Sunday, July 31, 2011
3418 Old Hickory Blvd.
Somchay Litchana is a busy man. One minute he’s working the kitchen and the next he’s out in the dining room checking on customers. He pays great attention to detail and that translates to the food. What doesn’t translate very well is the name of the restaurant. We still giggle when looking at the business card. You see Simply Thai serves Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese food. Of course those cuisines are closely linked due to the region. We think though, what he probably means in that name is that the dishes themselves are simple and focused and that much seems to be true. Mr. Litchana has worked in several area Thai restaurants and the experience shows.
On the Laotian side of things, start with the laarb. The Simply Thai version is a light, citrusy dish with mint, bean sprouts and pickled onion. The chili, lime and cilantro are well proportioned and the tofu a perfect accompaniment. We immediately appreciate the fact that most dishes on the menu can be ordered with tofu, which gives the Veggie Eater a full range of options. Tom Kar, coconut soup, has a clearer broth than I’m used to, so it seems a bit watery at first. It reveals a good flavor though, and is perhaps symptomatic of the joint- there’s a light hand in just about everything we tasted, no heavy sauces or bold heat.
Wide noodles with peanut sauce hit the spot with tender pork and a lovely flavor. There’s a mix-up on the curry order one day and I wind up with a standard red curry. The medium heat seems a bit mild really and yet the richness of the curry makes up for it. Super-crisp zucchini, carrots and peppers load up the bowl.
Pho is the primary Vietnamese part of the menu and the Laotian specialties are sprinkled throughout the menu. We tried to get the house made coconut ice cream and found that they were out. The same for mango. Ah well, perhaps another time.
Veggie Eater: It’s a somewhat quirky space. It appears the tables have been re-purposed from a Chinese restaurant, that or I have always misunderstood the home range of pandas (Thai folks are quite enamored with their new pandas on loan to a zoo from China-M.E.). The menu offers no key or menu descriptions to denote spicy items, nor does the wait staff ask if you have a heat preference. My thought was simply to order as is and eat as is (and there was a bit of a language barrier). Meat Eater alluded to the fact that almost every app and entrée has a veggie option (either mixed veggies or tofu), making this a wonderfully veggie friendly restaurant. The fresh rolls live up to the name and are stuffed with cilantro, mint, tofu, lettuce, rice and carrots and served with a zesty dipping sauce that is both hot and sweet. I’m a sucker for cellophane noodles and Pad Woonsen was the choice for my first visit. The menu bills the dish as a generous portion of noodles, etc. and I found truth in advertising. It was loaded with corn, tofu, scallions, onions, sprouts, shrooms, and egg. I found it a little greasy and a bit on the tame side. Next time up, I opted for the Drunken Noodles (which have now became my new “Pad Thai” dish—I just get stuck in a rut). Big wide rice noodles are topped with a mound of veggies, tofu, basil, egg, and peanuts. It was mildly zippy in spice. I believe at least three different readers of this blog have contacted us to recommend Simply Thai in hopes that they can nurture this new restaurant along. I second that hope.
Meat Eater: Mr. Litchana is still trying to get the wait staff trained properly. There were a few bumps in the road on both our visits. Everyone is quite nice but there’s a big language barrier and a lack of knowledge with the menu. It’s a small dining room with a tin roof and wood plank walls. We walked in on a loud group of 15 and it was loud. We thought we were in for one of those restaurant perfect storm moments, especially as more people walked in the door. There were certainly issues, but for the most part Mr. Litchana and his meager staff hustled their way through it- while still maintaining a cheerful disposition. That’s a performance to make any food blogger smile.
We paid $36 with tax and tip on one visit and $32 with tax and tip on another.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
The Wild Hare
316 White Bridge Road
The West side has needed this for some time now: The Wild Hare combines an eclectic, affordable menu with a comfortable, family-friendly dining room. The informal attitude is well-balanced with sharp cooking skills. All of that adds up to one of the better recent Nashville restaurant debuts. Brian Bills was co-owner of the Blue Moon Cafe and runs the place with his wife Elizabeth. They have brought in Jon Smyth from Cabana as chef. The word seems to be out. The parking lot was packed and the dining room buzzing at 12:30 p.m. on a recent Friday. They had the restaurant well staffed on the days we visited, keeping pace with the crowd.
The Wild Hare has only been open a few weeks and there is still plenty to be done on the exterior. Don’t let the dirt parking lot and non-existent landscaping scare you away. You’ll be greeted at the door by the staff and step into a bungalow of sorts, with low ceilings, bright red paint and funky decorating. For whatever reason those low ceilings keep making me think of the Hobbit homes in Lord of the Rings. It does make for a cozy dining experience. Long wood booths are big enough for a family and the staff even has Cheerios and raisins on hand to keep the kiddos happy.
