Monday, July 22, 2013

Seoul - Birmingham

Kimchi, that polarizing combination of napa cabbage, gochujaru, ginger, garlic, gochujang, and fish sauce, though one of my current Korean favorites, was not always on my radar. While there may have been an odd mention of it here and there during trips to Houston, New York, or San Francisco, the cabbage based dish truly came into my world a little less than a decade ago when I was reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s excellent book “The Man WhoAte Everything”. In his book, Steingarten aimed to broaden his already well cultured culinary horizons and began this quest by creating a list of food phobias. Second on the list was the aforementioned kimchi. Although I highly suggest reading the book on your own, I’ll spoil the surprise by saying that Steingarten came to love kimchi by means of exposure and repetition. On the other hand, I was, for the most part, rather ambivalent towards the national pickle of Korea. I’d give it a try, say that’s not bad, and move along, but the past few years of venturing into Korean restaurants across the south have given me a new appreciation for the dish which brings me to the balmy January morning in Birmingham when I decided to cross the threshold of Seoul Restaurant.

I had hoped that when I walked inside Seoul that I would be hit with the smell of ashy charcoal, sizzling meat, and the sound of chopsticks clicking on bowls of banchan. Sadly, Seoul doesn’t offer Korean bbq, but at least there’s still bulgogi on the menu. But before the beef would arrive, an order of deep fried mandu would get the meal started.
Well fried, crispy, and not at all oily, these pork mandu were a fine beginning.
Despite missing any kimchi or glass noodles, the simple filling of pork and greenery was still quite satisfying.
Missing kimchi aside, these were well fried dumplings that were balanced by the rice vinegar tartness of the dipping sauce.

At this point, my table began to swell with bulgogi, japchae, and the full assortment of banchan.
There may not be any grilling involved, but it had the look of a damn good substitution.

Dumplings done, the bulgogi was up next.
Served in a crackling hot cast iron plate, this serving of bulgogi was still faintly sizzling 10 minutes later.
Thinly sliced and slightly chewy, it was brimming with beef flavor that was only augmented by the addition of sesame seeds and sesame oil.
 Erring on the side of being a bit too sugary, it was still hard to leave this bulgogi alone.

The nuttiness of the sesame carried over to the sweet potato noodles but this time was mated with caramelized carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and a little more beef for good measure.
Juicy, nutty, beefy, this was homestyle japchae.
Much like the bulgogi, these noodles were inundated with sauce and each piece of vermicelli was literally dripping with flavor.

Of course, I can’t forget the banchan.
It’s the usual array of side dishes with a few standouts
 The crunch of bean sprouts with the heat of chili paste never gets old.
I don’t often see kombu as the focus of the dish, but the combination of sweet and spicy with the kelp worked quite well here.
What would a visit to a Korean restaurant be without kimchi? Seoul’s kimchi was lightly fermented and a bit watery at first with just a hint of a chili pepper powder on the tail.

Despite numerous complaints about speed of service on Urbanspoon and Yelp, after my meal I had none of my own. Even though time and appetite forced me to leave the stews, seafood, and rice bowls section completely untouched, I still feel that the bulgogi, japchae, and mandu left quite an impression. While Seoul is far from pushing the boundaries of Korean cuisine, there’s a menu of familiar favorites that are prepared simply and well. Sometimes that and a little kimchi are all you need.

Seoul Restaurant Address & Information
430 Green Springs Highway #8, Birmingham, AL 35209 // 205.945.8007
Seoul on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Highlands Bar and Grill - Birmingham

Having spent the earlier part of the day enjoying a few snapper throats at the Bright Star and a little time at a bookstore, it was soon time for my next stop at a Birmingham institution, Frank Stitt’s original restaurant, the Highlands Bar and Grill.

Opened in 1982, Highlands Bar and Grill is Stitt’s combination of southern flavors and ingredients with his background in French cuisine. But for me, Highlands is more than a stalwart of the Birmingham restaurant scene, it’s been a goal that has been taunting me for years. Much like Hot and Hot FishClub, another renowned Birmingham restaurant, Highlands has been just out of my reach, largely due to its hours of operation. Try as I might, dinner in Birmingham is a rare proposition. Now, with this opportunity at hand, I planned to take full advantage of my first meal at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Friday night in late January and Highlands was bustling with activity as every table was filled to capacity. Despite having made reservations earlier in the week, I had time to enjoy a cocktail at the bar before my table was ready. Once seated, I was stuck with the typical dilemma of far too many attractive choices and general indecisiveness. Jokingly complaining to my waitress that they were in dire need of a tasting menu, she quickly scampered off to the kitchen. Returning just moments later, she was happy to inform me that a tasting menu could be made from any five dishes of my choosing.

