Thursday, December 26, 2013

Lucky Bamboo: Good Chinese and Nashville Food, Together At Last?

     Nashville restaurant goers pretty much gave up on having anything like a Holy Grail for Chinese food in the area, long ago. There have been any number of kitchens in every area — Nolensville Road, Green Hills, Midtown, North,  Downtown — over the years that serve passably okay meals. Buffets, more. What's typical is a restaurant will have one thing on their menu they do very, very well, but everything else, not so much. You'll get good Garlic chicken here, great green beans there, and amazing sweet & sour pork on another side of town. Cheap, frozen ingredients probably don't help.

All photos ©2013 Mary Brace all rights reserved.
    A lot of people did enjoy going to Lucky Bamboo for Dim Sum, though, and were disappointed when it shut down last spring. However, new owners have taken over, and it's the same crew that gave Chinatown (Green Hills) a make-over, much to the Scene's delight.

    Lucky Bamboo only re-opend on Thanksgiving Day of this year and the current verdict is: they're still finding their feet, but it's worth supporting while they try to work out the kinks. I went with a group of 8-12 on both visits and each time, some of us were thrilled with our take, and some were deeply disappointed.

   First a look at what Lucky Bamboo is doing right:

   Reaching for authentic: Appetizers include chicken feet (although I can't say I enjoyed it) and and wontons stuffed with real crab meat and two types of cheese, neither of which come in a little silver cardboard box and foil wrapper.

     Pretty much anything in chili oil seems like a safe bet, as long as you like spicy food. Wontons in chili oil, cold noodles in chili oil, and whatever meats they cook in chili oil are making people happy. The pic on the top left is Lucky Bamboo's Chongqing chicken and everyone enjoyed it. The kitchen will spice it up or down to order.

      Cold noodles: something I never saw on Nashville's Chinese  restaurant menus until now. Lucky Bamboo offers two versions, one in sesame oil and the already mentioned chili oil version for people who like it a little spicier.

     Firecracker shrimp was another winner, with a crunchy exterior and tender interior.

     What people are less than thrilled with, so far, are the doughy things. I was served curried potato puffs that were deliciously spiced but the dough was on the heavy, condensed side. Scallion pancakes were another disappointment, as they were too greasy to enjoy and weren't very flavorful to begin with.

     Service is also still very spotty. I get the feeling that they're still working out the plan for who does what, and have some inexperienced people on their wait staff.

    On opening day, the servers seemed flat-out overwhelmed by a packed house, so that was easily forgivable. There were mix-ups in who got what. On the second visit, I was a few minutes late joining my party and our waitress passed the table several times until I flagged her down. Another who arrived late had the same experience. After a water spill, the busser who came to clean up neglected to come back with a mop for the puddle on the floor. I had to get up and find a manager. Most eaters had some food delivered in a timely manner, while others were kept waiting for ages.

   So, it's not the Holy Grail. Not yet. But it's still worth going back to be taunted a third time.

Lucky Bamboo China Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Taj: Nashville Gets a Second Indian Restaurant Worth Returning To (especially for meat eaters)

     It's long been a gripe of mine and a number of others' that what was said to be the best Indian cuisine in town was at Woodlands, a vegetarian restaurant located inside a tower near I440. For my vegan friends, I'm happy for them that they got to have something to themselves, for a little while.

    The rest of us, our problem? The typical Nashville experience is to be served with an entree swimming in curry soup.
    I was a happy enough camper to find Bombay Palace on West End. It was the first place in Nashville where I found something that began to approach the quality of ingredients and preparation of what I'd been treated to in the UK.

All photos: ©2013 Mary Brace all rights reserved
                  Meanwhile, Nolensville Road's reputation for ethnic food  was sealed somewhere back in the late 1990s when its Mexican immigrants' culinary contributions were joined by Ethiopians and Thai. As Turkish and Middle East got added to the mix, more of Nashville's adventurous eaters flocked over. Most of what's available is street-food quality, but it's very good street food. The high end, though, has been lacking.

   It looks like, with the opening of Taj sometime in the middle of 2013, two birds have been hit and now can wind up on your dinner plate. Walking in, I was bowled over by the scent of spices in the air and could tell I was going to be in good hands.

