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Monday, December 29, 2014

Red Robin

     Yes, I must be the last person in the free world that had never tried Red Robin, but burger snobs like me often overlook the obvious, plus until recently, there wasn't one conveniently located. John said it would be like Fuddruckers, and that was a good enough endorsement for me.
     The mood is that of a happy '50s diner with a bar- lots of kiddie birthday parties going on, cheerful servers, neon signs, cooks hustling in the open kitchen.
Hubby ordered the Smoke & Pepper, which   they call their finest. The black pepper bacon was cooked the way he likes it- not too limp, not too crispy. This burger promised a smoky flavor but failed to deliver. "I ordered the best, but I wasn't impressed." From the poet laureate of the meat world.
     I ordered the Guacamole Burger but switched the Swiss cheese for blue cheese. This burger really tried hard to be good and it had potential, but it was missing the pink interior of a medium-cooked patty, and even more noticeably, the guacamole.  There was a schmear of it on one side of the bun, but I looked through the burger several times to make sure I hadn't somehow misplaced it. I shouldn't have to do that, right?  If the name includes the word 'guacamole', then the avocado flavor and texture should rise to meet me. We both ordered the steak fries and found them stale and disappointing.
     I won't say it's the worst burger I've ever had, but it can't hold a candle to my Latin House burgers. So far, nobody can.

BB Free ©2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ankarr Restaurant & Pastry Shop

    Since its inception seven years ago, I've been driving by Ankarr curious to try it after many recommendations. The visit did not live up to my high expectations.
     To begin with, they call themselves a "European deli". Hmm... I'm not sure I totally got that vibe. Some menu items gave a hint of European influence, but the majority of what I saw was more on the Cuban side. There were some omelettes, Spanish dishes and a significant presence of Spanish chorizo as well as a couple of quiches and one or two Italian and French pastries, but nothing you wouldn't find in any fine bakery.
     Somehow it all lacked a true Mediterranean flavor. I did appreciate the fresh-squeezed orange juice. That was worth some points.
     We ordered the chorizo omelette, the chorizo empanada and a Napoleon to share for dessert. The omelette was very generous and flavorful even if on the dry side. The empanada was ordinary and the Napoleon just fetched a 'so what?' John called it a rectangular cream pie.
      Now for the service. Two omelettes were delivered to our table, and when I politely pointed out that I had ordered an empanada, the server proceeded to blame me for not indicating properly at the display case when ordering. I guess here the customer is NOT always right. In her defense, if there is any, there doesn't seem to be a clear division of labor among the staff. The same people that take your order, serve it and clean empty tables, all at the same time, which translates into inordinately long wait times to order, to be served and to pay.
     I can sum up the experience in one word: pedestrian.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Grand Lux Cafe

     'Tis the season for shopping and this bright Saturday in December was dedicated to just that. We headed toward Sawgrass Mills outlets in Florida's Broward County expecting to come out with treasures aplenty. That was not to be for several reasons: First, the overwhelming crowds made it difficult to shop for what we wanted. Then, we didn't feel the "sale prices" were such great deals, and finally, I'm just plain cheap. No way to sugar-coat that.
     We did enjoy our stroll around the Colonnade area, an ersatz Rodeo Drive with all the usual suspects: Prada, Coach, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci... places where my mortgage payment only gets me a pair of sandals. Within this retail stratosphere sits the Grand Lux Cafe, "the younger and sexier sister of the Cheesecake Factory", as our server Jason characterized it. Created by the same minds, it is indeed an upscale version of the popular Factory.
     The vast space contains luxurious booths, an opulent backlit onyx wall and dramatic light fixtures suspended from an Art Deco-inspired high ceiling. We learned that their international dishes are prepared on demand with fresh ingredients, nothing pre-packaged or shipped in bulk. In fact, certain desserts have to be ordered with dinner to allow time for preparation 'from scratch'.
     I chose the Chicken Madeira with mashed potatoes and John ordered the ginger beef. We found both entrees generous, savory and well executed.
    I was intrigued by the presence of beignets on the menu, an item generally found in eateries with New Orleans-themed cuisine, so I had to try them. This is where their actions spoke as loudly as their words. A basket of hot-off-the-fryer, sublime little ovals of dough came to our table in the company of three rich sauces- chocolate, raspberry and Jack Daniel's cream. But can I tell you? As inviting as the sauces were, those little pillows from heaven didn't need any embellishment. Every sugary bite just melted in your mouth leaving you eager for the next nibble.
     Except for the tiny issue of the table bread, cold slices of French baguette and some type of wheat bread that we found uninspired, we left wishing we had one of these franchises closer to our neighborhood. Divine desserts, elegant and inviting space and solidly good food!