However, before any of my choices had a chance to arrive at the table, it was time for a little taste of cornbread.
Appearing in the bottom left of the picture, this small piece of cornbread struck an ideal balance between salty and savory. Of course, it never hurts when cornbread is made sublime by the addition of a little butter.

Diving headfirst into the southern heart of the menu, things started with the stone ground baked grits.
Exceedingly creamy, this grit cake seemed to defy gravity.
If this dish confirms anything, it’s that country ham and grits are a salty match made in heaven.
Rounding out the dish were mushrooms and parmesan which while well paired on their own, I wasn’t quite sure what the mushrooms brought to the dish. However the only thing this dish truly needed was a good shot of black pepper, once applied this was a truly precocious start to the meal.

Apalachicola gigged flounder was the next dish in the tasting menu and it came with a Provençal sauce with roasted fennel, Niçoise olive, fingerling potatoes, and marjoram.
Crispy on the edges, moist in the middle, the flounder paired well with the bright and well rounded sauce.
The Provençal sauce was deceptively simple with a clean tomato flavor that finished with a bite of olive tartness.

Third in my tasting menu was the rabbit -  two ways.
First of the duo was a Tuscan kale stuffed loin and while the kale added a slightly bitter and green dimension to the loin, I was surprised at the grainy texture.
In stark contrast, the braised leg was achingly tender and sublime with the sherry reduction. At this point, I noticed that Highlands preferred their vegetables to have a toothsome texture. I won’t say they were undercooked but I like my potatoes to not crunch when I bite them.

Proving the allure of pork wrapped in caul fat, the pork crépinette and grilled rabbit liver was the fourth dish on my menu.
With plenty of give from the caul fat, the highlight of the crépinette was the combination of the pork and vinegar flavors of the honey crisp apples and frisee salad.
 In contrast, the grilled liver began with a crunch of finishing salt and fruit but quickly soured with the addition of overdone liver.  Letting my waitress know about the state of the liver, I was expecting an apology at the most but I wasn’t prepared for a new piece of liver to be brought from the kitchen.
Skewered with a sprig of rosemary, this liver still had the big salty introduction but in lieu of the apples, the woody flavor of rosemary and citrus highlights of fresh peppercorns took its place.

For the last course, I decided to switch gears and try a little fowl with the stuffed South Carolina quail.
Sticking to bold flavors, this quail was mated with a cornbread and foie gras stuffing, green lentils, and a sorghum gastrique.
With the lentils baring a stronger resemblance to a piece of chalk than any edible legume, I was relying on the cornbread and foie stuffing to support the quail. Unfortunately, the stuffing completely dominated the bird with a mealy sweetness and none of the rich foie gras flavor I was expecting. This quail was far and away the weakest part of the meal.

At this point, I expected the meal to be finished and an after dinner drink would be that all that stood between me and my drive back to the hotel, but that was not the case. Chalk it up to either voicing my complaints or having a productive dialogue with my server, a complimentary order of the braised pork cheeks and potato dumplings was brought to my table.
Like many of the vegetables in this meal, including the hedgehog and yellow foot mushrooms in this dish, the pork wasn’t fall apart tender but the dense flavor of the cheeks was ample reward.
When this dish was first brought, I was expecting the potato dumplings to create a starchy mess but each flavor in this dish was distinguishable and played off the others quite well.
One particularly nice touch was how each potato dumpling was pan seared, the contrast of dense dumpling with crisp seared exterior was delightful.

If I took away anything from this long awaited meal at Highland Bar and Grill, it’s that while the flavors and the subsequent combinations are supremely important, the addition of excellent service can make a good meal a great one. Even taking the liver and quail into account, the dishes at Highlands were prime examples of Stitt and his kitchens taking full advantage of the bounty of the South. I can see why Highlands Bar and Grill has been open for more than 30 years.

Highlands Bar and Grill Address & Information
2011 11th Avenue Birmingham, AL 35205 // 205.939.1400 // Highlands Bar and Grill Website // Highlands Bar and Grill Menu
Highlands Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bright Star - Bessemer

Despite my frequent visits to the city, it’s rare that I get the opportunity to spend more than a few hours in the magic city known as Birmingham, Alabama. Late January proved to be on of those precious times as I was in town for a two day stint at a conference.  Flushed with time to spare, I decided that I should pay a visit to some Birmingham institutions, starting with the only Alabama recipient of the James Beard “America’s Classic” award, the Bright Star in Bessemer.

