Have I Told You Lately How Much I Love Chipotle?

I won’t lie to you. Chipotle is a weird operation. And I was aware of its existence long before I actually tried it. But now having tried real food in Chipotle’s revolutionary fast-food context, I know there is no going back to the crap the passes as lunch at any other national chain restaurant.

My love affair with Chipotle began, innocently enough after listening to a recording of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” on one of my three-hour trips back and forth between Birmingham and Atlanta. The message of author Michael Pollan really resonated with me, especially given my upbringing in a farming family. I remembered what real food used to taste like and, post-Pollan, finally got why the stuff I ate after leaving home was never, ever as good.

After that, my husband and I did everything we could to identify sources of locally-raised and/or organic food. We learned that “organic” isn’t the end of the inquiry, especially when it comes to animal products, like beef, pork, chickens, and food produced from their milk or eggs.

One day, my husband mentioned Chipotle to me. He told me, even though it was a chain, the founder, Steve Ells, was some kind of fanatic who had figured out a way to bring locally-sourced food into a fast food context.

“No way,” my skeptical mind objected. “Mexican fast food? Like Taco Bell?” As it turns out, the answer is “yes” to the first question; and to the second, “perish the thought!”

Then, I watched THE video.

Then, I visited my nearby Chipotle.

What a revelation!

The organic, modern décor certainly was unexpected. Wood and corrugated metal are the predominant design materials, but rather than looking like an old shed, it looks like a really nice place to eat—down to the corrugated relief of a South American native on the wall and the stainless steel topped tables.

Meticulously clean but not aseptic; standardized yet unique, the ambiance underscored similar ideas I found incorporated into the food. Each store obtains its meat and produce from local farms and ranches. Therefore, the precise flavor of the carnitas in different locations may vary slightly, but the way in which it is prepared is the same. (And it is prepared entirely on site in the open kitchen at the back of the store.) And it is fabulous.

According to a message on one of the cups, Chipotle’s apparently simple menu conceals something like 66,000 unique combinations of ingredients. But I usually get the same delicious thing—a carnitas bowl with no rice, small amount of black beans, peppers, hot and mild salsa, sour cream, cheese, guacamole (yes, I know there is a small up charge), and lettuce.

To place my order, I talk directly to the person building the bowl, and I get to see what is in each bin from which each ingredient is removed through a glass barrier before committing. And none of the food is ever not perfect. In fact, nothing is ever not perfect—from the restrooms to the drink station.

Even the “tap” water served from beneath the Minute Maid Lemonade spigot tastes like good water, and not some horrible chemically-tainted liquid found in far too many restaurants. That’s because they actually clean the fountain nozzles on a regular basis. If every restaurant did that, I wouldn’t live in fear of ordering ice “water”! (Strange phobia, I know. Whatever.)

Bottom line is Chipotle has done what I heretofore thought impossible: fresh fabulous fast real food served in a warm, relaxing environment where you can actually look forward to eating. If you haven’t tried it, you simply haven’t lived. Vive la difference!





Nabeel’s Café & Market—Traditional Greek-Italian

It’s easy write reviews of restaurants such as Nabeel’s.   For more than 20 years, the Krontiras family has delivered outstandingly authentic examples of the food of their respective homelands, Greece and Italy.  Today at lunch I was reminded once again why I keep coming back to this fixture on Oxmoor Road in Homewood, Alabama, just south of Birmingham.

When I visit Nabeel’s, I must confess I tend to focus on their classic Greek dishes.  In the nearly 14 years I have dined there, the quality and taste of the dishes has never varied.  My favorite appetizer is a Greek feta wrapped in foil and baked with EVOO, garlic and oregano called Feta Theologos.  It is served with the foil twisted in the shape of a swan but the flavor on the inside is even prettier!

For an entrée, I love the Moussaka served with a Greek salad and slice of yeasty white bread made from scratch.  The meat of this dish is spiced with mint, cinnamon, and allspice—an admittedly freaky combination for a savory meat dish if you have never eaten Mediterranean food before.  But the spices in this example are balanced and so subtle I don’t even think a newbie would be offended.  The bechamel top layer is perfectly proportioned and fluffy giving the overall dish a creamy flavor and delicate texture. 

The only component of the dish that always surprises me is the cold tomato sauce on the plate surrounding the cassarole.  I’m not talking room temperature, here.  I’m talking right out of the refrigerator and onto the place.  But the sauce is delicious and, if used strategically, can take each bite of Moussaka from molten to palatable by the time your fork reaches your mouth.