BB Free ©2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Green Turtle Inn


     The multitude swarms around every corner of retail space in the city in a mad pursuit of perceived savings on this Black Friday, but a small group of us decided to escape into a bubble of cool sea breezes, sixty-degree temperature under Tiffany-blue skies. To complete the color palate, the narrow road to Long Key is flanked by the emerald bay on one side and the teal blue Atlantic on the other.

     Following a lively after-Thanksgiving celebration, our Saturday morning was begging for a hearty breakfast and this establishment, just a short drive into Islamorada from our hideout in Long Key, came highly recommended.
     We entered the cozy yet elegant dining room and immediately my friend DJ did a double-take when she spotted the monumental sticky buns that were being distributed to every populated table. But we'll talk about those later. Fortunately for me, our party of five picked a good sampling of menu items.
Frances ordered the shrimp and grits, one of her usuals, with a side of collard greens; DJ chose the Eggs Benedict with a side of hash brown casserole; Mario and I went for The Sid, a mushroom, peppers and cheddar omelette, except I replaced the cheddar with Boursin cheese and skipped the peppers. He also opted for the hash brown casserole and I decided on the grits. And my hubby was feeling their Bimini Waffle which can be infused with your choice of fruit or chocolate chips. The Purist had it plain, or 'classic' as he calls it, with a side of bacon.
     I tasted the collard greens and found them tangy and refreshing. I also sampled the hash brown casserole and loved the 'mac and cheese' texture. Great alternative to the ordinary dry shaved version so ubiquitous in breakfast dishes. My cup o' grits was warm and satisfying, as expected.
     By most people's standards, the omelette was very good. It had plenty of mushrooms, it was fluffy but substantial at the same time. That said, why is it so hard for me to find flavor in restaurant omelettes and scrambled eggs? They always seem on the edge of bland. I feel as if one forgotten pinch of salt or a teaspoon more of butter in the pan could make the difference, but instead I must rely on add-ons to capture the flavor. And speaking of add-ons, if I may pat myself on the back for a second, the Boursin cheese decision was a stroke of genius. I positively recommend it. The silken cream got along famously with my omelette and made up for any flavor shortcomings I may have detected.
     Now for the sticky buns: They were massive, doughy, wallowing in cascades of viscous syrup and crowned with chewy pecans. We ordered one for the table and everyone was more than satisfied with their portion, not to mention it served us well as DJ's improvised birthday cake. The syrup was so thick, it was a bit hard to navigate. I still think the sticky buns at Knaus Berry Farms are the ones to beat, but this was a gratifying way to end a pleasant and comforting brunch.
     The Green Turtle Inn is definitely not a one-bite stand!
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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

JJ's on River Street/ The 1907

     Ellijay, Georgia is a sleepy town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.What they call "downtown" is a small square surrounded by antique stores and sprinkled with an ice cream shop here, an old hardware store there and among the few eateries, JJ's on River Street, a small restaurant with big dreams. First on the list, a name change- as of January 2015, it will be renamed 'The 1907'.
     Wayne Sloop, an image consultant for small businesses, officially became a restaurateur two days before our visit. In fact, the ink on the week-old sales contract was still wet. He is a personable, refined man, generous with his anecdotes about the journey to restaurant ownership. He gladly drives 40 miles each way every day from his home in Canton, Georgia "to make sure every lunch and dinner customer is happy." And to answer impromptu questions from humble food bloggers.

