Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Newk's Express Cafe in Jackson, MS

I know, I know. What's with all the chains lately? While it's true I try to highlight unique places, consider the following: 1. Success in any industry is a struggle, especially the food business. When you have something great, it's easy to ask, 'Why reinvent the wheel?' 2. Lots of chains offer nutritional info, so you know what you're eating. 3. Sometimes it's worth taking a second look at a place you thought you knew.

Enter Newk's Express Cafe. Foodies take notice! Though Newk's dots the Jackson, MS, landscape like spots on a dalmatian, their refined take on cafe flavors and ample opportunities to customize will have you writing Newk's corporate to request a location near you.

I probably wouldn't have found Newk's Express Cafe if not for a Xeroxed menu tucked into our hotel check-in paperwork, but for three days I read the menu, wondering if I went what I would order. Don't laugh! More home cooks should make a hobby of menu reading. There's no copyright violation in stealing a genius idea like combining brie and apricot jam. Or chocolate and almost anything.

When we finally got to Newk's, I knew I'd order either the Chicken Salad Sandwich with grapes and pecans, the Vegetarian Club with roasted peppers and goat cheese, or the Shrimp Po'Boy with broiled shrimp and cocktail sauce on the side. I thought I had it all figured out, but I had no idea. After I ordered my Chicken Salad half sandwich with an ample half-portion of Lobster and Crab Bisque, the gal taking my order pointed to a stand that reminded me of a mini olive bar. Impressive glass jars were filled with capers, awesome sweet pickles, fresh grated parmesan, whole cloves of roasted garlic and a lot more. They even had my favorite hot sauce! The best part? The gal behind the counter said I could have as much as I wanted!

So I sipped my rich bisque (sprinkled liberally with fresh parmesan), and I ate my sandwich on its crusty, chewy loaf, all the while popping garlic cloves between bites. Translation: It was darn near a perfect meal. For me anyway. But that's the point! There are so many yummy, high end condiments and accoutrements at Newk's Express Cafe, whatever you order can be darn near perfect for you too.

I could wax poetic about how fun it was to tweak and re-tweak my meal, the tang of the bisque (kissed with essence of ocean from the lobster and crab), or how I have never ever tasted roast beef that tender, but the bottom line is that sometimes something worth doing is worth doing twice, or thrice, or more!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Wasabi Sushi & Bar in Jackson, MS

I love sushi. What's not to love about flawless, fresh morsels wrapped in chewy sweet rice? Done right, not only are the flavors incredible, but the food itself is art on a plate. When the craving for sushi hits, nothing else will satisfy. So when sushi fever hit me in the heart of the South, bastion of fried food and butter sauce, I was worried. Would I be able to get my fix in Jackson, Mississippi? With a little research, I found Wasabi Sushi & Bar, and I had to check it out.

When I arrived in the midst of the skyscrapers of downtown, I was expecting an upscale dining experience at an upscale price, but I was willing to pay. After all, we're talking sushi! I just hoped it was worth the price. I needn't have worried, however. With a selection of rolls for only $5, Wasabi is far from overpriced. Even a regional item, a spicy Crawfish roll with Japanese pepper was only $7. And as to quality, I had no complaints. It is possible to get sushi in Jackson that's every bit as good as what I'm used to in California. The old standbys, the Philadelphia Roll and the Bar-B-Q Eel Roll, were exactly as they should be, balanced and very fresh. The salmon in the Philadelphia Roll was moist and smokey. The eel wasn't too boney or too fatty. Just meaty, sweet, and perfect. But the menu at Wasabi is more that just a well done rehashing of the same old thing. Sushi is a cuisine that just begs for innovation, and the Wasabi chef is no slacker. The Chef's New Creation section boasts no less than eight never before seen delicacies ranging from the Fusion Po-Boy, the Little Mermaid, and the Yum, Yum, Yum! There's even innovation in the value portion of the menu. With a soft skin and crunchy inside, the Rice Paper Roll is a no-rice wonder drawing strong inspiration from the Vietnamese spring roll and is served with hoisin and sriracha ($5.50).

Wasabi Sushi & Bar is fast becoming a business lunch favorite in the working center of Jackson. This baby new restaurant serves up an elegant dinner as well. It's beautiful blend of the high end and great bargains, old favorites and new flavors, makes Wasabi Sushi & Bar well worth a visit.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Piccadilly Cafeteria in Nashville

I've eaten a lot of meals in Nashville, but my trip wouldn't be complete without mentioning a friendly little place I discovered one hungry day and was subsequently drawn back to no less than five more times. Piccadilly Cafeteria is just that, a cafeteria. After wandering past a promising line of down-home choices, I grabbed my tray, picked an entree, and then played mix-n-match with dozens of sides. I went for some old favorites (like sweet, crunchy broccoli salad with bacon and raisins) as well as a new, seasonal item called Carrot Souffle (a side and dessert in one, capable of delivering a swift sucker punch to the best pumpkin pie).

