Monday, April 30, 2012

DePalma's - Tuscaloosa


I would like to say that I have a love, hate relationship with food in the city of Tuscaloosa, but that would be far from accurate.  In fact, most of my encounters with the city’s restaurants have ended with regret at not pushing on to Birmingham or Atlanta. Even with those experiences in mind, I keep returning to Tuscaloosa hoping to strike gold. This last time I decided to try my luck with DePalma’s Italian Cafe on University Boulevard.

Being the week before Christmas, DePalma’s was packed, not with students but what appeared to be locals and people home for the holidays. As a result, it was a small wait before I was shown to a table near the hostess station. Looking through the menu, I was buoyed by the emphasis on fresh pasta, but I was surprised when my waitress admitted the pasta was not homemade but shipped in fresh thrice a week.

Skipping the pasta for the time being, the meal began with an order of the three cheese tort.
IMG_3822
Three layers of a blend of ricotta, feta, and parmesan were separated by a layer of pesto, sun dried tomato, and black olive paté. 
IMG_3823
While the use of the colors of the Italian flag was amusing, the individual flavors of the three cheeses were completely lost.
IMG_3824
Aside from the stingy portion of the olive paté, this cheese tort was mediocre at best.

For an entrée, I had set my sights on the only pasta dish labeled as housemade, the Portobello mushroom ravioli, but DePalma’s was out. Hoping the salvage the meal, I decided to see how DePalma’s could handle risotto.
IMG_3827
Seared pork loin aioli and Portobello risotto was a decision I would quickly regret.
IMG_3829
According to the menu, these pork medallions were marinated in olive oil, garlic, shallots, and fresh thyme, sautéed, and then topped with roasted tomatoes and caper aioli. That sounded all well and good on paper, but the actual product was little more than three medallions of desiccated pork that were bereft of flavor and topped with a squiggle of raw herb puree.
IMG_3830
I wish I could say that risotto was better but, pool of oil aside, this waste of rice was more like congee than any proper risotto.

At that point, I had had enough. I paid my bill, tipped my waitress and left as quickly as possible. I’ve eaten some poor Italian cuisine over the years, but that monstrosity of a entrée took the cake. I would have been better off skipping Tuscaloosa, skipping Birmingham, and dining like a king on a slice of week old coffee cake from the Oxford Starbucks. I will concede that there’s the off chance that I ordered one poor and one horrible dish from the menu and the rest is satisfying if not brilliant Italian cuisine, but that’s a chance I’ll take. I’m not sure where I’ll look the next time I want Italian food in Alabama, but it certainly won’t be University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa.

DePalma’s Address & Information
DePalma's Italian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Trattoria Centrale - Birmingham


I had never heard of Birmingham’s Trattoria Centrale until the September 2011 issue of Bon Appetit magazine arrived in my mailbox.  In that issue, an article titled “10 More Spots for Fantastic Daily Specials” listed a small Italian restaurant in downtown Birmingham named Trattoria Centrale. Per that story and others I found online, the owners had impressive backgrounds. Geoff Lockert had worked with Michael Simon in Cleveland and Brian Somershield was a CIA graduate while both had worked at Frank Stitt’s Chez Fonfon. Since I rarely need a good reason to try out a restaurant, the resumes were reason enough for me to stop in Birmingham for a little lunch while on my to Atlanta

While the Bon Appetit article had mentioned Trattoria Centrale’s pizzas, I wasn’t quite prepared for the way the restaurant handled the busy business lunch crowd. Instead of pizza made to order, huge trays of premade square or Sicilian style pizza filled the counter. When an order was placed, a serving size square was popped into the waiting ovens and a few minutes later it was ready for the hungry customer.

After placing an order for a couple of slices and finding a table, I barely had time to crack my book before my order was ready.
IMG_3348
A slice of pepperoni and a slice of bacon pizza, it was a fairly anticlimactic scene.
IMG_3349
Taking a bite from the pepperoni, the thickness of the slice and the simple tomato sweetness of the sauce were the first things I noticed.
IMG_3352
Even though this was premade pizza, it was obvious the nicely charred crust wasn’t an afterthought.  A simple but nice feature was the inclusion of the basil chiffonade. It may have been a small detail but it really brightened the flavors of the pepperoni slice.
IMG_3350
While tomato and basil may have dominated the first slice, it was red onion that took over the second.
IMG_3351
Every bite may have contained the crunch and sweetness of caramelized red onion, but the bacon still played a subtle yet noticeable role.

