I was wrong. Kate pointed out the shrimp in these spring rolls, but I still thought they were pretty bland.

Wanting to try some of their Japanese offerings, I ordered a few pieces of nigiri and sushi rolls. The first to arrive was the unagi nigiri.

I love the taste and texture of barbecued eel, but I’ve never seen it served on a half of cored cucumber.

The eel was great but it was an odd combination of creamy eel and cool cucumber, one I quickly learned to enjoy.

As much as I enjoyed the nigiri, I was equally disappointed by the Lobster Tempura roll.

Maybe I made a mistake in ordering it, but it’s hard to resist the idea of a fried lobster roll.

The roll was soggy as the sauce had completely saturated the rice. With no crispiness to the tempura lobster, it only furthered the muddled flavors. This wasn’t a terrible roll, but it certainly wasn’t a standout or one I’d order again.

I did order a third roll, but the waiter soon came to tell me that it was unavailable. Asking if I’d like to choose another roll instead, the first thing that popped in my mind was Hamachi Kama.

Like the Lobster Tempura Roll, ordering this might not have been a prudent decision. This too falls into the “meh” category. It was a decent version of the Yellowtail Collar, but it wasn’t grilled very well. There was no deep, rich crust and no real flavor.

Hoping to take another look at their Chinese offerings, I figured the Big Bowl Spicy Beef would be a winner. After all, it’s partially named after the restaurant; that makes sense, right?

Beef with peppers, onions, and mushrooms in a spicy black bean sauce sounds like an excellent idea, but there were not very many forward flavors in their sauce.

The beef was tender and there were plenty of equal sized chunks of pepper, onions and mushrooms, but there was nothing there to make it work together. I know there were black beans in the dish because they’re plain as day, but they were lacking any potency just like this dish was lacking any spice. As for the rice, it’s just plain buffet fried rice. It’s all veggies and too much soy sauce.

One thing that really did surprise me was that Big Bowl Asian Bistro offered a wide selection of bubble tea flavors. With flavors ranging from the usual fruit offerings of Mango, Honey Dew, and strawberry to the more unique Red Bean and Lychee, it was a fairly impressive selection.

I went for a Lychee Bubble Tea and was surprised. I’ve never seen so much ice, at least ice that hasn’t been crushed. Not surprisingly, the bubble tea was much like the food at this Asian Bistro, passable, but nothing to get excited about. I’m not sure how many other Asian offerings there are in the town of Oxford, but I’d wager that Big Bowl Asian Bistro is not the only one. That being said, it seems like Big Bowl has fallen into the trap of trying to be all things to all people. Like most multifaceted approaches, Big Bowl Asian Bistro does do everything but not very well.

Big Bowl Asian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Big Bad Breakfast - Oxford

If you’re like me, every month a number of food porn publications arrive in your mailbox. Sure they may go by much more illustrious names: Cook’s Illustrated, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Saveur, but it’s all food porn and I love it. As much as I enjoy reading these magazines, there is a heavy focus on the major food cities, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, so it’s a treat when there’s mention of a Southern restaurant. Even rarer is the mention of a Mississippi restaurant, but the past few years, John Currence and his restaurants, City Grocery, Big Bad Breakfast, Snackbar, and Boure, have made a fair number of appearances. There aren’t many James Beard award winners in Mississippi, so the last time I was Oxford; I decided I had to try at least one of his restaurants.

After an early morning drive, an exciting but disappointing loss for the home team, and an exhausting night, it was Sunday morning and we were looking for breakfast. There don’t seem to be too many options for Sunday breakfast in Oxford, but I immediately suggested Big Bad Breakfast. Sarah volunteered to go early and get a spot, and after a 20 or so minute wait, we were in a booth and looking through the menu.

Once the round of ordering was finished, our dishes were soon at the table and first to arrive was The Pylon.

Described as a “A Hangover’s Worst Enemy”, it’s essentially a jacked up chili cheese dog on a waffle. Ah, but I bet you noticed there’s a pancake under all that mess. Yep, the waffle iron at Big Bad Breakfast was broken. It’s a little annoying when a breakfast centric restaurant can’t make a waffle, but I digress.

There’s a good hot underneath that mess of chili, slaw, cheddar, mustard, chopped pickles, onion, jalapenos and oyster crackers, but I just wasn’t that impressed. The waiter said it was better with the waffle, but I liked the light, fluffy pancake. I suppose I was just expecting more of a kick from a hangover cure hotdog.

With a breakfast place like Big Bad Breakfast, it would be a crime not to try eponymous egg plate, the Big Bad Breakfast Plate.