Check out the list of microbrews to get a feel for what this place is about. Butternut’s Pork Slap Ale anyone? How about a milk stout? Sure, they have the usual American favorites, but the small list of unusual brews says a lot about the joint. The PBR tallboys also say something good. There is a general lack of pretention at The Wild Hare.
The wedge salad may surprise a bit on presentation: it’s a do it yourself, de-constructed version that provides a solid wedge, fried goat cheese croquet, roasted red peppers, cherry tomatoes and avocado. It allows you to mix and match to your own desires. The tomato stack is a cool, refreshing tower of mozzarella, basil, balsamic and a watermelon cucumber salsa. It’s summery and a great starter. The beer battered mushrooms are huge, juicy and yet with a tempura-style fry that helps them keep their inherent mushroomness. The smoked Gouda dipping sauce is fondue-like and a rich match for the fungi.
Beer can chicken is served in a wide bowl with broth lining the bottom. It’s an indication of just how juicy this bird is, and even better, how flavorful. The chicken is perfectly cooked and the basting gives it a real depth. Mac and cheese comes out of the kitchen in a heavy cast iron serving dish. The firm noodles go well with the sticky cheese sauce. It’s understated in seasoning and needs a little pepper to perk it up. Deviled eggs get some help from what appears to be a smoked cheese of some sort, perhaps the aforementioned Gouda. It’s an unusual twist that helps elevate the Southern standard. Fresh greens and okra round out the plate for a nice garnish.
Pizzas seem to be popular, based on how many tables had the pies as a centerpiece of lunch. Zesty tomato sauce and fresh toppings may be part of the reason. Zucchini, squash, portabella and tomato made our veggie pizza almost like eating a nicely marinated and grilled garden. The kitchen tends to make a thicker crust than what you might have come to expect from a wood-fired oven, but it keeps with the country cooking style of the place. Paying $7 for a pie as good as this is an absolute steal.
Veggie Eater: The menu has many veggie options for appetizers, sides and salads, including the veggie pizza. Alas, not a single veggie friendly sandwich or entrée could be found on our visits. So, the first time, I enjoyed a variety of appetizers along with salad and pizza with the Meat Eater, leaving not much else for me to try the next visit. On the next visit, I asked for the grilled cheese, Benton’s bacon on the side for the Meat Eater. It consists of hearty thick-sliced whole grain bread, big tomato slices, and cheese (perhaps Emmentaler?). The sandwich is served solo and appears a bit lonely on the plate. Sides cost extra.
Good, funky music mix adds to an enjoyable meal; something about the Clash always perks me up. Servers were attentive and seem to genuinely be proud of the product they were bringing to the table.
Meat Eater: Despite the fact that sides come al la carte, the prices are simply unbeatable for the quality of food. We appreciate the fact that they are treating customers fairly and we think it will build a strong loyalty for the establishment. They opened with just lunch service and have since added dinner and cocktails thanks to a liquor license. We hope they keep their unique vision and continue to grow The Wild Hare. It’s about time West Nashville had a little East Nashville style.
We paid $33 with tax and tip on one visit and $29 on another visit.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Nashville Restaurants and Food
Midweek: Goodness Gracious, Kenny's, Amish Daytrip and Fido for Dinner
We did the staycation thing this year and found it quite enjoyable. We don’t usually talk about our vacations; however all of these tips are things you can do yourself in a daytrip or in the case of our first mention, about any time you want.
We’ve done the Fido breakfast for years. They started dinner service quite a while ago and it’s taken us this long to get there. It’s still the same loud, bustling coffee joint in the evening as it is during the day and perhaps even more so. The menu is a short one and changes often. This day promised salmon, a couple of soups, a burger, ratatouille and a couple of other entrees. That Local Burger is a revelation and of unusual construction: grass-fed beef and lamb patty topped with fennel, fig, onion straws and Kenny’s cheddar cheese. It’s pretty darn good and a perfect medium rare as ordered. We’d stack this sucker up against anything at the all-burger joints. Thai chicken noodle soup is a hybrid of spicy and wholesome all at the same time. The ratatouille is the embodiment of summer: eggplant, whole cherry tomatoes, and the unusual addition of shitake mushrooms and Noble Springs goat cheese. The Veggie Eater was not offered a spoon with her soup, but soon learned it was not necessary, as it was so chunky it was easily managed with a fork.
Fido may not be the place for a romantic dinner due to that bustle, but would prove an excellent choice for a fun date. We paid $23 with tax and tip.