    It was a weekday afternoon and I bypassed the buffet to order off the menu. What came out as the equivalent to chips and salsa were papadums and condiments; pickled onions, a yogurt sauce, and a hot pepper sauce. The second of the three, the green stuff in the top photo, didn't do very much for me, as I like it very spicy.

     My appetizer was Khasta Kachoti, a puff-pastry filled with unidentified spices and fruity things, and it was delightful. Joining it shortly after was Coconut Soup, and that was the only soupy thing I saw the whole meal. Both were fabulously light, neither were overpowering, and heat wasn't a factor.

     Where the heat did come into play was my entree, Hariyali Chicken. This is one that comes in a thick, yogurt-based curry sauce and I was asked at the time of ordering, how hot did I want it? (Answer: hot.)

    And it was hot, but not so much as the typical Nashville Hot Chicken dish. The poultry was about as tender as any you could find west of Franklin Road (which is another way of saying, most of the meat you're going to find in the Southeast quadrant of town is cooked in such a way to compensate the lack of freshness/quality). Rice, non-remarkable, garlic naan, colorful.

    Final take: it's not a surprise that a tasty new ethnic restaurant opened on Nolensville Road. But that it's Indian cuisine of this caliber, ought to make East and West Nashville both very, very jealous.

Taj Indian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Nashville Hot Chicken Day 6: Hot Stuff

All photos ©Mary Brace 2013. All rights reserved
Here's another of the relative newcomers to Nashville Hot Chicken: Hot Stuff, in Antioch, has been with us since some time in 2010. Located in a fancy shmancy Bell Road strip mall just across Blue Hole Road from the Family Fun Center (ie, mini-golf), it's one of the lesser-known joints as that's not exactly a fashionable or touristy area. If the changes Metro is shepherding along in the former Hickory Hollow Mall take hold, who's to say how that may change.

I arrived shortly before 6 on a Sunday evening, placed my order (six tenders, two ways: 1/2 Hot and 1/2 Sweet Heat) and was served in about 20 minutes time. Here's the scoop:

Tenderness: 6* Because I ordered take-out for a change, it was a good 20 minutes before I got to the eating, so I'm adding on a point for the delay. The tenderness seemed about average at first but as I went on, the lack of it was more noticeable. Nashville Hot Chicken was Nashville still pretty warm chicken in this case.

Moisture: 6* Again, I'm giving Hot Stuff's tenders an additional point because of time in the box.

Grease: 9 Very little. The Sweet Heat batch had no noticeable grease.

Flavor: 7. The Sweet Heats didn't impress me, the Hots were better, although I have to say I think more of the flavor came from the coating than the chicken. On the downside, there was something a bit doughy about those coatings.

Atmosphere: 5. Flavorless strip mall.

Sides: 8. Not a lot of selection, but the fries were good. Thin crinkles with just the right amount of salt.

Overall: 7

I would make a return visit if I was in this part of town, if for no other reason than to eat them fresh out of the pan and see if it made a difference in tenderness & juice. Definitely worthy of consideration.

Hot Stuff Spicy Chicken & Fish on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Loveless Cafe Burger: Hit Or Miss

All photos ©Mary Brace 2013. All rights reserved
I once thought I was finished rating Nashville's burgers, but no. Although Burger Up gave us what is still considered the meaty equivalent of the One Ring, others keep trying — and I'm happy for it. One of the less attractive aspects of Nashville's improved burger eats, since then, however, is the proliferation of restaurants serving a patty with a similar cost to Burger Up's (and others') locally-sourced and/or organic and/or grass fed beef, but without the same fresh beginnings. And although the Loveless does have a burger that's tasty enough to stop for, if there's not much of a tourist-filled line, it simply doesn't belong in the premium priced range. 

Juiciness: 5. Really, not so much. I ordered medium rare and yet the meat was pretty dry. Because it came to my table within 5-7 minutes of ordering, in a fairly well-packed restaurant, I have the suspicion it was pre-cooked and left to sit in meaty-flavored bath, the way sports and other concession stands do it. It probably doesn't help that the burger was flattened out so much.

Flavor: 8. That part was pretty good, actually. Especially on my first visit, when I got the pimento-cheese and bacon version pictured below. I was very impressed with that burger, but the plain cheeseburger just wasn't nearly as good. At least, not tonight.

