Farm Burger–The Best Thing to Happen to the Hamburger in (at Least) 35 Years

In 1976, when I was a wee hatchling, I had an abdominal surgery that required me to live for a week on the contents of I.V. bags and an apparently limitless supply of neon green Jello. Once healed, I was allowed to pick my favorite food to end this weeklong abstinence. (Kind of like the opposite of a prisoner’s last meal.) All-American, patriotic kid that I was, I chose the hospital hamburger and fries.

Now, if you’re probably thinking, “ugh,” I certainly don’t blame you. But let me tell you, that hamburger was the best, most succulent, sweetest, flavorful, fresh ground bit of heaven I have ever experienced on a bun—until now.

Farm Burger on West Ponce de Leon in Decatur, Georgia, has opened my eyes to what flavor a lowly burger is still capable of. The measures they have taken to ensure your burger enjoyment are total extraordinary and involve taking the Chipotle concept of using locally-sourced meats and produce to the next level. In short, they raise their own grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, and fabulous vegetables on farms in nearby Athens.

That’s right. Most, if not all, of their meat is sourced from an affiliated farm, Moonshine Meats, while the veggies grow up on the nearby Full Moon Cooperative.

The first time I visited Farm Burger, I was struck by its cool, unpretentiousness and the overcrowded parking lot. The restaurant shares a building with dry cleaners, so after a certain point in the evening, all the parking is for the burger joint. And that’s what it is—newer, cleaner, and hipper perhaps, but still retaining that comfortable, familiar burger-joint-hangout vibe.

Upon entering, you are supposed to line up on the left next to stacked cases housing a very interesting beer selection and review the paper menu found in baskets along the wall and the chalk board describing the specials. You can order at the front or skip the line and take your seat at the friendly bar.

The basic burger costs $6 and is available with a wide variety of toppings and sides making possible several thousand different burger combinations. The toppings range in cost from “free” to $2 extra if you go really exotic. (I was unclear if the listed price was per topping or would allow you to choose as many as you want from the list. The free stuff is so interesting, I haven’t felt the need to find out yet.) All rings and fries are real and made in-house. Go figure!

There are also lunch and daily combos and special “blackboard burgers” available every day. You could also choose from their snack menu, which looks awfully yummy in an odd sort of way. And for dessert are ice cream floats, including one of my favs, a Young’s Chocolate Stout float. (Beer and ice cream, I know. But it really works.) Farm Burger also offers an alternative veggie burger, but why? why? why would you do it?!

My first burger there was pretty simple—medium with iceberg, red onions, house pickles, and FB sauce—hand cut fries on the side and a Young’s Chocolate Stout. [Intake of breath] *sigh* Fabulous.

I had begun to doubt the world’s ability to bring me a burger like this. I had begun to believe I would never again experience the crispy, slightly smoky exterior with perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful, grassy sweet interior of a proper ground beef patty sandwich ever again.

The vegetables too were crisply fresh, without blemish, and proportionally-sized, and the bun was buttery toasted. Most importantly, perhaps, the dressing atop the burger enhanced and did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the meat, which is clearly the star of the show. The fresh fries obviously cooked in fresh oil served admirably to create an interval between bites of burger helping me appreciate the next bite even more.

On my next trip, we sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the beautiful evening, and watching the dry cleaner’s customer’s pick-up at the drive-thu. Strangely, the setting did nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the meal.

I started with beer-battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo, and got the daily combo burger which came with fries. The rings were outstanding. Beer-battered in the tempura-style, they were light, crispy, non-greasy, and perfectly complemented by the mayo. My companions got fried okra which was similarly battered and properly fried but served not as “rings.” Each piece was cut longitudinally, instead, allowing us to experience the okra spear in a totally new way.

The burgers did not disappoint either. Mine came with aged, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion, bacon, lettuce, and spicy mustard. Once again, ummmmm.

In short, it seems this burger can do no wrong. It has the power to cure the sick, help the lame to walk, bring home the bacon, and fry it up on a pan, whether dressed simply or done up in the most modern fashion. Like the perfect wingman, the sides complement without competing. I will be back to Farm Burger so many times, they’ll have to name a booth after me.

Rawr!
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Foodiesaurus’ Uptown Crawl

Yesterday was a day like Foodisaurus hadn’t enjoyed in a long time. Yes, it was hot on this June day in Uptown New Orleans. Yes, it was humid. And yes, the resurfacing of Magazine Street made us long for a nice gravel drive. But the food and locales I discovered on my brief, two meal tour made all of that well worth it.

