Sunday, December 28, 2008

Café Rakka Mediterranean Grill

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Café Rakka Mediterranean Grill
71A New Shackle Island Road

You hit the door and immediately get a vibe that Café Rakka is going to be different. It looks and feels like an upscale coffee house. In reality the tiny Hendersonville restaurant is turning out top notch, home style Mediterranean cuisine with crisp, engaging flavors in a laid back atmosphere.

Café Rakka is named for the hometown of the Syrian chef Riyad Alkasem, who also likes to go by the culinary name of Chef Rakka. He opened the café in October of 2007, with his wife Linda. They’re aided greatly on our lunch visit by a staff member, with a soft voice and dreadlocks, who answers all of our million questions with a smile. It’s clear the respect she has for the chef’s vision, which is described on the menu as fresh, natural and healthy. The fresh part comes out from the very first bite, or in this case sip. We ask for water to drink and are shown a glass jar filled with ice water, and slices of lemon and cucumber. It’s a refreshing alternative and a nice touch that speaks volumes about the place.

The menu ranges across the Middle East and Mediterranean with a Turkish emphasis. There are also a number of dishes that may seem similar to Indian cuisine. Chef Rakka explains that many Indian dishes have a Turkish influence and vice versa. The sign advertising the hummus bar drew our attention. The hummus is made daily. You choose from ingredients to top the creamy chickpea dish, including roasted eggplant, roasted jalapenos, pine nuts, almonds and mushrooms. We order from the counter and soon the plate arrives like a work of art emerging from a studio. The hummus is carefully whirled in a circle with shimmering olive oil and bright red spots of hot paprika. The mushrooms adorn the center and the pine nuts are sprinkled around the edges. It’s almost too pretty to eat. We get over it quickly and dive in with warm pita bread. The daily preparation makes a big difference. The hummus is creamy, rich and yet a bit delicate, which could be used to describe many of the dishes at Café Rakka. The mushrooms burst with juice and flavor.

The falafel plate is served on a bed of tahini dressed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s really a salad in and of itself. The falafel are crisp and with a moist, tangy interior. The tang is a bit of a surprise, and shows that the chef is willing to take a few twists and turns in the kitchen. The tahini is quite lemony and a perfect accompaniment to the lettuce. The tabbouleh proves to be nicely tart. The parsley and bulghur cracked wheat have a fresh snap and the lemon juice gives everything a pop. This is a departure from many places. Tabbouleh can be soggy and lifeless in less talented hands.

Chef Rakka says he makes everything in house, including the yogurt and cheese. That care was evident in everything we sampled. And speaking of sampling, you can order sampler portions of some of the menu favorites at lunch for just $2.99. It‘s a great way to mix and match with your dining partner.

The chef pulls out the big guns, bold flavors and plenty of heat, for the meat dishes. The menu advertises that many of these are family recipes. Shish Tawook is chicken breast marinated for 48 hours to a fiery finish. Chicken cooked on the Saj (a traditional cookware like a Wok) is tamer and tasty. Kabob Halebi takes a different road, with savory grilled meat and herbs. They give you a choice of spice levels and medium will have most taste buds dancing. Lamb is well represented. Specials recently included Rack of Lamb, Lamb Biryani and Lamb Korma. Dinner entrees also venture into the seafood territory: Ahi Tuna and salmon are a couple of recent specials.

The little restaurant does get busy at dinner, even on a weeknight. The small staff hustles and the kitchen keeps the food moving. It’s nice to see that they don’t skimp on the details, even in a rush. The waitress made sure a piece of baklava had a drizzle of honey and a dash of cinnamon before hitting the plate.

Veggie Eater: Café Rakka rocks! There is plenty for the vegetarian here and even some vegan dishes. The hummus bar alone will bring me back for many more visits. I felt like a kid in a candy store and had to calm myself down and limit my hummus bar sides to just two (for a dollar each, you can add additional toppings). Hoping that the hummus would be as good as touted on the menu, I did not want the side items to steal the thunder from the main act. I was not disappointed. The hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, and tahini covered lettuce made for a fabulous pita sandwich. You can get a vegetarian platter with all of those items for dinner. The chef isn’t joking about fresh; they have pots of herbs sitting behind the counter. Eyeing tomorrow’s lunch, I had to pry the plates of food away from the Meat Eater in an effort to package them up in the to-go box.