Two eggs cooked to order (over easy this time), a choice of patty sausage, bacon, andouille, or country ham (house bacon for me); home fries or grits (always grits); gravy, red eye, sausage, or tomato (red eye), and toast or biscuit (biscuit). With so many choices made for this one plate, I had no idea where to actually start.

Why not start with the grits?

I assume these are Grit Girl grits and they were creamy and delicious.

Good Red Eye Gravy is hard to find, but this was an excellent example of the breed.

Rich, dense, and with a fair number of pieces of country ham, this was great with the biscuit.

The eggs over easy were…..just eggs over easy. They were tasty, but I should have gotten them sunny side up.

I don’t think this was the cathead biscuit that everyone raves about, but I was pretty happy with it either way, especially when it was topped with some blackberry or raspberry jelly.

Finishing with the bacon, I was perplexed by this belly. At first I thought it was just a salty bacon, but each bite finished with a delicious Tabasco tail. There may have been only three slices, but each was a dynamite combination of salt, sweet, heat, and vinegar.

If I had a major gripe about Big Bad Breakfast, outside of a broken waffle iron, was the service. It was practically nonexistent. There were no refills, no drinks for a long while, just take your order and disappear, but service can be fickle. So, outside of the service, I was pretty happy with Big Bad Breakfast. It wasn’t outstanding, but a nice break from your average breakfast. The Big Bad Bacon was another story. I made sure to buy a pack for home and guess what? It was just as good if not better when I made it at home.

Big Bad Breakfast on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bayona - New Orleans

Despite having a copy of her cookbook, “Crescent City Cooking”, I don’t know much about Susan Spicer. Sure, I know she’s highly revered in both the New Orleans and the American culinary world, but that’s about it. Well, when last in New Orleans, the three of us were looking for a lunch spot. Using open table as guide, we planned on lunch at La Petite Grocery.

After booking a table for three, we found parking and walked to the door only to find it locked. A note reading “closed for summer vacation” was attached to the door. Nonplussed, I scrolled through open table to see who had late lunch options and saw that Bayona had a 1:30 seating. With a table reserved, it was just a matter of parking the car at the hotel and making the quick walk to Dauphine Street.

If not for my eagle-eyed sister, I would have walked right past Bayona. With just a small sign hanging above an alley way, it was very easy to miss. Now that the small disaster had been averted, we walked into a rather small, but welcoming restaurant. Looking around, it seems like every wall is full of awards, commendations, and glowing reviews.

Once we were seated and cocktails had been ordered, it was time to scrutinize the menu. While most everything sounded delicious, there were a few dishes that stood out to me. Thankfully, we were a group that was big into sharing plates.

First out of the kitchen was a cup of the Smoked Duck & Andouille Gumbo with Rice.

Our waiter explained why gumbo was on the menu so early in the season. Apparently a tv crew had been filming at Bayona the day before and they wanted a shot of gumbo. So that’s why late august had the first gumbo of the season at Bayona.

This wasn’t a gumbo based around a rustic dark roux, instead this gumbo was silky, smooth, and it coated your tongue. With plenty of duck and a fair number of chunks of andouille, this was a very well planned gumbo. Not my favorite, but still very good.

The Cream of Garlic Soup was the second dish to appear.

I only stole a few tastes of this soup, but I was amazed at the lack of pungency. Each spoonful was a dose of smooth garlic flavor. Without the usual fire of a garlic centric dish, I was surprised but this soup was creamy, subtle, and frankly delicious.

Sauteed Sweetbreads with Potatoes, Mushrooms, and Sherry Mustard Butter came with a glowing recommendation from the waiter.

Thankfully this was one of the few times where the waiter’s recommendation was worthwhile. Starting with the star of the dish, the sweetbreads were crispy and perfectly cooked with that creaminess of the sweetbread waiting with each bite.

The Sherry Mustard Butter only furthered the dish by providing a little tartness, salinity, and creaminess. Not to be forgotten, the tiny cubed potatoes and mushrooms were just as well prepared as the sweetbreads and just as excellent with the sauce. The only thing that I didn’t understand about the dish was the beets. They provided a nice visual break to the dish, but I wasn’t too enthused about their flavor contributions.

One of the few low points of the meal came with the Goat Cheese Crouton with Mushrooms in Madeira Cream.

There’s nothing really wrong with this dish. With a wheat toast base, there’s a healthy supply of tart goat cheese on top and the mushrooms with beautifully cooked. This just isn’t on the same playing field as the rest of the meal.