Piccadilly Cafeteria seemed quite popular with the senior crowd, but with daily $4.99 specials for a complete meal like Chicken and Dumplings, Beef Stew, and fat Chicken Tenders, hungry folks of all ages should storm Piccadilly walls en mass. Funnily enough, young people accounted for the second most represented group where we ate. Calling all families: As a bonus, on certain days kids can get a full meal for 99 cents!

Sure, I liked the simple, homey food (a lot!) and loved the prices, but our servers really made Nashville's Piccadilly Cafeteria feel like home. It was like having dinner with my grandma, "Would you like more...?" "I'll grab you some napkins," "Did you get plenty to eat?" When we left for the last time, one of them even hugged and kissed us goodbye saying, "Love ya." We'd only been there a week! Now I'm generally a fan the accessible yet non-intrusive waitstaff, but every now and then it's so nice to feel loved. Piccadilly Cafeteria serves that up by the heaping spoonful, for tummy and soul alike. It's not some glamorous eatery, but with so much to gain and so little to lose, it's really worth checking out.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Raz'z Bar & Grill in Nashville

After driving past the same billboard twice a day for three days, I suppose it was fate that we ended up at Raz'z Bar & Grill for New Year's Eve. I'm sure the billboard advertising that the restaurant was featured on Food Network's "Best Thing Ever" had nothing to do with it. An icy wind blew us into Raz'z, but the warm atmosphere and smooth live jazz chased away the Tennessee chill.

I had big expectations for Raz'z, a billboard will do that, but the best parts of the meal for me came in all the little surprises. First was the friendly people. From the near ecstatic fellow who seated us to the manager who came to say goodbye, Raz'z was full of great folks. The chef even brought our meal to the table, and I don't think I've ever seen a bigger smile.

Next was the bread. It might seem a little funny to go from great service to bread, but you didn't taste this bread. Our third basket was delayed momentarily so it could finish baking. That's fresh. These rolls are served h-o-t and soft. I even had one for dessert. The yellow squash casserole was another savory little surprise. It's a must try. Finally, the kid's spaghetti! Not only was it a wonderful portion for only $2.99, but the pasta was cooked perfectly. I ended up eating almost as much of our smallest diner's meal as I did my own.

The Jumbalia Pasta lived up to it's Food Network reputation with just the right amount of kick and cooked-all-day flavor. We had ours over wild rice, which added wonderful nuttiness and chewy texture, but if the pasta version is anything like the kid's pasta, I'd say definitely get that.

Since I've been craving BBQ since first setting foot in the South, we rounded out the night's meal with a full rack of ribs. I know, I know, but it's New Year's Eve! And as the saying goes, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet (Yeah, wish me luck with that!). So with resolutions around the corner, I totally indulged tonight, and an indulgence it was. You don't so much chew the meat of the bones at Raz'z. You just suck it off and the meat kind of jumps into your mouth like it had the idea first.

This wasn't just good food, it was an excellent dining experience. When you eat Nashville, make sure to check out Raz'z Bar & Grill. With our meals in Tennessee numbered, this one was really worth the stop!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gerst Haus since 1890, Nashville

Dark stained wood, exposed stone, and stuffed deer heads give the Gerst Haus a definitively German feel (of course the Oom-pah music doesn't hurt either). Set just across the river from the main part of Nashville, Gerst Haus bar and restaurant was an unexpected find on today's hunger-induced wanderings. Even more surprising, we were just in time for happy hour! Any one of the four half-priced appetizers would have been more than enough to fill us up (even sharing), but we got three.

If you're unfamiliar with German food (though it does strongly influence quite a bit of American cuisine), the Sausage Sampler is a great place to start (11.99 normally, our price 6.00). It comes with a selection of four German sausages (long, thick slices of bratwurst, smoked mett ring, berliner mett, and kielbase, the winner). The plate also includes rye bread, horseradish, German potato salad, and a hefty scoop of sweet and spicy sauerkraut (on the side). The Munich Cheese Dip, a mixture of cheese, salsa, and ground beef, came across more Mexican then German, but was tasty in a pub food, Super Bowl party kind of way (7.99, our price 4.00). Our favorite of the day, however, was definitely the Gerst Bavarian Pizza. This strange appetizer consisted of two big slices of rye bread topped with pizza sauce, kielbase, and Swiss and cheddar cheeses and is baked until the cheese is brown. (Mommy!) We couldn't finish half the food we got, but with this incredible bargain and a belly full of hearty, strangely familiar German food, who can complain? With an ample menu of choices like Beef Stroganoff, Goulash, and Quail, any diner can find a hearty new favorite. And, yes, they have hamburgers and roast chicken for the less adventurous in your party.