 Attractiveness: 6. More mixed feelings. It's homely enough to be cute, but leaving this much surface area naked of cheese isn't cute at all. I did like the look of the bun (below) and the accompanying lettuce leaf looks fresh out of the garden. Mustard in packets? Meh.

Atmosphere: 10. Being the Loveless Cafe, this transcends your typical burger joint for style points. In spite of it being a family restaurant and tourist trap, it doesn't seem crazy loud, either.

Digestivity: 5.  Ah. There's a rub. It's been three hours since I've eaten, and there's too much of this burger lingering where I can still taste it, and sort of feel it by way of major sluggishness. Major. What I feel right now is the reason why so many people stopped going to places like McDonald's, Burger King and other corporate McChain burgers and instead came back to independent locals for their burgers.

 Overall experience: 6. Barely. Ouch! I was expecting to give this burger a much higher rating due to my previous visit, but the second time around was definitely not the charm. On the bright side, there aren't many burger joints that offer Mac & Cheese as a side, and Yazoo, too.

Loveless Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Nashville Hot Chicken Day 5: Pepperfire

All photos ©Mary Brace 2013. All rights reserved.
For this one, it's back to East Nashville, the acknowledged home of Nashville Hot Chicken. Pepperfire restaurant, on Gallatin Road, opened in 2010 as a walk-up, cinder-block joint with a barred window. The barred window is still there, as a reminder that hey! you're on Gallatin Road! In East Nashville! and you just have to deal with it.  Improvements have come in the form of a covered shelter and picnic tables so that, if the barred window doesn't put you off, you can eat in.

       Pepperfire has two things on its Nashville restaurant menu that you do have to try at least once in your life: Tenders Royale, which consists of chicken tenders served over a deep-fried, grilled cheese sandwich (it's hard to wrap your brain around it without actually seeing it) and Applefire, which I had on the day of this visit. Applefire is a take on chicken & waffles, but with apple pie filling as the sweetener instead of syrup. Of the two, it's probably the one you're more likely to ever order a second time, if you're not a frat member.

     Pepperfire serves its heat 5 ways: mild, medium, hot, extra hot, and extra, extra hot. I've always ordered hot, and had a bite of a friend's extra hot and wondered if they had the orders mixed up. Pepperfire's hot is DAMN hot. And they don't have a soda fountain, so you don't get free refills. Just warning. They'll tell you at the window that their heat level will be equal to two steps up from the average Hot Wings order. As finding genuinely good, hot, Buffalo style wings is a quest of its own, in Nashville, I'd say they are perhaps one degree above.

Tenderness: 6. Decent, but not exceptional.

Moisture: 6. Again, not remarkable. Definitely not dry, though.

Grease: 10. This is one area where Pepperfire excels. They don't use breading to coat, and what goes on the chicken after its fried is a pretty dry rub. There's very little coating, beyond the rub itself, to hold grease.

Flavor: 7. You will notice the actual chicken flavor for up to 5 seconds before the heat kicks in.

Atmosphere: 5. In spite of the barred windows, it's not a bad space. It's just pretty obvious that it's not a space where the owners want anyone hanging out for long periods.

Sides: 8. I've never actually had any of their sides, but am giving Pepperfire's Nashville Hot Chicken  bonus points for creativity with Applefire and — yes — the Tenders Royale.

Overall: 7  I don't think Pepperfire's chicken is the best in town, but the overall vibe, originality and affordability make it worthy a return trip, anytime.

Pepperfire Hot Chicken on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 2, 2013

Nashville Hot Chicken Day 4: 400 Degrees

All photos @Mary Brace 2013. All rights reserved
Today's Nashville restaurants venture comes from another of the spiritual grandchildren of Prince's Hot Chicken: 400 Degrees. Owner Aqui Simpson grew up on Princes and now has her own place, tucked in a stand-alone food court at 4th & Peabody. I'd never been in a food court that wasn't attached to a mall, and while the signage for Quizno's and Nuvo Burrito was clear, I had to do a double-check to make sure I was at the right location.

400 Degrees is ready-made for franchising, if you're interested. I'm even tempted. For the record, we got the medium hot, 200 Degrees.

Tenderness: 8 ... this hot chicken could have been made by one of those food scientists you hear about, who come up with ways to give consumers something that's both crispy and tender at the same time.

Moisture: 8 That also was good although honestly, it was partly due to the sauce.