And speaking of Kenny’s cheese- we took a day trip to Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese in Austin, Kentucky. It’s about an hour and a half from Nashville. If you call ahead they’ll be happy to arrange a tour for you. It’s not much more than a visit to the production room and storage room. What you do get is a walk-through of the entire cheese making process with plenty of time for questions. Kenny’s is unpasteurized, which means the milk comes straight out of the cow and into the processing tub, where it gets cooked up and then turned to curd for pressing. Kenny has expanded his cheese line-up lately and his wife says business has been good, up nearly 40 percent last year. We sampled the new varieties including Joe (coffee infused) and Ted (a blue rind named after Kenny’s granddad). Our favorite was the two and-a-half year old cheddar. We asked if he was considering aging the cheddar longer and were told that while they would like to do that, the demand is simply too high to allow any product to sit idly by. We thank Mrs. Mattingly and their employees for their hospitality. It’s an enjoyable trip thanks to the interesting tour, the bucolic countryside and the Amish in the area. There are plenty of roadside stands and markets to stop in and browse.
Pizza anyone? We asked for a recommendation for a local lunch spot and Kenny’s wife mentioned a bakery down the highway. The Country Bakery on Highway 87 in Austin is an unassuming place run by Mennonite folks. There’s a tiny little counter at one end and a few picnic tables outside. They turn out a variety of wonderful breads, doughnuts, fritters and cookies. The special of the day was white chili. I shrugged and decided to give it a go. One sip and I could tell everything was going to be great: it’s spicy, complex and full of sausage and chicken- one of the best of its kind I have had. The rest of the lunch menu doesn’t look to offer much, until you get a closer look at the pizza. Pizza is the mainstay of the joint and that fresh dough goes to good use. It’s excellent pizza from the hearty crust to the toppings. A meat supreme found a generous spread of bacon, ham, sausage and pepperoni. They made a special veggie pizza on request—it was loaded with pickled banana peppers to add a little zing, green peppers, onions, and olives. Who knew Mennonites could make great pizza? We do now. If you go, check out the wooden Amish Buggy figurine with Pizza and Bakery sales logo on it…pretty interesting.
You’ll see Amish folks along the main drags on the way out to Kenny’s and if you get off the beaten track you’ll find plenty of Amish farm stands and crafts for sale. Quite frankly, the Amish thing often seems a bit ridiculous if you’re only buying Amish stuff from large manufacturers in Ohio.
Habegger’s is located just off Highway 100 west of Scottsville, Kentucky. You’ll find the usual selection of Troyer stuff. The real find is the veggie chips. They take beets, pumpkin, carrot and green beans and turn them into a healthier version of the veggie chips you can buy in the store. It’s cheap enough in bulk to really stock up.
A daytrip to Murfreesboro led us to Goodness Gracious Café. It’s located just off the square on College Street in downtown Murfreesboro. The historic home is decorated in an eclectic Southern-style. It’s obvious from the get-go that everything is house made. Puff pastry chicken is a great lunch. The pineapple cheese casserole was both different and excellent. You’d think that pineapple might be too much for casserole, but cooked-up it works well. Blue cheese bacon slaw is finely diced with nuts for a unique flavor. The Veggie Eater had the Four Cheese and Herb Quiche of the day, coupled with a choice of two sides, a garden salad and sweet potato fries. The quiche is a savory single serve pie, complete with homemade pie crust. The salad is generous in size, with a fabulous homemade bleu cheese dressing. The sweet potato fries were baked, but amazingly crispy.
Friday, July 15, 2011
Weekend: Green Asia, Butter Cake and Arnold’s Latest
The Nashville Farmers’ Market is feeling like a hopping place again. Most of the work from flood repair is done, including a new demonstration kitchen, and several new spots have opened recently. We had a first look at them this week.
AM@FM is Arnold Myint’s latest enterprise. It’s basically an outpost of his restaurant Cha Chah, serving sandwiches and side dishes. He says they’re sourcing some ingredients right out of the Farmers’ Market. The sandwiches are pre-made at Cha Chah. It’s basically inventive Southern picnic fare with an international twist. We enjoyed the fresh snap of the veggies in the hummus naan sandwich. Rosemary macaroni salad hit the spot and while the smoked mustard potato salad showed possibilities, on this day the potatoes were undercooked. As usual, it all features Arnold’s lighter touch in seasoning. While it’s designed as a grab and go place they also have a little counter for people to get those sandwiches on real serving ware, which gives it a mini-restaurant feel. We found Mr. Myint working hard on the day we visited. He clearly wants to make sure the new joint lives up to expectations. The prices are quite reasonable, all adding up to an excellent addition to the Market House restaurants.
Green Asia takes over the Chinese food options at the Farmers’ Market. The menu items on the serving line span many of the typical Chinese-American standards, with Japanese items apparently coming soon. Chef Jackie Liu of Sake in Cool Springs has put some thought into the quality of ingredients and cooking style. It’s definitely better than your usual local Chinese take-out joint. Lo Mein noodles are served al dente and the sauce is delicate. Garlic chicken is also quite familiar and yet a bit better. They had several vegetarian items available with the promise of more in the future. Nothing ground breaking here and yet still a welcome upgrade in the Asian food offerings at the Farmers’ Market.