Two slices and an espresso later, I have to admit that my first thoughts of square pizza in kindergarten had been undeserved. Although this pizza is square and reheated, it was damn good for a premade slice. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about pizza made to order. Is that available in dinner service or is it precooked slices all the time? Either way, Trattoria Centrale makes some of the best heat to order pizza I’ve ever tried.

Trattoria Centrale Address & Information
Trattoria Centrale on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nyla's Burger Basket - Osyka


Typically I couldn’t care less about a celebrity visiting a restaurant especially when that celebrity in question is, for all intents and purposes, a washed up child star. However, I have to admit that Britney Spears was part of the reason that I was driving from McComb to Osyka, Mississippi for lunch at Nyla’s Burger Basket. Of course, I get mildly interested when anyone takes the time to designate one particular burger as his or her favorite, all the better when that person has a history of stabbing cars with an umbrella.

I’ll spare you the details of the kitchiness inside Nyla’s, just be prepared to come face to face with a lot of Britney memorabilia. Personally, I was more concerned about choosing what I wanted for lunch and taking advantage of the wifi. At&t isn’t known for quality coverage but reception was practically nonexistent in this tiny Mississippi hamlet.

As you might expect for a restaurant in Mississippi, Nyla’s is known for their fried food, specifically their onion rings and Cajun fries. Since I’m never one to turn down the prospect of a well-fried onion ring, a basket of Nyla’s specialty was first to my table.
IMG_4256
Golden brown and not the least bit greasy, these onion rings truly highlighted the inherent sweetness of the onions.
IMG_4257
However sweet the onions may have been, the flavor of these rings was otherwise bland. A few shakes with the salt shaker perked them up a little bit, but not enough to do these rings justice. I tried dipping them in the accompanying ranch dressing, but the thick and slightly tangy taste completely overshadowed the onion.

Next was an order of Nyla’s Cajun fries.
IMG_4259
I’ve had mixed experiences with battered French fries and Nyla’s only adds to that confusion. Thickly sliced, battered, and barely fried, these fries had an alarmingly small amount of browning.
IMG_4262
The Cajun seasoning was also in short supply. What actually dominated this basket was a dozen or so pillow soft and bland potato sticks

After trying and subsequently ignoring the sides, it was time to turn my attention to the star of the show, the cheeseburger.
IMG_4264
I do have to give Nyla’s credit, they serve up a burger with an excellent bun to patty ratio. Sadly, outside of the proportions, this burger was a heaping helping of banality.
IMG_4268
The patties were overcooked with a nondescript taste that was begging for the most basic seasoning of salt and pepper.
IMG_4269
Fortunately, Nyla’s figured out one way to solve the problem of overdone beef, liberal amounts of mayo and melted cheese. This trick is like a band aid on a bullet wound but it’s better than nothing.

I wish there were nicer things to say about Nyla’s Burger Basket.  It’s a nice, homey restaurant with pleasant service in a small town, but I was more than irritated that I drove 20 miles out of my way to try such a lackluster burger not to mention frankly terrible French fries. At the very least, the onions rings aren’t half bad, but I suppose this is what I should expect when I look to Britney for guidance.


Nyla's Burger Basket on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Table 100 - Flowood

I’ve been sitting on this review for far too long especially when you consider that it was late last spring when the Eat Here restaurant group added Table 100 to their fold of restaurants. Described as a restaurant with “a turn-of-the-century New Orleans feel and a euro-american bistro fare”, Table 100 quickly stood out from the chain restaurant fare that dominates Lakeland Drive. However what started as a planned effort to let the new restaurant jitters work their way out of the system eventually turned into weeks of apathy and I’m not quite sure why. If you look through the menu, you’ll see an appealing assortment of new American dishes such as steaks and pork chops, roasted chicken breast, and a pasta dish or two. There are even a few truly Southern dishes such as shrimp & grits, but there was nothing on the menu that truly stood out to me....expect for the Table 100 burger. Finally ground beef curiosity got the better of me and after a few drives down Lakeland, a clear picture of Table 100 began to emerge.