First, my dining companion and I visited Mid-City and the former J.P. McMahon Funeral Home on Canal Street, now known as Mystère Mansion. Only in New Orleans would people line up out of the door to get married at a slightly post-bellum home, next to a cemetery, across from a mausoleum, which had been most recently used as a mortuary and funeral home.

Rumored to be haunted, the building was stripped to the studs by a corporation which bought the building in 2004 in order to convert it to a day spa. Rebuilding was stopped after the company’s CEO died and the board abandoned the project. Then Katrina struck and the home sat vacant until 2007, when it was purchased and returned to its former glory as a premier events venue and kick-ass haunted house destination during the month of October.

In addition to two bars, a commercial kitchen for use of caterers, a “cake” room, reception room with dance floor and amps for a band or DJ, private theater/meeting room, and VIP guest room, the house also features a séance room (complete with “supernatural” special effects, if desired by client), and an underground “mortuary” which extends under Canal Street and is tricked out with all kinds of theme park quality scary stuff just for Halloween.

Hey, consider it a bonus if your wedding theme is “creepy.” But for other events, you’d never know the house was anything other than a beautifully-restored, traditional New Orleans manor. Fabulous!

Next stop, for lunch was a New Orleans classic—Five Happiness. It’s always nicer to visit a place with friends who have friends at the establishment, so maybe our service was a little more prompt than would ordinarily have been the case, I can’t say. But the food was prepared fresh to order and it showed in the flavor. I had the Twice Cooked Pork.

Mine was served with my choice of a wonderful example of hot and sour soup and shrimp fried brown rice, along with a large, crispy fried wonton (folded but with no discernable meat in the fold). We didn’t order appetizers or desserts, but there was so much on the plate, I was only able to finish the pork from the spicy-sweet (but not overly so) sauce, some of the included green bell peppers and onions, the small but plump shrimp from the rice, and the wonton.

Given that I avoid Chinese food like it’s a religious obligation, I was pleasantly surprised there is still an affordable place left in New Orleans that doesn’t think steamer trays, rapidly-aging “sushi,” and self-serve soft-serve ice cream is necessary for a classic Chinese experience.

After a brief shopping sojourn, we found it was seven o’clock and time for dinner. We decided a salad was in order. Regular readers of this blog may recall my abiding affection for salads at Coffee Rani in Covington, Louisiana. My friend suggested the Uptown location of same (she thought….) on Magazine Street.

As it turns out, though apparently related given the same essential menu, Café Rani clearly was not the same. First of all, there is no espresso machine. “Café” has no coffee. Hmmm. But it has a bar. Okay.

Unfortunately, there was also a weird “wet dog” smell my friend thought was like sewerage. And only two or three tables were occupied at what should have been the front end of the dinner “rush.” Not good. Now, I’ve watched enough Restaurant Impossible to know that sometimes bad smells may mean untold horrors.

Taking no chances, we abandoned ship and embarked on a search for the next place that led us quite serendipitously to possibly the best food I’ve ever eaten. In my life. Ever.

The Delachaise at 3442 St. Charles Avenue is housed in an odd, converted-rail-dining-car-looking building that, who knows, may very well have been one. We stopped because I seem to recall having eaten well in that location sometime in about 1995 or so and because there were diners on the patio facing St. Charles, braving the early evening mosquitoes to eat there. Good sign.

Inside, was a funky bar with a few tables and booths at which were seated casually-attired college students and professions and not a few couples who looked like they might get lucky. The walls were lined with chalk boards bearing handwritten notices of the day’s specials, which were, well, special. Among them the pate du jour. The boards also instructed us to order at the bar.

Along the way, we also found written menu. After some consultation with the Internet to translate the names of some ingredients, chose the Grilled Eggplant “Cannolis,” my second example of twice-cooked pork that day—the Cuban Twice-Cooked Pork—and a lovely Chianti by the glass.

I approached the bar and noticed a row of handwritten chalk boards adorned it as well, listing reasonably priced and very high quality liquor and mixed drinks. Our bartender allowed us to split the check but either payment upfront or a tab was required.

The wine came with a sidecar (bonus!) and the food was a work of art. Nonetheless, we dug right in.

The Eggplant Cannolis was group of three roulade about three inches long filled with ricotta, chevre, and herbs served on a bed of Muhammara with three olive oil drenched and perfectly crisped crostini. Muhammara, it turns out, is a spicy pepper dip originating from Syria. Although the base is apparently ground walnuts, it was reminiscent of smoked hummus, and along with the goat cheese, it elevated this dish to quite another level of awesomeness.