We finished it off with Butter Cake from none other than the Butter Cake Babe. Her creations are kind of like chess pie meets coffee cake in an armed buttery standoff. She offers several flavors and we found the original to be moist and decadent. On finishing, we felt a need to empty our pockets and buy more. She serves up other baked goods and coffee to fill another important slot in the Farmers’ Market line-up.
You can check them all out tonight at the Night Farmer’s Market from 6:30pm to 8:30pm! See the facebook page for details on other vendors who will be participating in the special night event.
Nashville Farmers’ Market
900 Rosa Parks Blvd.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Nashville Restaurants and Food
Midweek: Smiley’s and I Dream
What happens when a Gospel minister and musician brings grandpapa’s corn bread recipe to East Nashville? Check out the new Gallatin Pike restaurant, Smiley’s Soulful Kitchen, and find out. That fried corn bread has a bit of sweet thanks to some sprinkled sugar and is perhaps some of the most addictive of its type in town. Also be sure to sample grandmama’s banana pudding with a bit of nutmegy spice to it. Smiley’s serves up a standard meat and three menu along with soups, salads and breakfast on the weekends.
They’re just getting going and they’ve been finding their legs in the kitchen. But the enterprise shows great promise. It’s the latest venture from Minister John Smiley who performs with his Gospel group the Voices. Ask him about the connection as he makes the rounds, checking on tables, and you’ll get a big grin. CDs are for sale behind the counter. We hope that they combine the musical and gastronomical talents in the future. Minister Smiley said he is considering the idea, although no plans are set yet. In the meantime, you can check out the gospel groove here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqWN2z9O7iA
Smiley’s Soulful Kitchen
3623 Gallatin Pike
The bright yellow VW bus is back in business. We made our first visit 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 (mine were fine). 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.
I Dream of Weenie
113 South 11th Street
Sunday, July 10, 2011
4730 Old Hickory Blvd.
A sign in the open kitchen proclaims “Welcome to the Mexican Waffle House” and it’s just one indication that the owners and staff at Taqueria Vallarta have a good time. It’s a long-time family joint serving authentic taqueria fare, a fact well-known to folks in the Old Hickory area.
The dining room is humid and warm on both of our visits reflecting perhaps Mexican preferences or the result of having that grill out in the open. The kitchen activity does provide a festive vibe as the cooks are chatting and laughing with the men sipping spicy weekend sopas (soups) at a tall counter. Our waitress today is impossibly young, helping out Mom, and doing an incredible job of it. It’s endearing and symptomatic of the family atmosphere that pervades Vallarta.
We start with a small bowl of roasted jalapenos- salted and seasoned. They’re a tongue-tingling way to kick-off your meal, although if you are Anglo, and not a regular, you may need to ask for them. They do bring the Anglo folks salsa and chips without asking. The chips are thick and the salsa is okay. The menu lists you as having to pay for salsa, but I don’t think it was rung up on our bill. Specialties of the house includes chili verde, tamales, carne guisada (stew), chuletas de Puerco (Mexican style pork chops) and tinga tortas (meat in a spicy and sour sauce). A carnitas taco features rich and flavorful pork with simple onion and cilantro as the only accompaniment. Each version of taco has different pairings. An al pastor, marinated pork taco, adds a lime and radish to the mix. A Cubano torta is deftly assembled chicken, steak, and fried egg, all lovingly grilled flat for a solid sandwich. The chili verde is a hot stew-like plate of tangy verde sauce with pork and onions. Served with corn tortillas it’s a hearty dish perhaps best suited for colder weather.
Veggie Eater: There’s not much for the veggie eater here, as the menu focuses on the meat items for the tacos. Our young waitress on both occasions though, is happy to serve as interpreter between us and the kitchen. Opting to remain safe, I went with the cheese enchiladas; not terribly interesting, but very well prepared here. On the table is a delightful rojo sauce- smoky and tangy and a wonderful condiment for those enchiladas. The space is bustling and festive. The kids are allowed to be kids and all the adults know one another and hop between tables to visit. I’ll go back just for the fun vibe.
Meat Eater: We stumbled onto Taqueria Vallarta while on a mission to try another restaurant in the area and happened in only because the other restaurant was closed. We’re certainly glad that we did. When I asked one waitress how long they had been open she laughed and said 12 years, implying that we really should have known about them by now. We couldn’t agree more.
We paid $22 with tax and tip on one visit and $19 with tax and tip on another visit and for both occasions we had enough food to stuff ourselves silly.