I’ll be quite frank, I was blissfully unaware of the Bright Star’s national accolades until I began researching this piece. My knowledge of this Alabama institution stems from John T. Edge and his book “Southern Belly” as well as his 100 Southern Foods list he penned for Garden and Gun Magazine. In the southern foods list, Edge tells the virtue of The Bright Star’s snapper throats. Now I’ve spent my fair share of time in Greek diners in the Southeast from comeback and crackers at the Mayflower in Jackson to the temptation of a gyro meat and tzaziki omelette at the White House in Atlanta but that was the first time I heard the idea of fried snapper throats. Knowing the succulent textures of a well cooked yellow tail throat with hamachi kama, I was interested to see how an oft discarded piece of the fish would take to a little deep frying.

But before getting to the raison d’etre of this lunch, it was time for a gumbo interlude and The Bright Star does a fair job with this Louisiana specialty.
Hot and thick, this gumbo was brimming with tomoatoes and okra not to mention a chili pepper tail to finish each bite. 
While there was a substantial amount of shredded chicken in this cup of gumbo, the time spent at a simmer left its mark on the white meat.

When it came to the snapper throats, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Would it be an entire throat, dipped in batter and fried to a hearty crisp? Would it be chopped bones with tiny nuggets of meat?
The snapper throats were nothing of the sort. With nary a bone in sight, these snapper throats were remarkably easy to eat.  For each “throat” a nugget of sweet and incredibly juicy meat was wrapped in a thick but surprisingly crispy batter.
Beautifully paired with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper, this was a unique cut of gulf fish prepared remarkably well.
After eating, there was a sizeable pool of grease left on the plate, but it was a necessary evil like the thick batter. It may have been a bit clumpy and unwieldy but the succulent fish inside was worth it.

The rest of the meal was much of your standard southern fare, butter beans, black eyed peas, etc, nothing particularly remarkable apart from the cornbread.
Tiny, crusty and crisp on the edges, and a bit salty, it was crumbly and sublime when paired with the vegetables.

Initially I was skeptical of the Bright Star’s age and status. It seems that with many storied and established restaurants, the kitchen is fueled by memories and tradition rather than the current quality of their food. Thankfully, The Bright Star escapes that trend and offers a unique, well crafted dish in a setting with charm and atmosphere to spare. In my mind, their award and mentions in John T’s writing are well deserved; I just hope that The Bright Star keeps earning that James Beard award.

Bright Star Address & Information
304 19th Street North, Bessemer, AL 35020 // 205.426.1861 // Bright Star Website // Bright Star Menu
Bright Star on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The General Muir - Atlanta

It’s been a few years since my last post on a deli and in that time I’ve been pacifying myself with half hearted Sysco sourced Reubens and the occasional slice of pepperless, insipid pastrami. Recently, my pining for the true deli experience was  worsened by a shipment of sublime bagels, blintzes, pastrami, brisket, and spreads from my friend Merry and her family’s Florida deli. Fortunately, there have been signs of promise in the Deep South, namely the opening of The General Muir in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta. With promises of glistening matzo ball soup, homemade bagels, and pastrami poutine, it didn’t take much convincing from Jennifer for me to make the drive from Brookhaven to The General Muir.

Typically late March is full of pleasant, sunny skies and the not so distant promise of blistering hot summers, but this March was an exception. With flurries filling the sky, it was still the weather for scarves and overcoats not to mention a steaming bowl of matzo ball soup.
Often times I’ll find that matzo ball soups are either a single matzo ball floating alone in a bowl of broth or a matzo ball lost in a sea of chunky vegetables and dry shredded breast meat, The General Muir aims for a comfortable middle ground.
By itself the broth is thin but the glistening globules of fat give a delightful lip smacking texture. Adding interest and body is a medley of celery, onion, carrot, and dill, the result is a soup that is nicely seasoned and a bit vegetal.
As for the matzo ball, this was a airy and fluffy specimen and far from the heavy as a stone examples that some delis offer.
Perfect for a cold, light in texture, and well suited to the broth, this matzo ball soup didn’t feel too substantial but it offered plenty of comfort for the chilly spring day.

With pastrami on rye on the way, the side of fries arrived first.
Sadly, the pastrami poutine would have to wait for another day but this order of fries gave an inkling of my next visit to The General Muir.
Grains of salt aside, there were a few crispy ends on these fries and a fair amount of textural contrast but I couldn’t help but wonder if they were hearty enough to hold gravy, cheese, and pastrami?

So just how does the featured pastrami stack up?
From the beginning, this is sandwich simplicity: meat, mustard, and rye bread.
While the pastrami doesn’t look too heavily peppered, each bite begins with a salty beefiness that gives way to a definitive peppercorn punch.
If there is a weakness to this sandwich, the rye is a bit listless compared to my favorite hearty rye breads of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor but it makes an excellent vehicle for grainy mustard and the exceedingly tender, fatty, and bristling with salinity pastrami. On the whole, this is a fine example of the breed and I can only imagine how it works on top of poutine.