As with many good meals, my first time at Table 100 began with a soup.
IMG_3559

Capped with a layer of melted provolone & gruyere, this French onion soup was a precocious beginning to my relationship with Table 100.

IMG_3566

Underneath the layer of melted dairy, a cup of sweet and deep onion flavor was waiting.


Continuing the good favor that had been built by the French onion soup, an order of smoked salmon spread was next.

IMG_3561

This spread was a beautiful balance of smoky flavor, salmon oiliness and creamy texture.

Unfortunately, the French dip, one of the low points at Table 100, rounded out my first venture and I had such high hopes for the sandwich.

IMG_3568

If there were a few highlights of this dish they would be the pleasantly pungent wasabi cream and well melted provolone.

IMG_3570
However the combination of overcooked, dry as a bone beef and a watery au jus meant no amount of cheese and cream could save this sandwich.


Disappointed as I may have been with the end of my first excursion to Table 100, the next revealed what may be their strongest point, the Table 100 burger.
IMG_3652

While this particular burger may not have been cooked to order, every bite was a healthy medium and overflowing with beefy flavor.
IMG_3654
Unfortunately, the juicy goodness of this burger did make for a puddle in the plate and greasy lettuce but that excess was a small price to pay.

IMG_3659
Don’t let the white balance of the picture fool you, this burger was well cooked. The creamy sauce, the crispy and smoky bacon, the chargrilled and well-crusted patty, each component of the burger worked in harmony. However, there was a caveat. Eat quickly or the sheer juiciness will cause the bun to dissolve in your hands.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the mac and cheese at Table 100.

IMG_3660
At that point in time, the mac and cheese was still graced with presence of bacon and that addition served these tender noodles well.

IMG_3662

Of course a blend of cheeses and a layer of toasted panko breadcrumbs never hurts either.


It was time to see how Table 100 would handle dinner service. With a slightly larger menu to choose from, I had a hard time passing up a chance see to see the Table 100 version of shrimp and grits.
IMG_4124

Departing from the more traditional creamy grits with shrimp, this version of the southern classic featured a trio of bacon wrapped and bbq sauce drizzled shrimp propped up against a fried grit cake.

IMG_4128

While the shrimp were infused with the smoky goodness of the bacon, the soggy texture of the ham hock jus soaked bacon detracted from the overall product. As for the ham hock jus, it was red eye gravy on overdrive, rich and an almost perfect match for the grit cake. Speaking of the grit cake, while quite well cooked, I can only imagine that the more traditional creamy grits would have been better suited to soak up the ham hock jus.
IMG_4126

However one product that didn’t suffer was the greens on top of the grit cake. Crisp and flavored with a pleasant pepperiness, these greens may not have fit in particularly well with the rest of the dish components, but they were a star in their own right.


For an entrée, I was curious to see how Table 100 would handle the double cut pork chop.
IMG_4129
Flame grilled and served with grilled asparagus, a mushroom reduction, and another grit cake, this pork chop came with plenty of appealing grill marks.
IMG_4136

Juicy in the middle, this pork chop was lightly seasoned and relied on the subtle pork flavor to do the heavy lifting…and it did in spades.

IMG_4133

While the asparagus were perfectly grilled, I was conflicted with the mushroom reduction. Although the reduction was peppery, rich, and deeply flavored, it quickly overpowered the flavor of the pork. I would have preferred a simple pan sauce to compliment the pork but this was still a quality dish either way.


In the end, even with a low point or two, there’s no denying that Table 100 is a solid addition to the Jackson dining landscape not to mention Flowood and Rankin County. Each time, I found the food to be approachable, consistent, and full of well rounded flavors. So while the menu may not call to those with a sense of culinary daring, at the very least, Table 100 is worth a visit just for their burger, but you might want to bring a bib…just in case.


-Since I began taking notes for this review, Table 100 has changed their burger. The eponymous cheeseburger now features dry aged, grass fed beef from Charlie Munford’s Two Run Farm. It’s a whole different animal from the original Table 100 burger. The meat has a darker, richer flavor and one has to try it to really appreciate the difference in the beef.

Table 100 Address & Information

100 Ridge Way, Flowood, MS 39232 // 601.420.4202 // Table 100 Website // Table 100 Menu // Table 100 Reservations

Table 100 on Urbanspoon