The first of the main dishes was an interesting choice for our group, there was no meat. Still, Fresh house-made Mushroom and Leek Ravioli, Asparagus, and Pecorino Cheese just sounded too good to pass up.

I was surprised to find the ravioli was a little hardier than I expected, but inside there was a beautiful filling that had almost a meaty consistency. Coupled with a smooth and utterly delicious sauce, I was wondering if I had ordered the wrong dish.

Going by the name, would you order a duck, peanut butter, and jelly sandwich? I probably wouldn’t, but I’d heard so many good things I had to try the Smoked Duck, Cashew-Peanut Butter and Pepper Jelly Sandwich.

I’ve read in Donald Link’s “Real Cajun” that Spicer uses pepper jelly with duck, but I wasn’t expecting this.

It’s hard to know what you’re getting into with this sandwich. All you can see form the outside is grilled wheat bread and a few errant caramelized onions.

However, all my doubts disappeared when I actually took a bite of the sandwich. It’s a masterpiece. Each bite brings a new flavor to the forefront, the smoky, tender, and moist duck, the sweet and slightly spicy pepper jelly, the relatively subtle nuttiness of the Cashew-Peanut Butter.

It’s sweet, savory, and just so damn rich. This really is magic between two slices of brown bread.

When I sat down to our lunch at Bayona, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was amazed at what we received. To add a little excitement to the meal, Chef Spicer actually emerged from the kitchen at the end of our meal. Granted it was a little annoying she said hello to nearly everyone but our table, but with only four tables occupied and two of them on a first name basis with the chef, it’s trivial. It’s startling to think that through all the superb dishes the low point of the meal was some pretty tasty goat cheese on toast. I’m chomping at the bit to see what Chef Spicer and Bayona have to offer for dinner.

Bayona on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Middendorf's - Akers, LA

It’s been taunting me for years. Every time I make the drive to New Orleans, I pass it. Yes, Middendorf’s, the seafood restaurant in Manchac, I read its billboards advertising thin fried catfish. John T. Edge wrote about the fish in his article for “Garden and Gun”, but every time I’ve had an excuse, mostly the location. Situated so close to New Orleans, with Middendorf’s, it’s been one of two things, either “I’m this close to New Orleans, I’ll just wait” or “I just ate in New Orleans, why should I stop now?” Well, for this trip down I-55, I decided it was time to pay Middendorf’s a visit and see what thin fried catfish is all about.

Pulling off 55 and into the parking lot, I was hit with the smells of fried seafood and brackish water. Inside the fried seafood smell continued and for good reason. Middendorf’s seems to be a popular lunch spot and it looks like everyone had a plate of catfish in front of them.

Looking for something to go with the catfish, I was torn between oyster stew, house made turtle soup, and one of the three gumbos. With our waitress recommending the turtle soup, I was ready for a taste of rustic Louisiana cuisine. Unfortunately, my soup arrived after the fish. Looking past this minor annoyance, I dove into the turtle soup.
I was a little disappointed in what I found. It was a thin soup, but with a tomato flavor and littered with greens and tiny chunks of turtle meat.
As expected this was a very rustic version, but with a few liberal doses of Louisiana hot sauce, I was pretty happy with the results. I’ve had better versions of Cajun turtle soup, but with plenty of meat, trinity, spice, and hot sauce, it was a solid soup.

Of course the real reason I stopped at Middendorf’s is their Special Fried Thin Catfish. From what I’ve read, slicing the catfish thin is a throwback to the depression where it made a little meat stretch a lot farther.
At first glance, this large order of Fried Thin Catfish looks like a mountain of seafood, but I’d wager there’s barely more than a single filet on the plate.
With each piece there was the crunch of a relatively thick batter and the taste of a thin ribbon of catfish. I was an immediate fan of the textures, but I was at a loss for the seasonings. These catfish slices needed salt and something else. I tried various combinations. Lemon and tartar sauce improved it a little bit, but it needed something else.
Eventually I found that my favorite was a combination of ketchup and the vinegar based heat of Louisiana hot sauce.

Helping make that mountain of catfish a little higher, there was a base of French fries and hush puppies underneath those thin slices.
The French fries aren’t really worth mentioning, boring, limp and bland.
The hushpuppies were simple and a nice companion to the catfish.

It’s a relief that I can say I’ve finally stopped at Middendorf’s, but I felt the catfish were missing something. Maybe there’s a secret combination of lemon, tartar sauce and hot sauce that I’m unaware of, but outside of the delightful crunch I can’t say that I’m completely sold on the idea of Fried Thin Catfish. Still, the Thin Fried Catfish are worth a try.

Middendorf's Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon