Sunday, August 30, 2009

Far East Nashville

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Far East Nashville
1108 Fatherland Street

See update below 11/27/10

Far East Nashville isn’t what we’ve been used to in Vietnamese food. The classic family places in West Nashville have ruled here, and continue to do so with huge menus, authentic tastes and really good food. Far East Nashville strips all of that down with a simple, almost Spartan, menu and a hip East Nashville location. After you settle in and see what the chef is doing the answer becomes clear: we’re finally ready to branch out in this town and try something new.

The interior is much like the menu: sleek and elegant. Some light jazz plays in the background and the high ceilings are punctuated by modern lighting. That menu size does surprise. There are exactly 13 items and one of those is actually an add-on to the pho. Two appetizers, one pho option, a couple of sandwiches and seven entrees: that’s it. Skepticism sets in quickly. We’re used to an array of pho and dozens of noodle choices along with at least several dishes we’ve never even heard of. Not the case at Far East Nashville. Everything is straightforward and simple.

It’s not until you sink your teeth into the barbecue pork sandwich that you understand. Simplicity is what this restaurant is all about. The toasted French roll crackles on first bite. The savory pork is understated and tasty. Then you have a crisp, fresh snap of cucumber and cilantro. The result is a light, satisfying sandwich that creates such a nice contrast of texture that it puts a smile on your face. It’s not the classic Banh Mi sandwich: there’s no mayo like spread or peppers here. It is a different take on the Banh Mi and a welcome one at that.

Everything seems to take a few extra minutes coming out of the kitchen and the staff often reminds people of that fact. The chef creates everything to order and that precise preparation is apparent on the plate and in the bowl.

The pho is preceded by a simple plate of herbs. At some places in town you get a vast array of stuff to put in the traditional Vietnamese soup. Far East Nashville offers just bean sprouts, a couple of slices of pepper, basil and a wedge of lime. The add-ins are wonderfully fresh and soon the pho arrives in a huge, white bowl. You quickly realize it’s all about the subtle tastes. The delicate broth is lovely without any help at all. The beef is perfectly tender, which is not an easy trick with pho as the hot broth continues cooking the meat as you eat. Half the fun with pho is adding in other ingredients slowly and tasting the new shading in flavor and texture. A little hoisin for a sip and then a squeeze of sriracha. A basil leaf for pop and then some bean sprouts for snap. This is really good pho.

There is a reason that this review is done without the company of the Veggie Eater. The first trip revealed only one or two veggie items on the menu. During that visit a woman could be heard bemoaning that very fact. “There is almost nothing here I can eat,” she exclaimed. I felt her male dining companion’s pain. It’s a frustration I have heard many times, over many years. If you look at it from a percentage standpoint you realize that more than 10 percent of the items are veggie friendly. However, when that is two items you can see the concern. This is East Nashville and Far East Nashville is just the type of restaurant that many vegetarians would love, but they clearly need more options and better labeling.

The prices are reasonable and the staff genuinely friendly. We hesitate to call for more items on that simple menu, however perhaps an addition every now and then would still fit the style and the measured temperament of the restaurant. Far East Nashville is a welcome and intriguing new addition to the ethnic dining options in Nashville. I paid $6 with tax and tip for the sandwich and $11 with tax and tip for the pho.

Update 11/27/10: What better antidote for the post-Thanksgiving blahs than a warm bowl of pho. We landed at Far East Nashville for lunch on Friday. The original review was a Meat Eater only excursion. Now, they have an entire vegetarian section on the growing menu (still rather modest next to the other Vietnamese joints in town.) Green vegetable stir fry; bamboo, mushroom and tofu; and fish sauce grilled eggplant grace the menu.

Veggie Eater: The veggie section of the menu is a welcome addition. My green vegetable stir fry warmed me up on this cold fall day. The greens were slightly bitter and in a mildly hot sauce. The tofu was a happy vehicle to absorb the sauce. Not sure if the fish sauce grilled egg plant (which is listed on the veggie section of the menu) uses a vegetarian fish sauce (there really is such a thing). We inquired about vegetarian pho and were sadly told that efforts to add this menu item have been scrapped in the current space, as the kitchen is simply too small to accommodate completely separated preparation of a veggie version. There is some discussion about perhaps another location being added in the Vandy area and if so, this space would be larger to allow them to add more veggie items, including veggie pho. There are not any veggie apps, but for the fish eaters of the world there is a shrimp fresh roll which is served with a delightfully thick, sweet, and savory peanut sauce. He promises they will be adding more items to the vegetarian menu soon.

Meat Eater: It was good to get back here again. The traditional meat pho broth is still delicate and onion-y and featured nicely seasoned beef balls. The thin noodles are served al dente and are quite good. We paid $30 with tax and tip on this visit.

Far East Nashville on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Top 3 for Summer 2009

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Top 3 for Summer 2009

Periodically we’ll try and highlight some of the Nashville restaurants we’ve enjoyed the most. Here are the top three for the last couple of months:

1. El Mirador Homemade mole and other authentic sauces set this place apart from your usual Nashville Mexican joint. We’d go just for some more of their warm, fluffy tortillas.

2. Zavos Greek gets a delicious update in this former Inglewood bar turned into a hip and comfortable restaurant.

3. Tom’s Elite Carry-out Exceptional care in cooking puts Tom’s ahead in the competitive meat and three market. Barbecue should be all about the meat and they seem to understand this perfectly.

We recently stopped back in at the wonderful P.S. Noodle Pot for lunch. We’ve added our latest menu items to the review:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Los Rosales Has Closed

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Los Rosales Closed

Sad news for fans of authentic Mexican food. The owner of Los Rosales, Carlos Moncayo, has announced that they are closing their doors for good. Many foodies had been concerned, including us, when we noticed the doors were closed all weekend. I tried calling several times today and no one picked up. Finally Mr. Moncayo e-mailed us this afternoon with the news, saying in part:

"The current unfavorable business climate forces us to make this difficult decision. We want to thank everyone for the wonderful support you have always given us."

It was a really good restaurant and this will be a loss for Nashville. We can only hope that someone else will pick up the flag and try a restaurant like this again...may we suggest East Nashville for a location?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nuvo Burrito

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Nuvo Burrito
1000 Main Street

Where did the rice in a burrito trend start? Can we blame the chains Chipotle or Qdoba? Are Californians somehow responsible? Certainly rice is important in Mexican cuisine. From what I can tell, though, not usually inside a burrito. Now we’re not purists and if an ingredient makes something better, we’re all for it. It just seems like the rice is a cheap way to make a burrito seem huge, without having any real substance.

I suppose that’s not a good way to start this review of the new East Nashville eatery in Five Points. Nuvo Burrito has a lot going for it: sleek modern décor, helpful staff, recycled dinnerware and to-go boxes. The location is important. Five Points has a few restaurants, some of which are quite good, but the location could use more given the bar and neighborhood traffic. So, we really wanted to have this to be a good, cheap, filling meal. Cheap and filling are certainly promises fulfilled the good part is so-so.

The burritos are huge. Even cut in half they threaten to explode out of the whole wheat tortilla. That is a nice twist on the burrito concept. The whole wheat makes for a heartier chew. The varieties of burritos are fairly straightforward, with some creative touches. The Lonestar comes with Texas style beef, jalapenos and Spanish rice; the Ozark with pulled chicken and black beans; the Gulf Coaster with shrimp, pesto and Vidalia onions; the Dixie features sweet potato, onion, slaw, relish and bacon bits.

The DC promises lots of pork (get it...pork). The first bite reveals that to be sort of the case. There is pork in there buried under mounds of rice and beans. The real issue is the taste. That pork just can’t hold up to all that other stuff. It doesn’t come through at all. That seems to be a real problem with the rice burrito: everything else gets lost in the mix. The end result is basically okay. Smoke that pork and give it a nice char here and there and suddenly maybe the pig would be able to hold its own against the onslaught of rice.

Aside from burritos the rest of the menu is dominated by quesadillas, which are called “Ques-ideas”. There are a number of interesting combos available including one titled “90210” that has chicken, artichoke hearts, goat cheese, roasted red pepper and pesto. It’s funny, just listing the ingredients makes it sound so good. We didn’t get a chance to sample a “Ques-idea”. Let us know what you think.

