Monday, November 26, 2007

Royal Thai Nashville

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Royal Thai
120 19th Avenue North

Sometimes you just have to go with the standby joint. It’s the restaurant that doesn’t jump out as a must do, but when faced with adversity you can turn to for a decent meal. Royal Thai in Nashville is our standby joint. The other day we went out with friends to Fatoush, only to find them closed a half an hour before scheduled. We quickly fell back on Royal Thai.

There are several Royal Thai’s in the area, including Brentwood, Franklin and Hermitage. Everyone has a favorite and it seems everyone has a gripe or two about each location. It’s about the same for us. A few things we almost always enjoy. The soups are usually good. This time out we ordered the classic Tom Ka Kai, a coconut milk based broth with chicken, mushrooms and lemon grass. It hit the spot on a blustery night. Next up was Satay kai, curried chicken strips on skewers with peanut Satay sauce. While the Satay sauce was good, the chicken was a bit dry and overcooked. The vegetarian appetizer combo did better. The battered and lightly fried zucchini mushroom and tofu was handled delicately, leaving the veggies room to do the talking.

We’ve complained about bad Pad Thai before. It’s really unforgivable at a Thai restaurant. It’s been hit and miss at Royal Thai and this night was a big, huge miss. The noodles appeared to be microwaved or massively overcooked and sauced to a floppy mess. It also had a bizarre taste to it, perhaps of fish sauce or something more exotic. It actually had a faint chemical tinge to it. We moved on to the chicken Pa-naeng, which is a coconut milk based red curry with nice spice and lemon grass. It nearly made up for the Pad Thai disaster. Our friends ordered Neua Pad Namman Hoy, sliced beef, onions and bell peppers in a brown oyster sauce. It was good.

Veggie Eater:
I ordered the Pad Pak Bai Kra Prao; these were veggies (cabbage, broccoli Napa cabbage, carrots, peppers, snow peas, mushrooms, etc) stir fried with a spicy sauce. I am normally a sucker for noodles, but since the group ordered the veggie Pad Thai, it allowed me to deviate a bit from the norm. The veggies had a bit of kick and a nice garlicky flavor. And there was a whole lot of them…I concur about the Pad Thai; just kind of weird. I really have a hankering for consistent, great Thai food and I am sad to report that Royal Thai does not fit the bill. Will I continue to go there when I want Thai food? Yes. Does it make me wax nostalgic about Thai restaurants in cities elsewhere? Yes.

Meat Eater:
The total was $84 for four entrees, two apps and the soup. We’ll probably keep heading back to Royal Thai, but they should be careful. If a better Thai place opens up in that part of town, we may be testing new waters.

Royal Thai on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Low Country

Low Country
Edisto and Charleston
South Carolina

You can’t beat your first trip to a new place. Our friends Jackie and Don invited us to share a beach house on Edisto beach, joined by our friends Jennifer and Ian. Despite many cocktails we have managed to remember the best parts. Actually, cooking at home proved to be the best bet. You can see the shrimp boats go out in the morning and if you visit in the afternoon you get plump, fresh shrimp. So, we had shrimp and smoked gouda grits, shrimp boil, seafood chowder, shrimp dumplings, bacon wrapped shrimp, shrimp cocktail, shrimp fondue…well, you get the picture. Edisto also has fresh clams and plenty of fish, which we didn’t even get to. Kudos to the chefs for all of the great food. The Meat Eater only took on the steak portion of the menu. We went to Ted’s Butcher Shop in Charleston. The meat is incredible. We picked out inch thick rib eyes and homemade Italian sausage with nuts and berries in it. However, with quality comes cost and Ted’s is not cheap. I rubbed the rib eyes with a chipotle powder we picked up at Oktoberfest in Germantown. It made for a memorable steak experience.

We did make it out for a couple of meals. We stopped at Slightly North of Broad in Charleston for lunch. They call it a power lunch spot for movers and shakers. We found a friendly staff and a fun take on Low Country cooking. The lunch version of fried chicken comes in a sweet honey glaze, piled on top of sweet collard greens and cheddar grits. A hipped up southern classic. The Veggie Eater had a Rueben without the meat, which she will describe below in rather ecstatic terms.

Veggie Eater: This was by far the best Rueben I’ve ever had. I am long used to
astonished stares when I request a Reuben without corned beef; they willingly accommodated the request and put it on a plate on the side for the meat eaters. The sandwich used sour dough instead of rye. Loaded with fontina cheese. Caramelized onions and homemade kraut generously topped the toasted bread. Course ground mayo and homemade secret sauce all slathered on top. The slaw on the side was equally wonderful. Meat eaters raved about the corned beef as well.

The best eating of the entire trip was real Low County fare on Edisto. Po Pigs is located on highway 174 going to the beach. They have an awesome buffet that included the following on the day we visited: Pulled pork, fried chicken, roasted chicken, fried gizzards, squash casserole, corn, stewed tomatoes with okra, chicken stew, seafood chowder, fried pork skins, hush puppies, mac and cheese, live hash, pork hash...and I could keep going on. The best part is that almost every dish is fantastic, with only a couple of duds. This is food prepared with great love and care.