Grease 6: On the downside, there was more of it than I'd have liked. So much grease went into the underlying bread that it became easy to resist the urge to gobble up all of that, too.

Flavor: 9 A simple combo of cayenne & paprika, according to their literature. Like the saying goes, if all you've got are three chords, make sure they're good chords. 400 Degrees does it right.

Atmosphere: 6 Food court. Pretty anonymous homogenous.

Sides: Sides were limited, so I declined. Not taking any points away or giving.

Overall: 7.5. Love the dish, dislike the corporate atmosphere.

400 Degrees on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nashville Hot Chicken Day 3: Tenn 16

Today's heat is brought to you by a restaurant that's new both to Nashville and the Nashville Hot Chicken scene. The Woodland Street digs (1016 — very clever, n'est ce pas?) have a New Orleans flair with open-window seating, Mardi Gras beads for chandeliers, and they're very, very proud of their po'boys. But that's not what induced me to sit down in the middle of East Nashville's Tomato Art Festival.

Tenderness: 10 Wow. I've had quite a lot of buttermilk-induced texture since this trek began and so far, Tenn 16 has it down.

Moisture: 8 These two, tenderness and moisture are no doubt, related. Tenn 16 had plenty, although it wasn't dripping chicken juices. An element of their coating added a little bit.

Grease: 6 But there was a little bit of that; plenty of sauce soaked into the bread below the meat.

Flavor: 8 This Nashville restaurant's hot chicken has an element I haven't tasted anywhere else (yet). Rather than rely on cayenne (although I'm sure there's some) Tenn 16 uses a ginger/white pepper combo that's distinctive without over powering the chicken itself.

Atmosphere: 10 I am a sucker for those window seats. If you are a people watcher, this is a destination spot in Nashville.

Sides: 5 The dish automatically comes with coleslaw. I didn't think to ask for something different and, as I'm not a slaw eater, can't tell you how Tenn 16's ranked.

Overall: 8

Tenn16 on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Great Nashville Hot Chicken Odyssey Day Two: Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish

    What price, authenticity? Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish has plenty to spare. The owner had an uncle who trained at Hot Chicken originator Prince's, then started his own restaurant, and passed down his recipe. That's pretty serious cred.

    East Nashville location. Check.

    Beaten up cinderblock shack with an order window. Check.

    And yet ... All the authenticity in the world isn't going to cut it with people who want an authentically great experience. Although I admit to being a hot chicken neophyte, my two previous experiences have left me cold on Boltons. Let me count the ways.

Moisture: 5 Although there was the appearance of moisture with the first couple of cuts into each piece, it dissipated fairly rapidly. 

Tenderness: 5 Nothing objectionable, just nothing remarkable.

Grease: 9 This is where the East Nashville restaurant got its highest mark.

Flavor: 6 What was noticeable was the bird pieces got most of their flavor from the coating, a thin dry mix of dredged flour & spices,
a lot of which appears to be added after it was out of the cooker. Once the heat wore off some chicken taste did come through. (This order was medium hot.)

Atmosphere: 3 Eesh. Back to the authentic thing, maybe? Some people might say I'm dissing Bolton's because unlike so many other joints that spend tens of thousands of dollars to have the appearance of a dive, Bolton's actually is a dive. Appearances are obviously not anyone's concern, but it's hard not to be concerned for one's safety when the counter person closes the darkened safety glass after taking your order. I understand, this is East Nashville, and Main Street at that, but maybe matching tables, and clean tabletops, especially,
would go a long way. I'm not sure if the surroundings are in defiance of the high score for cleanliness, or it's the other way around. 

Sides: 5 The fries were good, not great, on their own but compared to the mac & cheese, they were stellar. Of the latter, the pasta was overcooked and the cheese aspect was a peppery sauce. Not even cayenne-peppery, but pre-ground,  grocery store box-peppery. 

Overall: 5.5  If the chicken itself was fantastic, the atmosphere would be forgivable, but there's way better out there.

Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 2, 2013

This Post Has Nothing to do with Food

      I got out to take some advance shots of upcoming arts happenings in the area. First up, Sideshow Fringe Festival. One of Nashville's two entries in the Fringe Festival world takes place this weekend at East Room, LeQuire Gallery, and Belmont's Black Box theatre. Plays, comedy, circus, puppets.