Given the quality and beauty of the first course, we tucked right into the pork entrée and were quickly rewarded.

The cubes of stewed pork were finished in the goose-fat fryer and the result was tender, crispy, slightly redolent of orange mojo, and unbelievably fabulous.

Accompanying the pork were steak fry-like strips of yucca, rendered crispy on the outside and flaky, tender, slightly fiberous and a little sweet by its trip through the goose-fat fryer. The food rested on a bed of top-notch aoili and occupied a good-sized platter. My dining companion and I shared the appetizer and the main but left satisfied.

Unpretentious, affordable, and with totally mind-blowing food—The Delachaise on St. Charles should be a regular stop on any trip through the Big Easy.

Rawr!

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Five Happiness on Carrollton—

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Café Rani on Magazine—

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Food: Unknown

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The Hampton Street Vineyard is a little slice of bistro heaven in Downtown Columbia

Back in Columbia, S.C., it seemed someone’s Aunt Patti had a gig one night at a place called Hampton Street Vineyard. I would love it. Okay, so we went.

Turned out Aunt Patti (Ficken) played guitar in an outfit called Total Denial, with Liz Cameron, Jody Creel, and Mike Cameron, which just happened to be a very fine four-piece bluegrass band. The all-acoustic group was set to play on the sidewalk out front near the restaurant’s umbrella tables. But we decided to walk down to the entrance, slightly below street level, to have a drink before moving outside.

It seems we were a bit early, but the house mojito special was a welcome relief from the sweltering heat on the street above. The drink was served from a large jug and was perfect. Most of the patrons at the bar seemed to know each other but were very friendly to strangers nonetheless.

To fortify us against the mojitos that fortified us against the heat, we also opted to get some appetizers. I went with the steamed mussels special. Though most of the mussels were very good, I was disturbed to find a few in broken shells or in shells with holes in them.

A companion also pointed out the one he tried tasted “fishy” (not a good thing) and some appeared browned and rather dry on the surface. I’m not sure but suppose the strange appearance of some and any slightly fishy taste may have been a function of too little steaming liquid. The crostini were perfectly black-brown however, and delicious dipped in the rich broth.

Soon it was time to move outside with the band. Unfortunately, after a few numbers, the wind began to pick up; then the rain came. So we decided to move the whole event under the cantilevered roof over the entrance of the Kreel building next door, which we did. That bought us another hour or so of rain falling around us while we continued listening from patio chairs we dragged over.

Then the wind blew through with a force strong enough to send us into a small corner of the entrance. That was the end of the gig—at least for a while. So we went in to eat instead.

For an entrée, I ordered the Crispy Breast of Duck with warm red bliss potato salad, glazed baby carrotsn and a blackberry brandy glazed, which I asked for on the side. Dessert was a Ginger Pear Cobbler with French vanilla bean ice cream.

The duck was a breast that was seared “crispy” and served perfectly medium-rare, cut into medallions, and strewn along the edge of the plate around the potato salad and carrots. The potato salad was a simple one in, what I call, the “German style.” Accordingly, it was slightly vinegary and redolent of bacon. The carrots were glazed but no offensively so. Just enough to give them some spice and to highlight their flavor. A very successful course!

The Ginger Pear Cobbler did not appear as I would have expected—i.e., in a shallow dish with fruit on the bottom and something like pastry or crisp on top. Instead, it was rather like a pear fritter with chunks of fruit enrobed in an oblong pancake-like breading with a scoop of ice cream on the side. But the scent and the taste were amazing.

The ginger accented the pear perfectly. There also seemed to be complements of cinnamon and allspice. The pear came through the exotic spice notes, nonetheless, and with the vanilla bean ice cream made for a fabulous summer dessert.

All in all, Hampton Street Vineyard was a perfect setting for a laid-back but enriching culinary experience. The wine, friendly patrons, and musicians playing bluegrass on our way out made for a memorable evening in Columbia.

Bon Appetite!
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Myrtle Beach and the Deep Blue Sea

About two hours almost due East of Columbia, S.C., is Myrtle Beach, a lovely seaside resort town resting beside the green Atlantic Ocean. I recently had my first opportunity to visit there but could only stay for a couple of days. Nonetheless, my esteemed hostess found the time to introduce me to a few of the seafood delights of Eastern seaboard and, one, not so delightful.