Nor is the ubiquitous tag-along salad a throw-away.  Today, the last day of March, I was surprised by the garden-ripe flavor and smooth, slightly firm texture of the included tomatoes.  Where did they get such tomatoes in Northern Alabama at this time of year?!  And frankly, who cares?  Tomato snob that I am, I gobbled ’em up along with the rich feta, Kalamata olive, cucumber, and dried mint and red wine vinegar dressed lettuce.

I even adore the fact that iced tea here is not some tropical-fruity-flavored nonsense (gag me!), but is laced with mint.  Mint.  I love that in tea or even as tea.  And their wine selection is pretty darn good too.

This meal is just one representative of the fabulousness of everything I’ve ever eaten here.  The décor isn’t fancy, but it is warm and charming.  And after dinner, make a point of strolling through the market next door to find everything from dried meats to Jordan almonds.   You won’t regret it!






Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls—It tolls for Avo/Dram and Flip Burger and, if you aren’t careful, for Thee

I recently had a disheartening experience at one of my top favorite restaurants in Birmingham, Avo & Dram. At first glance, Dram and its more sophisticated counterpart upstairs, Avo, are two completely different restaurants each with their own menu and décor. Dram is heavily beamed and filled with dark leather appointments and Avo is bright, white and modern, but with the same ownership and the presentation of menus from both restaurants in each, any distinction basically amounts to which dining room you feel like sitting in.

Back in the day about three years ago, Avo’s California, slow food fusion and Dram’s farm-fresh, sophisticated pub fare were lovely additions to the local restaurant scene. Innovative combinations were described on a seasonal menu that often named the nearby source of key ingredients. And the food lived up to its billing.

Lovingly prepared braises, game selections, duck fat twice-fried potatoes, and Cornish Pasty were just a few of the delights at Dram. While Avo’s nouvelle approach to classics like fish tacos, cioppino, and crab cakes was a revelation. More than once did I leave inspired to attempt to replicate a dish I had eaten there (emphasize “attempt”).

Then came the first sign of trouble—Internet specials offered randomly on Facebook. Hoping it was just a sign of the times, it crossed my mind that should those specials become a standard offering, the restaurant(s) might have a revolt if ever they tried to pull back on the discounts.

Next came a slight renovation of Avo, first, adding a few warm touches and, ultimately, a TV lounge at the end of the room. (Admittedly, the formerly unrelentingly stark, bright dining room did remind me a bit of a school cafeteria. So this change wasn’t a total disappointment.)

After that, however, the menu was given a bit of a renovation. The inside-out burger was dropped, as was the parsnip puree and some references to specific food sources.

Finally was the coup de grâce late last week. Where were the duck fat fries? Not on the menu, that was for sure!

No, the waitress assured us, the run-of-the-mill shoe string fries were even better. These imposter potatoes had a splash of truffle oil and grated parmesan, after all. *Grin; knowing lean.*

Big deal, I said. (I’d had those once before, so I knew about what I spoke.) Where were my tender middle and crisp hand cut edges? *Crickets*

I wanted to cry. But I ordered the chicken and dumplings instead.

Meanwhile, my husband was having disappointment of his own—an astonishing inability to order beef or bison steaks, or lamb even though still listed on the menu. The waitress offered him a remaining and still delicious (she assured us) leftover breakfast for dinner pork chop from the special the day before.

Appetizing as that sounded, he ordered a hamburger.

The news grew still worse, however. My entrée reminded me more of egg drop soup than a hearty stew. For a price in the teens, I certainly expected more than two meager bits of meat among vast quantities of flopping dumplings. I’ve eaten better at the Cracker Barrel! I was so distressed, I can’t even remember what he thought of his burger.

On the way home, we struggled to find an answer and arrived at this—some organizations shouldn’t be in the restaurant business—namely, any person or group who seeks a business with unlimited upside potential. That’s because it can’t happen. It just stands to reason at some point profitability in a restaurant will stabilize. Or WILL it? asks Harvard-Business-School-types with palates of shoe leather.

As a result, of the restaurants which start well, like the one’s discussed here, many will capitulate and start to cheap out on ingredients. It’s the restaurant equivalent of the “bait and switch.”

These establishments set high expectations of quality and consistency, give established “foodie havens” a run for their money while developing a favorable reputation. But at some point they max out the number of seatings they can reasonably serve, the number of seats filled at each of seating and, finally, the number of dishes each of those seats is capable of eating. That’s when the corporate types take off the aprons and strap on their calculators.