Meat Eater: Prices range from $6-$9 for lunch items and $9-$20 for dinner entrees. Diners may remember the place as the former location of September’s. The interior is bright and comfortable with nice decorating touches. The only downside is the clunky patio furniture for tables and chairs. A meal this good deserves a better seat. You can finish your meal with a cup of intense Turkish coffee, with a flavor we decided was probably cardamom and cloves: certainly different from the usual American brew. We also made a last minute impulse buy. Mamool are cookies with a crumbly exterior and chewy date filling. They’re not too sweet and were a fine end to a really good meal.

Update 8/29/09:

Meat Eater: We had been looking forward to this lunch visit all week long and it didn’t disappoint. The tandoori chicken sandwich is grilled pita, cheese and grilled onion smothering spicy, savory and incredibly good tandoori chicken: rich flavor paired with a real kick. Cucumber yogurt on the side helps to offset the heat. That grilled pita is fantastic making this perhaps the ultimate chicken sandwich.

While ordering we found out that you can order the falafel spicy as well. Who knew? We’re glad we found out because it gives the crunchy exterior some real zip, providing a nice contrast with the moist, almost doughy interior. We ordered the sampler size, which is a great way to try several of their appetizers. The dish proved plenty satisfying: two beautiful falafels atop pieces of pita and drizzled with tahini. We even left room for “birds nest” dessert.

Veggie Eater: The hummus is excellent; contrasts of roasted pine nuts and garlic, creamy chick peas, tangy tahini, and spicy paprika presented as art. The birds nest is akin to baklava: phyllo dough bunched up in the shape of a nest, with chopped and whole pistachios, lots of cinnamon, and a light syrup. We really should have gotten two because I was saddened to share. I don’t get to Hendersonville or Gallatin often, but it is well worth the trip just for a visit here.

Cafe Rakka on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Firefly Grille

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Firefly Grille
2201 Bandywood Dr.

The feel of a restaurant is more than just the menu: it’s a collage of décor, attitude and environment. The Firefly Grille has a great feel. The Green Hills restaurant is just down the street from the Mall at Green Hills, and yet the eclectic interior makes it seem a world away from corporate polish. Mardi gras collides with tea room for a decorating scheme that covers several cozy rooms. There’s classic R and B pumping out on the stereo. The original artwork and twinkling lights make for a comfortable and lively surrounding. The staff picks up that vibe with a smile, some chat, and efficient service.

Executive Chef Kristen Gregory keeps her menu focused and simple. You won’t find a rambling five pager at the Firefly Grille. The dinner and lunch menus are a little more than a page and straight to the point. While that may leave some tastes unfulfilled, the dishes cover a range of seafood, chicken, beef and salads. At a recent lunch we found 10 items, including the Firefly burger, which comes topped with white cheddar. There’s also a simple grilled chicken and a couple of sandwiches. Sides this day included fries, asparagus, chili and several salads. Dinner ramps things up a bit with filet medallions, roasted chicken with a molasses glaze, and roasted turnip mashed potatoes. Specials included fried oysters, crab cakes and lobster tempura. The truffle macaroni and cheese is quite talked about and something we’ll have to try on a return trip.

The focus seems to be for good reason. It’s clear that the chef is concerned, first and foremost, with using fresh, high quality ingredients. The fall arugula salad is a pile of bright greens mixed with pine nuts, cherries, fried goat cheese, and pancetta crisps. It’s nothing terribly inventive, but that’s not the point: it has crisp, clean flavors and the cider-balsamic vinaigrette adds just the right touch of sweet and sour. The pancetta crisps are the only miss on the plate. They proved to be oily and rather chewy. The pancetta seems to be first rate, but there was no crisp to be found.

A roast beef sandwich doesn’t sound like much. When the grilled Tuscan bread has a nice char to it, and the roast beef is tender and full of flavor, the humble sandwich is elevated. Every ingredient stands on its own, whether it be the rosemary olive oil, a little bite of perhaps vinegar on the arugula, or the creaminess of the Swiss cheese. Even a simple side salad is presented with finesse. The tomatoes and cucumbers are elevated by a tangy, creamy green olive dressing. Fries say a lot about a casual restaurant. The Firefly fries are thin, crispy and seem to have the skin left on for a bolder flavor.