Our first stop was a porch facing a marina along Murrells Inlet belonging to a restaurant called Drunken Jack’s. This place is one of about five restaurants hugging the waterway. They all looked pretty good but my friend wanted me to eat at this one and one other—a combo place called Divine Fish House that included an outdoor raw bar named Wahoo’s.

I don’t know what the inside of the restaurant looks like because from our seat we had an excellent view of Goat Island (so-called because of the herd of goats inhabiting the place), were serenaded by the co-habitating peacocks, and even got a front-row seat of some guy having trouble backing his cabin cruiser into a slip just below. Given that, the décor of another kitchy seaside beach restaurant just didn’t seem to warrant a trip inside. Besides they brought my order right out to me.

The first thing I learned was South Carolina had recently become a “free-pour” state with regard to liquor orders. This is a big deal as, in the past, it seems, all liquor served in bars was required to be delivered in those tiny mini-bar bottles. So if you ordered a mixed drink with six different liquors, you got six different bottles. You can see how that might add up.

Now, South Carolina is normal-er so you can buy your mixed drink 1 1/2 ounces at a time. Or if my experience at Drunken Jack’s is any indication, maybe just a smidgen more than 1 1/2 ounces….  Anyway, because we were planning on moving along at some point, we ordered only appetizers from the limited porch menu. I had the fried softshell crab with butter sauce.

Although the crab had a little more visible fat than I care for, it was unbelievably fabulous. It was the kind of crab I used to fish out of the water myself.  Ah, memories. Oh, and the lemon butter I wanted to drink as a vodka chaser!  But back to our story: the next stop was Wahoo’s.

Now one thing not many people know about Foodiesaurus is that of all the food in all the world, there is just one thing she has met so far that she totally cannot stand to eat (although she respects those who do) and that is raw oysters. So it was the special steamed mussels for me this round.

These mussels weren’t the absolute best I’ve ever had but they were right up there with the best—that is, those at a Belgian place I loved in Houston and those at two different Italian restaurants in Birmingham (one of which is owned by a perennial James Beard nominee). The traditional white wine and garlic treatment was just what I was looking for, and the crostini were crunchy and nicely toasted.

All-in-all, the Murrells Inlet crowd was way ahead of expectations.

Before leaving the shore, however, I decided to sample local seafood once more at a place called < a href=”http://www.sarajs.com/” target=”_blank”>Sara J’s.  At least I think it was local.  In all fairness, this restaurant bills itself as a “family-friendly” place so it makes no claim of grandeur.  Even still, I was disappointed.

The soft-shelled crab with horseradish marmalade sounded far more interesting than it was—notwithstanding the fact they did clean it free of fat unlike Drunken Jack’s. Likewise, the shrimp scampi was bland and tasteless. Even the hushpuppies were overly dense and free of any of the interesting bits of onion and bell pepper that are mandatory in Louisiana.

On one hand, my evaluation may seem unfair given the fact my standard of comparison on the hushpuppies is Louisiana. On the other hand, I didn’t like their soft-shelled crabs in a head-to-head comparison with a restaurant located a stone’s throw away.

I think the execution of Sara J’s restaurant was likely proper, I just think whoever developed these recipes failed to take advantage of the abundant and fabulous natural resources that give this area its reputation for amazing seafood.  Or possibly, everything I ate had been precooked or from frozen.  Either way, it is unfortunate then that “family-friendly” seems to have become a euphemism for tasteless and weak.

Although the restaurant appeared clean and neat and the service was friendly, the food was subpar by design, if not by execution. I consider that a major fail.

Bon Appetite!
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The Gourmet Shop: Go for Brunch and Stay Awhile….

My introduction to Columbia, S.C., was really one of the most enjoyable Fridays I’ve spent in some time. It all started with many, many, many Mimosas at The Gourmet Shop along with the best petit fours I have ever utterly failed to imagine I would eat imported from another classic Columbia establishment many miles away called Tiffany’s Bakery.

I started with the petit four.  And I am glad. 

Predictably, the petit four was a delicate white rectangle enrobed in a light buttercream glaze with a colored dollop on top.  Unpredictably, the texture inside was firm with a slightly crispy surface that yielded easily to reveal the tender buttery interior.

It was as if the best cake you’ve ever eaten married the best doughnut you’ve ever had and this bit of confection was their newborn baby.  No other petit four will ever compare.  Ever.  Shut up.  Ever.