The guacamole seems homemade and the taste is okay. It’s a little chilly from the fridge which hurts the flavor. Avocado needs to be at room temperature to get the full flavor. This guacamole just doesn’t have much zing. There appears to be fresh cilantro and they claim garlic is in there, but it would be hard to tell from the taste.

There several options for vegetarians and the ingredient listing on the menu makes it easy to pick them out.

Veggie Eater: There are 2 veggie burritos on the menu. I opted for the Berkeley as the menu boldly touted artichoke hearts. However, I could not discern much of the promised artichoke hearts, which saddened me deeply as I am very fond of them. The burrito was chock full of rice, as noted above, as well as beans, cheese, and spinach. The menu also noted cilantro pesto and cumin-corn relish; the burrito itself had only hints of cilantro and cumin. It was large and half was squirreled away for a lunch at a later date. It was filling and certainly helped soak up happy hour beer. I was just hoping for food with more personality than SatCo or Qdoba.

Meat Eater: It seems like better, bolder ingredients could help make this place shine. The San Francisco Brownie Loaf was a nice desert. I think we’ll pop back into Nuvo Burrito in a couple of months to see how things are going. We paid $25 with tax and tip for two burritos, guacamole, and the brownie.

11/14/09: It’s a whole grain tortilla Thanksgiving at Nuvo Burrito. The Meat Eater has turkey, cranberries and whole grain rice. The Veggie Eater is working on sweet potato and cherries. The Plymouth burrito is good, thanks to lemony poppy seed dressing and tons of fresh spinach. That ground turkey is kinda boring though and the rice rather tame. In all fairness there is an emphasis on eating healthier at Nuvo Burrito and certainly in the Plymouth, with low fat dressing and the relatively healthy turkey. I probably should have gotten something on the un-healthy side of things, like the steak and cheese quesadilla special; although, something tells me that would have a healthy touch as well. Everything just seems to have an understated flavor.

Those corn chips have some sort of peppery seasoning, but they still taste weird to the Meat Eater and the Tommy’s Tomatillo Salsa which they accompany so-so. Here is where the debate (fight) breaks out.

Veggie Eater: Meat Eater and I are both strong personalities, but we generally share opinions about food and music. Not so much this weekend. I enjoy the new Kings of Leon single, he does not (sounds like Journey-M.E.) I thought the meal at Nuvo was satisfying, he did not…such is life and 20 years of marriage. Don’t get me wrong, this meal did not knock my socks off, but it fit the bill. I really appreciate the interesting ingredient combinations that dot the menu. The Yankees in Georgia Ques-Idea (I don’t even like writing that out, but it’s straight off the menu) has sweet potatoes, dried cherries, black beans, and white cheese. My main complaint was that the cherries were sparingly applied and not well dispersed. The cherries are really needed to offset the sweetness of the sweet potato, which is otherwise a bit cloying. I enjoyed the tomatillo sauce; garlicky and slightly tart and found the chips to be fine, though obviously not freshly fried (they don’t have a fryer). The serving size of the quesadilla was more than ample for lunch leftovers. I don’t know that I would make a point of coming here, but if I lived in East Nashville, I would probably stop in to catch a quick meal after work or between errands on a weekend. Nuvo Burrito on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our trip to Peru

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Peru and Arequipa

A wide array of home grown foods, delicate sauces and regional specialties: Peru has a surprising cuisine and we have been lucky enough to be enjoying as much of it as possible over the last couple of weeks. The occasion was my brother’s wedding. We booked in a couple of extra days to do some sightseeing, and of course dining.
We started in Arequipa, which is a culinary rival of the larger capital Lima. Arequipa is known for Rocoto Relleno, a hot pepper stuffed with diced beef in a light sauce. Sauces are no small matter in Peru. The various shadings and flavors seem to allow the chef a chance to show off some originality, while staying in the traditional comfort zone. No matter what our pleadings (in my poor Spanish none the less) we never did get the truly hot version of rocoto reserved for locals. Chicharron in Peru is often served as a fried slice of pork belly, fat and meat in layers like a cake. It’s quite different from the pork skin version in Mexico. Adobo is a Sunday tradition in Arequipa, where it is served as a stew with pork shanks. Once again the spicy, complex flavor is a revelation.