BBFree: What triggered the impulse to buy JJ's?

Wayne Sloop: I didn't set out to buy it. I was referred to the previous owner to help him create a website for JJ's. When I asked him "how can I help you?" he answered "you can buy this restaurant." On my way home, I called my wife and told her, "I came for a meeting and left with a restaurant."

BBF: Did you have any prior experience or know anything about the business?

WS: I had 25 years of experience in both food service and management, including a stint at Christy's in Miami before I started an imaging business, CR2 Imaging. The previous owner confessed that he just wasn't a 'restaurant man'. I looked around the place, I brought in my friend BK Foster to look at it and we agreed that many things would need to change- the menu, the decor, the branding, but we still saw an opportunity, not only for the building but also for the region.

BBF: Speaking of the branding, why 'The 1907'?

WS: Because that is the year the building was built. I was on a conference call that my mother was on and when the name 'The 1907' came up, she said, "I love that! That was the year my mother was born." That sealed it.

BBF: What are your goals for the restaurant?

WS: Our main goal  is to be as close to a completely "green" restaurant as we can. We want to leave virtually no carbon footprint. The waste management companies will not be happy about that. Food scraps will go to local composters and farmers, the emphasis will be on using sustainable foods, and except for certain seafoods (which will also have to be sustainable), everything will be purchased from local sources in the surrounding 100 miles. Even the new bar we're building will be made of reclaimed wood.
     Also, we want to show that the culinary staples associated with this region can be elevated. We want to stay away from terms like 'Southern' or 'country' food. We'll call it 'New South Cuisine'. The idea is to put a different spin on well-known dishes like fried chicken and collard greens, and abandon heavy gravies in favor of more subtle sauces.

BBF: What impression do you want the customers to have when they leave the restaurant?

WS: I want people to say, "if you're in the North Georgia area, that's the place to go."

     Amidst laughter and more great conversation, our spontaneous interview ended, not without Mr. Sloop inviting us to return for the Grand Opening with promises to tell us about the building's resident ghost!
     This affable entrepreneur may be on to something. If he is successful in reaching his goals, especially in revolutionizing the regional cuisine, this restaurant will be a must-visit. Based on our experience, they have a good head start.
     We originally came in to escape the blistering cold and in search of a bowl of hot soup. Once inside, we realized this was not just another bar and grill.
     The servers welcomed us at the door in impeccable black uniforms. The wide dining room area is fringed on one side by an attractive wall of exposed brick, and the seating consists of individual tables, not booths, which to me goes a long way in giving a casual restaurant that extra shot of elegance.
     As we reviewed the menu, a few items besides the French onion soup enticed, so a quick thawing out turned into a leisurely dinner. I stayed faithful to my original plan and ordered the soup but added the artichoke/spinach dip with homemade pita chips. John ordered the shrimp and cheese grits, and his daughter Nan ordered the honey fried chicken.
     John's shrimp was cooked perfectly but the grits forgot to bring the cheese along for the party.
Nan said her chicken was good and sweet, as honey chicken should be. It came with a side of spicy collard greens and tomatoes, an example of the direction this restaurant is taking with regional dishes.
     My onion soup was savory with the expected meaty piece of bread soaked in the amber broth and a canopy of Gruyere cheese to complete this always satisfying crowd favorite.
     The artichoke/spinach dip was just a little loose in texture and heavier on the spinach flavor than the artichoke, but none of that mattered when I took the first bite of the homemade pita chips. These are little golden triangles of fried dough with an ever-so-subtle crispiness on the outside and a comforting chewiness on the inside. This has to go on my list of things I could eat out of a big bag on a cold day while watching a good movie. I told Mr. Sloop he should consider packaging these and selling them as a specialty item. There's a fortune to be made there!
     The owner's excitement for the future of this restaurant is contagious. I sense his commitment to this endeavor in his attention to the details- food presentation, the way the servers place the dishes on the table (I learned there is strategic thought put into the way a plate is positioned in front of the consumer), even how customers are addressed by their last name when their credit cards are returned to them. These little things may not be noticeable or even significant to some people, but they are to me. I like when the staff makes me feel like a VIP.
     Onward and upward, Mr. Sloop! The payoff will be sweet.