Then came The Gourmet Shop’s first counter to the greatness of Tiffany’s: Mimosas.  Here that means a really a large bottle of champagne and a small bottle of orange juice for around $10. You get the picture.

For food, I went with the Hot Egg and Cheese Croissant with bacon or turkey sausage (the correct answer: bacon) and a side, in my case, of cottage cheese. (Gotta be healthy, right?) A cup of Illy café au lait also seemed called for. And it was.

The resulting sandwich was a golden bundle of oozy woozy goodness. The croissant was soft buttery flakiness just like it was supposed to be. The cheddar cheese was a tangy melted crown draped over the top of the fluffy egg layer. Bacon was perfectly cooked. The cottage cheese was nothing really special but who cares.

My companions enjoyed the Yogurt-Granola Fresh Fruit Bowl topped with seasonal fruit and served with the ubiquitous croissant, the Breakfast Bowl including a choice of an egg, bacon or turkey sausage covered in grits and topped with cheddar, and the Breakfast Panini filled with either egg, bacon or turkey sausage, cheese and roasted red peppers. I don’t know what those tasted like. I was pretty with my stuff.

And so the day wore on. Just to be polite, you understand, we ordered more Mimosas again and again and again.

At some point, it occurred to me it was lunch time. So out came menus for round two. This time around mine was the Spinach Salad topped with bacon, very fresh, very ripe avocado, sunflower seeds, cucumbers, tomatoes, and mushrooms with celery seed vinaigrette. (Gotta be healthy, right?)

Copious other available choices included: Create Your Own Sandwich with Medium Rare Roast Beef, Hot Pastrami, Black Forest Ham, etc., on breads including pumpernickel, rye, baguette, and multi-grain, among others; salad combinations; bakery items including Scones; Cheese and Pate Plates and other charcuterie; and several specialty sandwiches on wraps, panini, soups, and bagels.

After all of the mimosas, brunch and lunch, I don’t recall anyone having dessert but they were available, and I imagine if the rest of the food was any example, the dessert was likely wonderful.

The service was responsive and patient. (My companions assured me single sitting multi-courses were a fairly common occurrence there.) And as I passed from our outdoor table to the restroom, I noticed that on far side of the building were indoor tables were in the event of extreme heat, which Columbia is capable of, or rain, I expect. Otherwise, the outdoor street scene (featuring a violinist a discreet distance away) was definitely worth getting there early for.

There is also an actual “gourmet” shop featuring a wide variety of interesting kitchen gadgets and gourmet food items as well. Shopping while dining. Awesome!

At the end of the meal(s), the most pleasant surprise was the cost. My tab (we split five ways) wasn’t $75; it wasn’t $55. It was $47, including tip. Top that!

Bon Appetite!
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Martin Wine Cellar–Still Awesome After All These Years

If you’re like me, every so often you enjoy a spot of wine. Or three. So a few years ago, when I last lived in the Greater New Orleans area, a favorite hangout of mine was Martin Wine Cellar.

Not only does Martin Wine Cellar offer a dazzling array of wine and liquor with knowledgeable staff to go along with it, they also are one of the best places I’ve found in the GNO for salads, sandwiches, and deli items. The sandwiches, in particular, are innovative, exceptionally fresh, and combine ingredients in a way more reminiscent of Hippy lunch counters than a New Orleans deli. And it is good.

On a recent return to my old haunt, I found it much the same as I remembered only possibly better.  I enjoyed a walk down memory lane with the Californian, which is oven roasted, turkey, havarti cheese, avocado, sprouts, cucumbers, tomato, Creole mustard and mayo on wheat or pita. I opted for wheat with a side of Zapp’s Cajun Crawtaters because you only live once and life without Crawtaters isn’t worth living.

Back in the day, when I worked down the street, my lunch alternated between this favorite and my all-time most favoritest sammich in da whole wide world—the Eric (may be a fictitious name) featuring rare roast beef, Creole mustard, and pate. Mmmmm. But as Martin took this delicacy off of the menu many years ago and because I’m sure I remember its actual name, I doubted anyone remembered how to make it and so allowed the aforementioned Crawtaters to soothe my broken heart instead.

My niece enjoyed the chicken tenders and fries from the kids menu. She is a particularly slender 9-year-old, so there was some debate about whether we should select the three or five unit basket. Arguing she had “nothing” for breakfast, I was convinced to go five-piece. She later relayed that the definition of “nothing” does not include a “small” bowl of cereal. So I enjoyed at least one of the delicious, meaty portions of real, tender white chicken breast myself along with what seemed to be house cut french fries. The other we took home with the fries.