Couldn't manage dessert this time around, but with Bavarian Apfel Strudel and the Flourless Chocolate Cake on the menu, you'll want to share dinner and save room! Write me and tell me how the desserts were at Gerst Haus. I'll be so jealous!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sunset Grill in Nashville

We walked into the upscale Sunset Grill in Nashville, Tennessee with promises of upscale fare at stripped down, late night prices. I was not disappointed. After 10pm, Sunset Grill ditches the lobster and fillet minion for a smaller, cheaper menu without losing any of the flavor. Even though I perused the menu online before jumping on the 440, it was tough to decide. Voodoo Pasta, Honey Almond Chicken Salad, and a Classic Hummus plate that looked anything but classic beconed, but the winner of the night was a suggestion from both our host and our waitress: Nachos. I was as surprised as anyone, but when twice in five minutes you hear, "Our late night menu is known for the nachos," and the guy behind you orders them, you roll with fate and get the nachos.

Like most nachos, they were big enough to share and an awesome bargain at $11.99 (chicken and black beans included for late night guests only). Unlike most nachos, they were coated in a melted cream cheese and salsa mixture before being topped with a pile of cheddar. The straightforward salsa on the side had the perfect baby kick for a baby mouth like mine, but optional jalapeno peppers are there for them that wants 'um. I am totally stealing the Sunset Grill nacho recipe for my next party.

But I couldn't come all this way and just get the nachos (famous or not)! The Sonoma Salad, served with a mellow sweet garlic-zinfandel vinaigrette, creamy Danish blue, green apples and roasted almonds, was generous even for the $3.99 half portion. And dessert? Yes, please! Though even the smaller, late night menu is filled with exciting flavors, it doesn't hold a candle the the dessert menu. It all looked great, but I can't see the word "sushi" on a menu and not dive right in. I was warned by my served that the Chocolate-Coconut Sushi, "Is a lot of coconut," but I had to try it. The ganache coated coconut log was awesome, chilled and topped with whipped cream and candied ginger. The flavors were so well balanced, right up until I realized I'd still had three, naked coconut log centers left behind. Might I suggest, Chef, smaller logs for a better chocolate/coconut ratio? A dramatic and yummy desserts, if you can make peace with not cleaning your plate.

This won't be my last trip to Sunset Grill, for sure. The Polenta Cheese Fries with basil ketchup are calling my name, and I am a sucker for a gallery atmosphere at Denny's prices. Curiosity alone, (Butterscotch-Habanero Bread Pudding?) will bring me back... probably tomorrow. Bravo, Sunset Grill!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Twice this week my mother reached out from beyond the grave to tell me to go to Umami Burger in Hollywood. She’d told me to go several times in life as well, so I figured it was time I caved. For a while now, I’ve said there are only three places to go in L.A. when you want a burger: Tommy’s, Carl’s Jr., and In N Out.

Maybe I just have simple tastes. Maybe I’m cheap. Whatever it is, when I stray from that list to fulfill a burger craving I usually regret it, probably because I’ve spent too much on something I didn’t enjoy.

As far as Umami Burger is concerned, I wasn’t disappointed in the taste department. Burgers are served medium rare, the way meat was meant to be eaten. Bold, creative topping options, like The Hatch Burger and The Port & Stilton Burger, sidle right up along side old favorites, nicknamed The Manly Burger and T

he SoCal Burger. There’s also a great assortment of turkey burgers, including the Turkey Miso and the Spicy Bird.

When you go, however, make sure you learn a thing or two about Umami’s secret menu first. That’s where you’ll find the fantastic (and fantastically rich) Manly Burger, a chunky bacon and onion wonder sandwich. Though the tempura onion rings got rave reviews online, except for an initial sprinkling of coarse salt on the outside, they were bland and mostly breading. The sweet potato fries, however, were amazing beneath a pile of Umami Chili. It was a special request on our part, something Internet buzz had said Umami frowns upon, but we got enthusiastic support from the staff. I have had roast beef dinners with smaller chu

nks of roast beef than those in the Umami Chili. No ground beef in there. It was an experience in itself, to say nothing of the secret recipe ketchup, sweet and sharp with a vinegar kiss.

The food was rich and greasy, sometimes too much so, but very satisfying and for the most part uniquely flavorful.

So, does Umami oust one of the holy trinity of burger joints to take a place in the top three? At about $8-$12 per burger and $3-$4 per individual side, not quite. But with a cocktail menu that’s California fresh and fruity, alive with innovative twists, a person could do much worse for sit down burgers.

For a fresh, trendy place to take friends after a day stomping Hollywood, Umami Burger is where I’d want to end up.