Aji pepper sauces come in several basic forms in Peru which are expanded and refined by the chef. The yellow, green and peanut versions also have regional variations. The Ocopa Arequipena is a peanut based sauce often used to top potatoes or served with fried queso. The Veggie Eater found a terrific rendition at Sol de Mayo, a huge and beautiful courtyard restaurant in the Yanahuara district of Arequipa. We enjoyed getting out of the tourist areas and into the residential neighborhoods. However, there are plenty of great places to eat in central Arequipa. We enjoyed Lomo Saltado and pasta at La Trattoria del Monesterio, which is located in the walls of the famous Santa Catalina Monastery. You’ll see Italian names and menu items all over Peru, and many of the pastas we sampled were delightful. The influences of other cultures have created a fusion of cuisine before the word ever was popular in cooking. The Chinese influence can be seen in more than just the proliferation of Chifa restaurants, but also in the use of sauces and noodles in modern establishments.
Seafood is quite important in Peruvian cuisine. The Pacific waters off the coast offer some of the most abundant fishing in the world. They bring it to the plate with an astounding variety of ceviches. At the wedding they came out one after another in shot glasses. Some were super spicy and others creamy and tangy. The so-called “tigers milk” from the spicy versions (the citrus based juice) makes for a great kick in the pants at the bottom of the glass. It’s an eye-opening accompaniment to the many, many Pisco Sours (like a much better version of a margarita utilizing the national liquor Pisco). Needless to say it was a fun wedding.
All of this prepared us well for a one-day stopover in Lima before heading home. We hadn’t planned any eating excursions but a friend from the hotel said that we needed to try Astrid and Gaston. It’s the original headquarters for what is becoming the global cooking empire of Peruvian celebrity chef Gaston Acurio. You can see him just about everywhere on Peruvian TV (I tried to nap one afternoon and ended up watching him make various aji sauces). Now we don’t usually worry about visiting celebrity chef restaurants, but his dedication to promoting the Peruvian cuisine and culture goes straight to the plate at Astrid and Gaston. The various rooms look pieced together from whatever they were before restaurant life and with tremendous effect. The restaurant décor combines modern style with traditional tile and wood for a comfortable and luxurious space.
We start with an appetizer of potatoes, yucca and corn. It’s a virtual tour of the country, turning the traditional ingredients into fun, little fritters artfully displayed on the plate with tiny cubes of traditional Andean highland cheese. One bite might reveal corn and the next purple potato. Three cold aji sauces make sampling and dipping a tasting delight.
Aji de Gallina is a classic Peruvian comfort dish of aji sauce and pulled chicken. The Astrid and Gaston staff doesn’t stray far from the original. The savory sauce and chicken seem like an old childhood friend given a modern make-over.
Veggie Eater: Peru is a remarkably veggie friendly country. Just try “vegetarian restaurants and Peru” in a Google search and you will see how accommodating they are. Perhaps it’s because they cater to the granola munching backpackers and hikers from Europe; perhaps it’s simply a sign of how friendly they are. Even with extremely limited Spanish, one can easily discern veggie items as virtually all restaurants have a “vegetarian platas” section on the menu. Granted, these dishes are essentially ovo-lacto. The cuisine is chock full of potatoes, fresh farmers cheese, eggs, and corn. However, we found quite a few veggie only restaurants, which also clearly delineate vegan options. If daring, opt for the salads; they are wonderful and on our trip no GI issues ensued. Potatoes come in every conceivable form. And I must say the Italian food offerings in Peru were better than what I can typically get in Nashville. Sadly, I’ve developed quite a fondness for the Pisco Sour…

Meat Eater: Peruvian food options in the Nashville area have been few and fleeting. Peruvian Corner downtown and El Inca in Antioch have shut down. Cuzco Latin Cuisine in Murfreesboro is the only current place we could find. If you know of others, or restaurants offering Peruvian menu items, please let us know. Okay, now who is ready for another Pisco Sour?