Maybe after my next trip to Atlanta I can attest to the quality of The General Muir’s breakfast, pastrami poutine, or if the burger that chef Todd Gingsberg popularized at Bocado survived the trip. However, based on this first look at The General Muir, I’m pretty sure that Goldberg’s is no longer my go to deli in Atlanta.

The General Muir Address & Information
The General Muir on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bruno's Adobo - Thai Night - Jackson

Last Monday, I was on the prowl for something interesting for lunch and despite Jackson’s growth in culinary diversity in the past few years, interesting is not always readily available.  A busy work schedule added the difficulty of needing to stay near downtown so I turned to Facebook to see what Luis Bruno’s Adobo had for a lunch special. What was initially elation at the sight of a pad thai special turned into the crashing disappointment of arriving at Adobo to find the special was sold out. But there was a silver lining to this somewhat banal little tale, Luis, with the help of Su Kennedy, was planning a special Thai Night.

For those unfamiliar with Luis’ background in the Jackson culinary world, the man seems to be constantly on the move. From his eponymous restaurant in the French Quarter on Lakeland, Bruno moved to the position of personal chef to Governor Barbour to head chef for the Jackson Hilton to chef at the Museum of Art and now his restaurant on Roach Street. That little jaunt through history finished, let’s take a look at the meal for which I convinced Stephen to cheat on his successful Paleo diet.

The first part of this four course meal was the appetizers portion and it came with four choices: crispy sesame balls, kra thung thong (chicken curry and potato cups), sweet sticky rice with coconut shrimp, or roti. Rarely seen in Jackson, I went with the sweet sticky rice.
It’s certainly a departure from your average white rice.
All coconut and sugar, it was hard to discern the shrimp in this cup.
Like the rice in this foil cup, this black rice was served cold but kaffir lime leaves dominated the flavors in this serving.

Stephen was kind enough to let me take a few pictures and bites of his appetizer choice.
This was a well rounded curry flavor to this chicken curry but like my rice, it arrived at the table quite cold.

The second course was a choice of soup or salad and for both Stephen and me, the Thai wonton soup beat out the salad kheg.
Frankly I would be elated if this became a regular feature on the Adobo menu. Even without the Hoisin bbq pork and wonton, this broth was delightfully rich, silky, and imbued with a dense chicken flavor accented with hoisin sweetness.
Aside from the broth, the wontons were large and packed with ground pork while the hoisin pork was an extra meaty bonus.

With the entrée course, we could choose between khoa mok kai (rice biryani), hor mok (salmon), or khoa mun som tum (green papaya salad). Since this was a cheat night, Stephen went for the gusto and chose the khoa mok kai.
Saffron jasmine rice, chicken with five spice, turmeric, fried shallots, and raisins made for heady mix of flavors. While I couldn’t taste much five spice on the chicken, it was juicy and well cooked and paired beautifully with the sweetness of the jasmine rice. A sprinkling of the sweet chili and fish sauce condiment added just the right chili heat and salinity.

As good as Stephen’s biryani was, I think I came out ahead by choosing the som tum.
Bruno’s version had shredded green papaya, carrots, tomato, dried shrimp, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and thai chilies with a side of coconut rice.
Each bite of this salad was a balance of salty, sour, sweet, and spiciness with a hearty vegetal crunch for good measure. This was not a dish for those who dislike fish sauce but for me, the combination of green papaya, fish sauce, and chilies was sublime.

Although I was hoping for another portion of som tum, the next course was a green tea custard layered on a chiffon cake with sweet honey crème anglaise.
The best way I can think to describe this cake was lustrous and silky. Luis was happy to point out this cake had been cooked with a bain marie and it had the texture to prove it.
As good as the green tea flavor of the custard cake was, everyone was captivated by the lokk chupe. These treats were made from marzipan flavor bean paste and they were , clichéd as it sounds, almost too pretty to eat.

Despite a bit of a slipup with the first course, Luis Bruno and Su Kennedy were firing on all cylinders for their special Thai night. As a parting gift, there was even the assurance that a few of these dishes will make it onto the regular Adobo menu. I suppose I’ll wait to see if that comes to fruition before I write a full review of Adobo but in the meantime, I’ll try not to miss any more of Luis Bruno’s special nights at Adobo.

Bruno’s Adobo Address & Information
127 South Roach Street, Jackson, MS 39201 // Bruno’s AdoboFacebook // Bruno’s Adobo Menu
Adobo on Urbanspoon