The seafood chowder is spicy with lots of thyme and pepper. The pulled pork juicy and prepared in a light sauce, with a nice mellow smoke flavor. Hash is one of the standout menu items. It’s a traditional Low Country dish that apparently you don’t see much anymore. The pork hash basically has the consistency of runny refried beans. It’s slow cooked so the entire pork flavor gets concentrated. Served with rice it’s a real revelation. The liver version was a little much for me.

The barbecue sauces are also excellent. I took back a Styrofoam cup of the Midland Mustard sauce, since they don’t sell it by the bottle. They also have an excellent Carolina Red Sauce which is split between vinegar and tomato base. The Pee Dee Vinegar is more like a Tennessee style sauce. The Orangeburg Sweet is the lighter version of the Mustard Sauce.

Veggie Eater: Po Pigs had surprisingly many veggie options; I stayed away from beans and greens assuming that a hunk of pork had been thrown in with them at some point. Good slaw, great hushpuppies. OK mac and cheese. Wonderful squash casserole. The Saveur magazine review proudly hangs on the wall and notes the owner’s wife is vegetarian and upon announcing his dream of a barbecue restaurant, she replied, “Po pigs”, thus the name was born. There were certainly many veggie friendly options, perhaps the influence of the veggie wife.

Down at the other end of the Island is the Sunset Grille a restaurant clearly targeting the tourist crowd. We were famished when we arrived after a 10 hour drive. We hit the Sunset Grille for dinner and found the place packed. We ordered up drinks and probably too much to eat. It soon became apparent that the food was not up to the standards the prices demanded. Entrees ranged from $18-25 and a half pound of cooked shrimp was $18, a rather stiff mark up over the $7.99 a pound we paid at the seafood shop down the street. The total bill was $178 with tip for five, which we would have gladly paid for great food, but not mediocre food. Edisto desperately needs a seafood shack near the beach.

Meat Eater: Our best meals were home cooked on this trip. That may be the key to Edisto. Why pay big bucks for seafood in a restaurant when you can buy it fresh and cook at home. A big thanks to our friends for the invite!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Jack’s Bar-B-Que

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Jack’s Bar-B-Que
416 Broadway 615-254-5715
And 334 W. Trinity Lane 615-228-9888

Jack Cawthon has been in the barbecue business since 1976. He started with a catering operation and opened his first restaurant, downtown, in 1989. He followed in 1991 with the Trinity Lane location. I prefer Trinity Lane. There are less tourists and the staff is quite fun.

If you hit enough barbecue joints you start to notice strengths and weaknesses. Rarely does any place do it all. One or two items usually stand out, while others are more pedestrian. This is the case at Jack’s, where I will argue you can get some of the best, if not the best, ribs in town. Okay, I know I just started a fistfight and barbecue purists will probably snub their noses, because Jack’s is a popular spot with the tourist crowd. I would suggest that if you laid out a portion of ribs from every joint in town and served them up to big barbecue eaters, Jack’s would win, or at least come in near the top.

The ribs are St. Louis style. They’re fairly smoky, moist and close to falling off the bone. Close, but not falling off, and this is important. They also have a bit of fat to them, which I think brings out the flavor. They always have a hot, smoky batch ready to go. If you arrive at 11 a.m. it’s nice to know you are getting meat right from the smoker and not microwaved leftovers. I’m sad to say I’ve run into the microwaved ribs problem a bunch of times in Nashville. It’s probably because I tend to eat lunch early. The solution is to find a place that does enough business, so that they have a fresh batch of ribs ready to go at all hours. Needless to say microwaved ribs should not even be served.

The chopped pork shoulder at Jack’s is good, but not spectacular. It’s moist, tender with just a hint of smoke. The chicken has a bit of seasoning on the skin, light smoke and decent flavor. The smoked turkey seems to have more smoke to it, which I tend to like. You can get an entire smoked turkey for Thanksgiving. We’ve done it before and the smoky flavor is a nice change of pace for the traditional bird. Jack’s also serves up beef brisket and smoked Texas sausage.

Jack’s sides are nothing terribly creative. They are a good accompaniment to the ribs. The mac and cheese tends to need a little spicing up. I usually throw a bit of the hot barbecue sauce in it. The cake-like corn bread is excellent.

Speaking of the barbecue sauce, it’s the other specialty of the house. The smoky, sweet Kansas City style sauce is an awesome tomato based sauce, probably one of the best around. The hot and smoky sauce has a pleasant kick to it. They also have a great Carolina mustard based sauce and the more traditional Tennessee vinegar sauce. Jack’s sauces have won a bunch of awards and for good reason. We usually buy a bottle or two when we visit.

