Coffee Rani on Lee Lane is my go-to coffee, salad, breakfast, brunch place on the North Shore

Wherever I am, I tend to work sans office. No office generally means I work from either my home office, my hotel, or a coffee shop. Luckily, when I travel to Covington, Louisiana, there are several coffee options that don’t involve a certain company from Seattle (not that there’s anything wrong with them). My favorite is Coffee Rani located on charming Lee Lane.

I have eaten here at least three times since arriving a week or so ago and each time have been gratified by the quality of the food and the large, pleasant sunny environment that doesn’t leave you reeking of java. And the coffee’s pretty good too—although, the staff usually doesn’t know how to make an Americano. But no worries! Just order a cappuccino, instead, which they do very well.

The first time I ate lunch, I tried the Magazine featuring chopped egg, bacon, almonds, cabbage, cheddar-provo and topped with a lovely chicken salad, tomatoes, and cucumbers with blue cheese. Awesome and awesomely filling! The egg was fluffy and well-cooked, the bacon not overly-salty or underly-meaty, and all-in-all the salad was very, very filling.

Even so, after several more hours of work, I found room for the red velvet brownie. The very tempting pastries here are not made in-house. But the cashier was kind enough to steer me toward the items delivered that day when I asked her for a recommendation. The brownie is a combination of red velvet cake batter and brownie batter, topped with cream cheese icing, and it is large, moist, and good. Very good.

The next time I was there, I had the Soprano. This also-very-filling salad is described as pesto grilled chicken, tomatoes, marinated artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, olive salad, feta, creamy parmesan topped with a cheese tweel. What was served, however, was even better than described with two variations: I detected no pesto on the chicken (boring and hardly ever done properly anyway), but the tweel turned out to be cheese and pesto grilled black-brown.

That tweel is right up there with the most surprisingly good things I’ve eaten. A moment more on the grill, however, and I fear the basil would have burned and the effect ruined. As it was, however, the browned pesto brought just the right amount of crunch and tang to the apparently-tapas-inspired-salad party. In my mind, A+ for creativity/lucky mistake and execution/happy accident.

Today, I arrived early for lunch and found they were still serving breakfast. One bacon, egg, and cheddar-provo croissant and single cappuccino fairly dry, please. On top of the very good coffee with a nice solid foam was served a massive breakfast sandwich. (There’s no skimping on the portions here, for sure.)

There must have been three fluffy scrambled eggs in there as the whole sandwich was at least four or five inches in diameter and the egg layer was folded. The bacon was mercifully not overcooked and neither were the eggs. Although the cheese was shredded and unmelted bits were observable through the croissant hole, the heat of the sandwich rendered the part under the top half nice and gooey. I even enjoyed the red grape and sliced orange garnish.

In the final analysis, although the service at Coffee Rani can be young and inexperienced at times, the kitchen is really very good, the portions are fresh, large, and filling (as they don’t skimp on protein or fat), and the coffee and pastry are pretty nice too. That pistachio cake is calling my name.

Rawr!
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Real Bacon is the Real Breakfast of Real Champions

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d sip a pina colada with it!

So the other day at the Rosewood Market, the local real food market in Columbia, S.C., when I saw a certain nondescript package in the freezer section, I nearly jumped for joy. I held back on the jumping though for fear of frightening the other shoppers, but only just barely.

What the nondescript package contained was the most magical and elusive substance I have ever encountered—real bacon. I don’t mean the crap that passes as bacon in most refrigerator sections of even the finest grocery stores. (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods!) I mean Caw Caw Creek Farm’s pasture-raised, salt and sugar cured, untrimmed, thick-sliced, beautiful, life-changing, forever bacon. And it was good. Very good.

To prepare, I spared no expense. First, I thawed overnight in the refrigerator.

Then, I lovingly placed two (no more, no less) strips on a small jelly roll pan (with 3/4″ sides). The sides on this pan are very important for reserving the 1/2 cup of oil that will render out of the bacon. Yes, folks, that’s a full 1/4 cup of delicious oil per slice you can save to make everything else you cook incredible too. (This bacon just gives and gives. It’s a giver.)

Meanwhile, I heated the oven to 425 degrees. I placed the pan containing the bacon in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the meat is browned, the fat is slightly tinged with color, and the whole situation is just about floating.

After carefully removing the pan (so as not to slosh the hot oil) and allowing it to cool, I removed the bacon slices and experienced a flavor and texture that is the stuff of legend. Meaty, melty, comforting, and filling—this was simply the single best food I have ever experienced. Simply bacon.

I’m not sure I can go back to the undersized, over-trimmed, chemically-manipulated stuff I’ve called bacon before this. From now on, I believe I shall refer to this vastly inferior product as “breakfast meat” or “bacon-like product.” If a waiter is confused, that’s his bad luck. Whatever he brings me will suck anyway.

Bon appetite!

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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Adventures in Pressure Cooking—Boston Butt

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d stalk it!

So when I recently spotted the most bea-U-tiful, locally-raised 4.43 pound Boston Butt with an Animal Welfare Rating of 4 I have ever seen in any Whole Food’s butcher’s case, naturally, I snagged first and planned later. The snow white fat rind covering the roast’s top and sides enrobed evenly-marbled pink flesh. I expected great things of this roast.

A quick Google search on my craptastic Blackberry turned up a John Folse recipe for “Soul Pork Roast.” It seemed like a good start. The “suggested” cook time was 2 to 2-1/2 hours in a 375 degree oven, but I had a better idea: 40 minutes in the ole new pressure cooker! So I promptly e-mailed to myself a link to the recipe’s site before setting off to find all remaining ingredients.

The roast came enrobed in one of those elastic nets, which I promptly replaced with a length of butcher’s twine. (No nasty rubber aftertaste.) I followed the rest of the recipe using lard as the oil and with only a two modifications—(1) instead of waiting to the green onions, parsley, and the dash of hot sauce, I included them with the stock, and (2) I added an extra cup of water to compensate for the loss of liquid through steam. (The extra water was likely unnecessary, however, given the relatively short cooking time.)

I didn’t wait to bring everything to a boil as suggested by the recipe either, and closed the pressure cooker right away, bringing the whole thing to full pressure at a medium high heat. Like last time, when I prepared beef short ribs, the pressurizing procedure took about ten minutes.

When the little yellow button popped up, I started a ten-minute timer and lower the burner temperature to slightly less than medium. After ten minutes elapsed, I checked the steam level to be sure it was steady and then reset the timer adding another half hour.

When the timer alerted the second time, I removed the cooker from the heat and performed the depressurizing procedure. I then plated the roast before carving.

In hindsight, the roast probably should have been cooked another ten minutes for a total of roughly 50 minutes as the very center of the roast was still a bit rare. Because I was serving only two, however, I simply saved that rare part to reheat the following day by searing it in a dry skillet.

The outside parts of the pork, however, were soooooo delicious! Tender and juicy, the roast’s thick, white rind had melted to a soft buttery consistency infused with the flavor of the stock and aromatics.

As with the beef short ribs prepared on my first foray into the world of pressure cooking, all of the seasoning penetrated the surface of the roast and seemed to infuse every bit of it in a way I never achieved using a mere Dutch oven.

All things considered, this really cheap cut of pork—already my favorite readily-available part of the pig—was just as fabulous a subject for pressure cooking as was cheap beef. And feeding four in about an hour for less than $25, the Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner proved itself once again to be an appliance I should never have waited to try!

Bon appetite!

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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