After lunch we strolled aisle after aisle of domestic and imported wine, selecting a bordeaux with good reviews for my later enjoyment and a bottle of “Who Dat?” cab for my brother-in-law, a big Saint’s fan. All-in-all a great day enjoying an old favorite that has, if anything, improved with age.

Bon Appetite!

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Rule, Brittania! The English Tea Room in Covington, Louisiana, brings the Motherland within reach

Every so often I return to visit the Motherland—Covington, Louisiana. Because I haven’t lived there in more than twenty years, I am often surprised by the dramatic ways in which this formerly sleepy old town has changed; first, becoming a bedroom community of New Orleans and then, after Katrina, when the city decided to spend all day there too.

On one particular trip a few years ago, I came upon something odd while taking an old familiar detour one block off of East Boston Street; something that changed my visits home thenceforth. A bit of Britain in Southeast Louisiana, it was the English Tea Room.

From the classic black limousine to the classic red phone booth to the two-out-of-five flags raised out front being the Union Jack, the first thing you realize is the proprietors of this establishment are hard-core Anglophiles. The interior of this converted Arts and Crafts bungalow is similarly welcoming with several small rooms and porches radiating from around the central kitchen and counter.

Looking more like your Grandma’s parlor than a restaurant, it is filled with chintz-covered tables and simply dripping with mismatched floral china and teaspoons, flower buds, and more tiny Union Jacks. So what keeps this shrine to shabby chic just on this side of grotesque? A very subtle undercurrent of irreverence permeates the place. Just the very tip of a tongue-in-cheek. You see, this is England with a twist.

For example, the establishment maintains a supply of men’s Bowlers, ladies’ hats suitable for Ascot, and feather boas for those who left theirs at home. The funny hats are optional, however. There is also a large cardboard cut-out of the Queen in full formal dress for those wish to obtain photographic evidence that they were once a seriously underdressed security threat at a British state function.

Sadly, Martin, the third in a line of authentic British ex-patriot managers, had been repatriated by the time I returned for my most recent visit, so my server was one of the actual (disappointingly American) owners. I arrived at two o’clock, thereby neatly avoiding both the lunch and tea crowd.

After choosing a table on one of the lace-enclosed sun porches, I ordered a Petite Windsor tea tray and a pot of Versailles Lavender Earl Grey from a list of, like, a hundred excellent and unique teas. The Earl Grey was served in its own three-cup pot and was divine with just a small lump of raw sugar.

Accompanying the tea pot was a three-tiered tray, the bottom plate of which contained four finger sandwiches—ham, cheddar and onion, cucumber, and egg salad. On the center plate were three tiny quiches, including two, warm bacon and cheese, and one, cool spinach and water chestnut. And on top were the desserts which consisted of warm scones (plain and chocolate chip), a mini-cake covered in fondant, a chocolate-covered strawberry, and three small bowls and demitasse spoons—one with lemon cured, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. (The full-sized Windsor tea is roughly double the size of this one.)

I ate everything. Well, the edible stuff, anyway. And the food was really good, even if the post-Martin service was just a tad slow.

On a side note, it may seem strange to outsiders that my favorite English tea house is in Louisiana, but the North Shore region, including Covington, originally was part of a British colony founded in 1763. The oldest families in the area are predominantly English, Irish, and Scottish, as a result.

In fact, St. Tammany and seven adjacent parishes were not even part of the Louisiana purchase and had very little in common with either the Spaniards who captured it from Britain twenty years later or nearby French-speaking New Orleans, which is roughly 30 miles to its South across Lake Pontchartrain.

Finally, in 1810, the “Florida Parishes” staged a successful rebellion against its weak Spanish government and formed an independent republic. Seventy-three days later, representatives of the Republic of West Florida negotiated its annexation by the U.S., which included it in the Louisiana Territory it had purchased seven years before. (The Republics of California and Texas were the only other independent republics annexed by the U.S. to form the fifty states.)

So you see, we shouldn’t consider it is strange for there to be such a staunch bastion of the Commonwealth of Nations to be found in South Louisiana—only that it hasn’t been there always.

Bon Appetite!

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Another Broken Egg Cafe—Probably Worth It.

Today was day two of my tornado-related-power-outage-canned-food-diet. Because power will still be out at my abode for another whole day, I decided to travel North toward Birmingham to the suburban hamlet of Mountain Brook, Alabama.