Veggie Eater: Not exactly a vegetarian’s dream spot, but a reasonable compromise for a vegetarian in a relationship with a meat eater. They typically have many tasty sides available that are vegetarian. Mac and cheese is acceptable. Corn bread is good. Creamed corn is good. Fills me up and all the stuff is pretty high qualify sides to a meat and three menu.

Meat Eater: We paid $25 with tax and tip for the veggie plate, my combo meat plate with three meats and three sides, and a bottle of sauce to go. If I could eat only Jack’s ribs for every meal and for the rest of my life I probably would. However, I don’t think my wife or my doctor would like it very much. I might only live a few years, but those would be happy years.

Jack's Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ríchard’s Louisiana Café

Nashville Restaurants and Food

Ríchard’s Louisiana Café
4420 Whites Creek Pike
Whites Creek

A songwriter/chef writes tunes and cooks up authentic Cajun food, in a cozy little restaurant that also serves as a jam session H-Q. Only in Nashville. And luckily, the food is top notch to boot. It’s the work of someone who believes in fresh ingredients, a careful touch in the kitchen and plenty of New Orleans flavor.

Richard Trest opened Ríchard’s Louisiana Café, in the Whites Creek storefront known for housing the Star Café, in 2005. The Star Café was a great meat and three with music on the weekends. Many of us in the area were sad to see it move away. Trest manages to capture the warm, fun feel of the Star Café, albeit now combined with a big serving of New Orleans. You can find Trest strumming away on the guitar or playing along with the band, when he’s not manning the burners. We made a recent brunch visit and found him playing backup for a young girl who was singing along to an Uncle Kracker song. You can’t beat that for a pleasant way to open your Sunday.

Okay, let’s get to the food. We started with an order of light, puffy Beignets, which come covered in a blizzard of powdered sugar. Combined with a cup of coffee and you feel like you’re sitting on Decatur Street.

Red Beans and Rice are a good example of what Ríchard’s does right. It’s a rich thick combo where each flavor stands out and also manages to merge nicely. It’s not runny, and we tend to prefer this to the common version that belongs in a soup bowl. The Jambalaya is the same way: it features fluffy rice, chicken, sausage and peppers. There isn’t the gummy, goopy consistency you often find. Get the fried potatoes on the side. They’re like thick cut potato chips, homemade, meaty and tender insider.

Like most New Orleans cooking you decide what you want to do with the heat. Ríchard’s keeps Chipotle Tabasco on the table. A little smoke and a little heat go perfectly with Cajun cuisine. We’ve been to Ríchard’s a number of times. The Po-Boys are good and Trest makes sure to have the right bread for the job. A steak can come heavily seasoned, depending on the style, so make sure you ask how it will be done. Everything we have had has been cooked with great care and style.

Veggie eater: I was extremely happy with my meal; I had a make your own omelet with mushrooms, pico de gallo, and cheese; fillings were generous and eggs were fluffy. I had the fried potatoes as a side; little hand cut disks with skins on with a Cajun seasoning sprinkled lightly on top. On another note, during an evening meal (many moons ago), the dinner salad was nearly inedible; plain iceberg, bad tomatoes and even worse bottled blue cheese dressing. I brought this to the manager’s attention at the time and was informed he didn’t like blue cheese dressing. I informed him that I did and if they were going to have salad and blue cheese available on the menu, they should ensure quality as it reflected poorly on the otherwise good food. I’ve never had another salad there. Perhaps they’ve improved? If so, someone let me know. Salad is my most favorite part of any meal and I hate to be disappointed when it sucks. What can I say; I’m Italian and hold a grudge….

Meat eater: Whites Creek is turning into a little funky community with the addition of Earthman’s General Store down the street. The farmers market in the summer is mostly organic and features all local growers. Ríchard’s fits in well with this vibe. It’s only 15 minutes from Nashville and well worth the trip.
Update 9/4/09
A little guitar and some cool songs make a great accompaniment to a meal. Richard's continues to put out some high quality food with that pleasant atmosphere. We ordered a bunch of items and everyone sampled. The Muffuletta is made Central Grocery style. The authentic bread and quality ingredients stand out. We could have used a little more olive oil to put it over the top it was a tad dry; still a nice sandwich. They have a great batter for frying at Richard's and the fried mushrooms are a real treat. The fried pickles are pretty salty, though. We did notice the sodium seemed to be calmed down on the steak. Jambalaya received rave reviews from the visitors we had with us.
Veggie Eater: I had the Pico de Gallo potatoes. The potatoes themselves were discs, cut about a ¼ inch thick; they appear to have been roasted instead of fried. They were served with a homemade Pico de Gallo. The Pico was not strongly flavored as what I am used to, but the acidity of the Pico was a great pair with the potatoes. My potatoes were not hot, which annoyed me a bit at the start, but once I settled into an eating rhythm, I actually enjoyed them. The food is not spectacular here, but the ambience is and fun was had by all.
Richard's Cafe on Urbanspoon