Veggie Eater: The fun, funky interior sets the tone for the menu. Arugula is by far my favorite green. Feeling a bit sloth like after Thanksgiving, I opted for the fall arugula salad, as described above. It was a generous portion of arugula: lots of pine nuts; a couple of fried goat cheese rounds topped the salad, providing a creamy, comforting effect. My two minor complaints were that the dried cherries all wound up at the bottom of the salad (it took a bit of work to rescue them) and I felt like the balsamic-cider vinegar was a bit heavy on the oil and light on the cider. I was stuffed and content, however, upon leaving.

Meat Eater: Lunch items run from $9-$14 and dinner from $11-$24. There are also a number of reasonably priced wines. We paid $33 for our lunch including tax and tip.
Firefly Grille on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 7, 2008

I Dream of Weenie

Nashville Restaurants and Food
I Dream of Weenie
113 South 11th Street
Twitter: @IDreamofWeenie

7/11: The bright yellow VW bus is back in business. We made our first visit recently to the newly reconstituted I Dream of Weenie. The East Nashville hot doggery is under new management and parked just around the corner from the original location. Leslie Allen bought the bus lock, stock and barrel and has even kept much of the original menu. I sampled a good brat and a nicely spicy Flamin’ Frank (chili, jalapeno, onion and salsa) and found them to be as we remembered. The buns are still high quality and yet old fashion smushy in style. The Veggie Eater had the pimento cheese dog and found it okay, although she thought the bun might have been a tad bit stale. We paid $12 for our hot dog feast. We think that with the new location Leslie should do great in Five Points. That empty lot next to Bongo Java needed some sprucing up.

2008 Review:

Ah, the all-American hot dog: Symbol of summer; the official sandwich of baseball; the embodiment of flag and family. I Dream of Weenie attempts to take all that wholesomeness to a new level in East Nashville and you know what, the updating works. The very name, and suggestive sexy hot dog logo, implies that this is a new weenie fit for new toppings. Operator Alisa Martin has come up with some original dog combos, without losing the all-American appeal.

The stand is take-out only and you can’t miss it. The converted yellow VW bus is planted next to a covered deck for ordering. Various examples of weenie artistry adorn the structure. Martin tops the dogs inside. Flames flicker in back, where she cooks on a charcoal grill using mesquite.

Let’s start with the basics. The hot dogs at I Dream of Weenie are all-beef, all-turkey or tofu. You can get a bratwurst, but that’s about it for meat choices, they don’t range into Polish or other sausages as some places do. Each dog version has nice flavor and the quality stands out. Even the tofu dog works in its own way. It’s a great option for vegetarians, who wouldn’t normally be out hot dogging.

The bread is another key to success for I Dream of Weenie. The buns have the traditional mushy hot dog bun texture but with tons more flavor and style.

Toppings start with the basics: mustard, ketchup, onions, kraut and sweet relish. They continue with classics like chili, jalapenos and spicy mustard. The slaw weenie is topped with homemade cole slaw. The more daring options include the Rebel Yelp with Tennessee chow-chow, jalapenos and mustard and onions. It’s hot, sweet and doggy all in the same bite. A great combination and dare we suggest: ready for the hot dog hall of fame. The chili cheese dog is a classic. The thick, sticky chili adheres to the dog and rather than overwhelming with spice it provides a nice, mellow accompaniment. It reminds me of the type of chili served up in Los Angeles on top of dogs, burgers and nearly everything else.

The specials, concocted by Martin daily, get really interesting. Some past specials: Rueben weenie, New Orleans olive dog, and an Italian dog with marinara.

Veggie Eater: Even in my meat eating days (20+ years ago), I was never very fond of the dog. I come from a weenie adoring family. Every year, when we would head back to New York for the annual family visit, a trek to Nathan’s Coney Island was mandatory. Back then, I avoided the dogs and feasted on the cheese fries. I must confess that I don’t usually like the store bought tofu variety any better. So, I was happily surprised when I loved my pimento cheese weenie. You could taste a slightly smoked flavor thanks to the mesquite grill. The pimento cheese is homemade; no Miracle Whip here.
Meat Eater: Dogs cost around $3-$4 each. We paid 10.50 for three dogs and a bag of chips.
I Dream of Weenie on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Muddea's Closes

Nashville Restaurants and Food

We try and update you if there is a change to a restaurant we have reviewed in the past. Muddea's Famous Chicken and Waffles on Clarksville Highway has closed. They cooked up fluffy waffles and tasty fried chicken, so we're sad to see them go. If you hear of any other restaurants on this blog that we need to update please let us know. And on a more positive note if you have any openings of new joints we'll start listing them here as well.