Mountain Brook is the sort of place where nothing really too bad ever happens so I figured hot breakfast would go on there as usual. I was not disappointed. Just from looking at the folks at Another Broken Egg Café, in fact, you’d never have known there was total devastation not five miles away.

By way of background, Another Broken Egg Café is a chain of breakfast joints that hails from near my hometown in Louisiana. As it really only got rolling in 1996, the year I first moved to Birmingham, I never ate at one until it followed me here, opening this location in 2010. Today was my second visit to the Mountain Brook location.

I arrived at about 10:45 a.m. today and stood alone in the entry waiting to be seated. The place was not busy as it was a little late for breakfast and a bit early for lunch. Nonetheless, I was ignored by the first person to appear at the hostess stand. After few minutes, I was somewhat promptly given a table near the distant wall next to one of the waiter’s stands by an individual who seemed to greet me more out of pity than any actual interest in facilitating my meal. But hey, I was really hungry.

A waiter approached me almost instantly inquiring about my drink order. I asked about tea. He suggested unsweet. I asked about their hot tea selection. He mentioned Earl Grey, green, and spiced. I asked what brand tea we were talking. Demonstrating his complete disinterest in answering any questions that would require a trip somewhere else, he said, “I have no idea.” I ordered water.

The water was sullenly placed on the table a few seconds later as the taciturn waiter passed the table by. That was the last interest he expressed in my order for an inordinately long time—not even acknowledging my stares and subtle wave.

So operating on the theory that perhaps this waiter-of-few-words was not my actual waiter and definitely not to be dissuaded, I grabbed the attention of a second fellow who seemed to have tables in the vicinity. After a moment’s consternation, this hijacked waiter deigned to take my order and did so very pleasantly.

I ordered the Lakeshore Scramble—a mélange of scrambled eggs, baked bacon, onions, mushrooms, and ham smothered in melted Monterey Jack and cheddar, substituting fruit for the country potatoes, and served with a “crispy” English muffin.

There now, little waitstaff. That wasn’t so hard.

The food arrived after a short interval. And it was immediately clear the kitchen was not a stingy as the service.

The eggs were served in a large gratin with a generous side of blemish-free fruit and an English muffin that may be been a tad overbilled as “crispy.” In fact, the breakfast was far too much to finish, and you know I tried as it was delicious! The quality of the ingredients really shone through, and the cook’s execution was flawless (except the partially toasted muffin—but honestly, does toasting really improve an English muffin?). Even the whipped butter was fabulous (and I’m a big fan of butter, so I should know.)

In writing this review, I found myself in a bit of a quandary, however. You see, once when Foodiesaurus was a little girl, she had a little surgery to remove her appendix. It was back in the stone ages, so you understand this was no outpatient procedure!

During the week of recovery spent in the hospital, Foodiesaurus was given nothing to eat but green Jello. (She loathes Jello to this day.) Then one fabulous day, our favorite food-obsessed dinosaur in seven-year-old form was finally given her first solid food—a hospital hamburger and fries. I don’t know what Foodie would have thought of that burger under normal circumstances, but I can assure you, as things stood in that moment, that was the best hamburger she had ever eaten or will likely ever eat again.

Accordingly, I am forced to wonder if the food at Another Broken Egg was really as good as I thought or if it was just a heck of a lot better than canned tuna and pistachios. For now, I will consider the food at this place several notches above other chain breakfast joints, (I’m looking at you IHOP!) but with service that is every bit as snotty as any five-star New York eatery.

Wear your big diamond (or maybe your little one, I can’t tell), and enjoy!

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Stones Throw Bar & Grill–an Oasis in the Middle of Nowhere

Perhaps it’s unfair that Stones Throw Bar & Grill exists in the former Standard Bistro site, within fairly easy driving distance of Highland Avenue a/k/a the Birmingham Foodie District. In any other town where I’ve lived, except possibly New Orleans, this would easily be the best restaurant around.

When compared with restaurants run by perennial James Beard nominees, Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings, or even 2011 semi-finalist, Chris du Pont (a New Orleans import), however, Stones Throw pales–but only just a bit. And for Mt. Laurel, the developer-created-small-town just off Highways 41and 280 in North Shelby County, this place is an oasis in a desert of country-come-to-suburbia pizza and hamburgers.

It is fine dining in a relaxed and decidedly “unstuffy” establishment. And if you chose to dine on their patio, you will enjoy a serenity and quality of air the aforementioned places, in their very urban settings, cannot approach.