BB Free ©2014


Sunday, November 30, 2014


     Old Norcross is a picturesque historic village in North Atlanta that has special significance for me. It's where John proposed under a canopy of magnolia trees. It is also a little stretch of Americana in the middle of suburbia that transports you away from the rushing city. It is teeming with sprawling parks, regal fountains, old and new architecture faithful to the style of the late 1800s, boutiques, gift shops, and plenty of places to eat.
     Paizanos is modeled after the traditional Italian eatery. Pizza pies are the specialty, but they include the obligatory pasta dishes on their menu. The location is small but comfortable, the bar is attractive and the service is excellent. It was just perfect for a family lunch on a laid-back Sunday afternoon.
     There were nine of us at the table so there was quite a variety of dishes. I didn't take a bite off each person's plate so I can only describe my own, but everyone seemed satisfied with their choices.
     We started on a great note. Their garlic rolls or "knots" came piled in a deep and ample bowl with a serving of marinara sauce on the side. They were meaty, lathered in garlic oil and bejeweled with chunky pieces of garlic that I didn't dislike, although some at the table mentioned they preferred their garlic minced rather than chopped.
     A cheese pizza came for the two youths in our party and it garnered oohs and aahs from everyone. Even I found it attractive and fragrant in spite of my general indifference toward pizza. Some of the other items represented included lasagna, three different chicken presentations- Florentine, Parmigiana and Alfredo, all accompanied with a side of pasta. After quite a long stretch of lively conversation, a reverent silence came over the table broken only by satisfied sighs.
     I ordered the Gnocchi Alfredo and there were no surprises. The sauce was a little thin but the flavor was solid. John ordered yet another chicken option, Marsala. He said it was 'standard'. Nothing different from what he's had a hundred times before.
     In all honesty, the afternoon was more about family gathering together than having a gastronomic experience, and Paizanos is ideal for that purpose. You get what you expect from the popular menu items, plus those sinful bread knots. What more could you ask for?
    BB Free ©2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cuban Guys

     Fast, cheap and authentic are the words that come to mind when describing these little joints that have popped up around Miami. The menu is quite full of everything you would expect to find in a Cuban sandwich shop. Plantain chips, yucca fries, cod fritters and their signature crispy string fries, all fresh and prepared on the premises, from what I could see.
     John ordered the Original Frita, a thin slice of meat heavily seasoned with paprika, grilled onions and a shower of string fries on a Cuban roll. He didn't care for the seasoning so he wasn't impressed.
     I had the Pan con Lechón, pulled pork marinated in garlic 'mojo', grilled onions and their signature blanket of string fries on toasted Cuban bread. I have to say I liked it. The pork was tender and tangy, as I expected. I do think a little more meat and fewer string fries would make these sandwiches top notch in the fast-food kingdom.
     I wouldn't make a special trip for their food, but they add variety to the options for inexpensive, casual meals. That's a good thing.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ChillN Nitrogen Ice Cream

     Tucked away in a drab and nearly lifeless strip mall on the East side of Miami's US1, is this minuscule place with the most delicious little secret. When you take a panoramic view of the shopping center, traffic is nearly undetectable except right in front of ChillN. Hoards of people huddle inside and out like bustling ants on a hill, perfectly willing to wait for a turn to place their orders.
     Given my vast ignorance in matters of chemistry, my expectations of flash-freeze nitrogen ice cream were not high. I couldn't shake the images of creepy cryogenic experiments from my head. What I found was the creamiest ice cream I've ever had this side of my beloved gelato. The flavor choices, add-ons and miscellaneous elements available can be combined in nearly limitless ways to build your personal cup of heaven.
     I chose pumpkin frozen yogurt with Nutella and brownie bites. John had one of their specials or 'Equations of the Week', chocolate ice cream with cookie bites. Both the yogurt and the ice cream were satisfyingly dense and velvety and the flavors mild yet distinctive.
     These little unexpected gifts from Providence make life so much sweeter!

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