There are, they know, two ways to increase profits: increasing revenue over fixed costs or reducing costs while maintaining revenue. So if revenue has settled into a predictable pattern but one must demonstrate sustained growth to shareholders, silent partners, or other investors, or in order to unload the pile of bricks to an organization similarly burdened—ruthless cost-cutting (read: quality-cutting) is the only answer!

First, the corporate types lose the expensive chef with all the hang-ups about freshness and crap like that. They replace him or her with a chef who will work for less and who is more “bottom-line” oriented. Why use duck fat when most people don’t know it from peanut oil? Why use local, farm-raised pork when you can sell the same stuff they get at chain restaurants for a fraction of the cost?

If a few people fade away, we’ll just give the ones who stay happy hours and nickel beer nights. Drunk people will eat anything and plenty of it!

By the time the majority of the diners fade away, the brilliant young exec who implemented this scheme will be off ruining another perfectly wonderful restaurant, and the new ownership will be holding the bag. But hey, the balance sheet looks amazing!

Fans of Flip Burger may have noticed a similar trend there and for the same reasons. It started out with a fabulous take on the traditional burgers, fries, and shakes coming off of its founder’s “Next Top Chef” runner-up buzz. Next thing you know—organic, grass-fed beef is M.I.A., followed by A5 Wagyu Beef, followed by me.

And next door, Chuy’s Mexican Cantina, started out serving junk. I ate there precisely once. The only things served to me that day that had any flavor at all were the free salsa and the margarita. How odd it was to dine on “authentic Austin Tex-Mex” (which I’ve actually eaten in Austin) but find in Birmingham it tastes like absolutely nothing. Truly, the so-called food was all texture while miraculously avoiding any flavor at all. As the original garners such rave reviews, I can only assume something was lost in the translation from local joint to sprawling chain.

It’s always sad to say goodbye to a friend. But the next time I have a few bucks burning a hole in my pocket and a yen for something wonderful, you can bet I’ll be heading for the most consistently-fabulous, locally-owned place I can find rather than suffer through any of the above.














Chez Lulu Rocks!

Every so often, I’ve got to get my French bistro on.  In Birmingham, that means Chez Lulu. That it is one of my two top favorite brunches in the city is just an added bonus on a Sunday like today.

Food fans from Birmingham can just skip the rest of this review. You already know the wonder of this restaurant with its funky décor perhaps gleaned from estate sales and vintage shops; perhaps from a really expensive decorator.  Who cares?  The food rocks.

The magic began as it often does with service of the complementary rustic sourdough plate made at the Continental Bakery next door  and of the same ownership.  The bread  is normally accompanied by a saucer of olive oil, which I find slightly odd, as my favorite flavor of the classic trio is the mildly sweet raisin-nut sourdough.  But I just ask the waiter for butter, which they are happy to provide.

A little café au lait gets the party started for real, and today, I had the tarte combo with a tarragon chicken salad on the side.  I was not disappointed by the plentiful wild mushrooms in a perfectly flaky, delicious, non-soggy crust.  And if you’ve never had it, the tarragon chicken salad is a revelation of flavor featuring large white chunks and perfect amount of fresh herbs.  It also comes in a large size if you want salad as a meal.

I finished with one of the crepes du jour–a fresh strawberry number filled with creamy goat cheese and topped with local honey.  Altogether, the crepe was the perfect size for a final course but you can add more of them and make it your main if you are into that kind of thing.  The strawberries looked and tasted like they should; red throughout, juicy, and not too acidic. And, happily, there were just enough of them on top to have a bit of it with each bite.  I’m kind of obsessive like that. 

If you decide to get your bistro on and you’ve never been to Chez Lulu before just be forewarned:  when I say bistro, I ain’t kiddin’ around.  The tables are uncomfortably small and even though the portions are not overlarge, you will likely end up with the salt and pepper shakers on the floor if you share a two top with someone else.  But if you like getting to know your neighbor, this may be the spot for you.  You may just want to consider the real estate you are given when choosing what to order.

Additionally,  you may end up waiting a bit for a table during peak times, but it won’t usually take long.  Whatever you do, however, don’t give into the temptation to ask to eat at the bar instead of waiting.  I did that once and found the four-inch counter overhang insufficient coverage for drips and stuff.  Moreover, people had a hard time walking behind me as they passed from the front door to all but two of the tables.  That bar is pretty much just for drinkin’.