The food ain’t bad either. In fact, it’s really very good. My dining companion and I were eating a fairly restricted diet this evening so we ordered virtually the same meal–a green salad featuring local produce and a braised lamb shank on a bed of wilted spinach instead of minted risotto (the latter of which sounded amazing, BTW).

A generous selection of rustic bread preceded the salad. The hearts of baby romaine forming the salad’s foundation were perfectly light, crisp, and unblemished. It was topped by perfect proportions of blue cheese, bacon, walnuts, and cucumber with a light drizzle of blue cheese dressing, although my companion substituted balsamic vinaigrette.

The lamb shanks were also generously proportioned–think: Yabba-Dabba-Do time–without being embarrassing. The meat was tender and without a trace of “wild” flavor, which to me indicates it likely originated in New Zealand where ranchers butcher lambs smaller than their American counterparts. The spinach wilted in EVOO was tasty and perfectly textured, just as you’d expect from a chef of this caliber.

If you’d ever eaten at the Standard Bistro, you’ll find the decor not much changed. It’s a modern interpretation of an elegant dining room furnished the 1920’s, appropriately set in the retro-styled Town of Mt. Laurel. But as I really enjoyed the space before, I rather glad they kept it as it was. The service was really very good–attentive, timely, and accommodating without hovering.

All in all, if you are looking for a change of atmosphere in your fine dining or live in North Shelby, Stones Throw Bar & Grill will easily become one of your favorite haunts, if it isn’t already.

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Jim ‘N Nick’s is Raising the Bar in Bar-B-Q

Barbeque is to Alabama as gumbo is to Louisiana as chili is to Texas and so on.  In other words, people living elsewhere generally think that’s what we do best (or possibly at all). 

So naturally when I moved to Birmingham in 1996, I was on the prowl for the best of the best authentic slow-cooked spare ribs I could find.  Then, as now, there were a large number of barbeque joints to choose from.  But having sampled the famous, like Dreamland Ribs, and the not-so-well-known, like Full Moon, Golden Rule, or Johnny Ray’s, there was one barbeque joint I kept coming back to—the then-10-year-old local chain, Jim ‘N Nick’s.

And that was weird in a way.  I mean, how does a restaurant owned by a Greek-American kid who worked his whole life in an Italian restaurant end up making the best barbeque in the biggest city of a state known for the stuff?  Who cares.  He just does—still—to this day—15 years later.

In fact, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q is better than ever and is no longer just locally known.  Everybody in the world now knows about Nick Pihakis (the aforementioned Greek kid).  He is a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.  That’s right.  Pihakis v. Steve Ells of Chipotle, Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, etc.

If a James Beard Award nominated barbeque joint seems impossible, it’s only because you’ve never eaten at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  The Hamburger Dave or The Burger 1920, a Company Salad with shaved Parmesan and pulled pork, a big, meaty rack of 14-hour spare ribs, an onion ring appetizer or side, creamed spinach or spinach and artichoke dip, the smoked pork hot links, hand-cut fries, lemon icebox or chocolate or coconut cream or pecan pie, and even the complementary cornbread muffins are all the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere.  Moreover, at a time in our collective culinary history when the norm is for quality to tank as expansion occurs, Jim ‘N Nick’s has done the exact opposite. 

Back in the day, 11 years ago, for example, my favorite Jim ‘N Nick’s was on Highway 31 near the Riverchase Galleria.  It was head and shoulders above the others.  And even as late as three or four years ago, the Highway 280/Greystone location was still my least favorite of the Galleria, Five Points South, or Highway 280 alternatives.  

But then an unexpected thing happened: the quality got substantially better at the Five Points and Highway 280 restaurants.  Now they are all my favorite locations.  Hmm.

In other words, as this chain has expanded, the consistency between locations has not only improved but the overall food and even the décor is now better than it ever was.  Could Jim ‘N Nick’s recent emphasis of locally-sourced ingredients have anything to do with it?  I think so. 

And diners are not the only beneficiaries of this constant emphasis on improvement at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  Jim ‘N Nick’s has also benefitted ’cause, let me tell you, a similar salad at another fine local barbeque establishment goes for a good bit less than the one at Jim ‘N Nick’s and yet no one cares.  People literally stand in line for the good stuff.

So, 25-year-old barbeque chain, exceedingly great food, local ingredients, higher than average prices, James Beard Award semi-finalist, and lines to get in the door.  Yup.  That about sums it up. 

In short, Pihakis and company have found a way to raise the bar in barbeque.  What’s not to love?

Buon mangiare!

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