      Next up, Nashville Shakespeare Festival! Shakespeare in the Park kicks off August 15 with A Midsummer Night's Dream. I caught the rehearsal of Act I and it looks like this year's production is going to be a lot of fun.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Yet Another Burger Coda: Pharmacy

    Oh, Pharmacy. Why do I always have such mixed feelings about your burger? I love your East Nashville restaurant space. I love the back deck. I love the Beer Garden. I love the shakes. I want to love your burger,  I really, really do and this visit, I almost did. Actually, I did, for about an hour and then .. well, I'll get to that.
    East Nashville's bid for the perfect burger experience starts and ends at the Pharmacy, as far as I'm concerned.
Don't click this if you don't want to drool
      Few other Nashville restaurants have put as much thought into the overall experience as the team behind Holland House did when they opened their little burger joint just up the block, at McFerrin. In addition to the brick and mortar, the outdoor Beer Garden brought to Nashville an experience I'd previously only experienced in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
    There have been some changes since the Pharmacy first opened, in early 2012.
    What was a mix of typical restaurant tables on the back deck and pub-style seating everywhere else is now almost entirely pub-style.
Also, the burger itself has improved in a big way. In my previous visits, although the presentation and atmosphere were top notch, what was between the bun wasn't all that much to write home about.

    I'll get to that, too.

 Juiciness: 6 Plenty moist as you can see from the photos, dripping was minor at best.

Attractiveness: 8 Just as Rod Stewart once looked far sexier with his clothes on (and probably still does) the Pharmacy burger looks better with its top on, too.
All photos ©Mary Brace 2013. All rights reserved
 On this particular visit I share partial blame because of a communication error that left me initially cheeseless. But as you can see to the photo at right, when fully dressed this is one bad-ass looking burger.

Flavor: 9 I don't know if they switched suppliers, or have made wider, less vertical patty that gets more and better browning, or if it's a seasoning change, but the flavor from a year ago has been jacked up for the better.

Atmosphere: 10 This Nashville Restaurant is appropriate for everything from Sunday brunch with the kids to a late Friday night out.

Digestivity: 6 The single disappointment of this visit was, an hour after finishing, I felt like I'd over-indulged at Logan's. You know, that sluggy feeling you get from one roll too many? One something loaded with trans-fats too many? Another hour later the feeling had passed, but it's not something I'd want to return to the office with.

Overall: 8 I'll be back and in less than a year, next time. Might skip the fries, though.

The Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Great Nashville Hot Chicken Odyssey

360 Burger
At this point, I think I've had almost every burger in town worth trying, almost. I haven't posted a Pharmacy review, and do plan to later this week. Unless my next visit finds things have changed, the gist will probably be something along the lines of, "great hangout, okay burger," and they'll get high marks for presentation and atmosphere. Just a hunch.

I think there's a place in Lennox Village I have yet to try, Capitol Grille, and some sporadic family restaurants whose burgers I hear good things about and do promise to report back every once in a while. But for the most part, we've done that. I've seen other bloggers and media outlets replicate what Michael and I did, but I think we've done the best job of any of them and believe me — anyone who'd tell you Five Guys has one of the best burgers in town has an addiction to Velveeta they can't get over. That's okay. We like Velveeta, too. We just don't think it can overcome an otherwise unremarkable chunk of beef.

Pepperfire in the piehole
I was late to the party but last winter I finally had my first taste of Nashville Hot Chicken, at Pepperfire.  It was so hot I'm still not sure I tasted the chicken but what I do remember was how incredibly moist it was, probably due to soaking in buttermilk. We have an army of publicists in town who are working to make Nashville Hot Chicken our answer to Buffalo Wings. Why not? Have you seen the price of wings, lately?

And so ....

Nashville Hot Chicken Day One: Hattie B's Hot Chicken — Mary's Notes

All photos: Mary Brace
     Although this restaurant is a relative newcomer to the Nashville Hot Chicken scene, Hattie B's Hot Chicken gets ranked among top contenders — and it's the closest to my location, so it was east to make it the first stop.
     My lunch companion was Rose Laycox, who runs the local Meetup group for ethnic food lovers, called "What the Pho." We tried to suss out what basic criteria for characteristics Nashville Hot Chicken is supposed to have. We agreed that it should be moist; tender; the heat shouldn't overwhelm the chicken flavor; it shouldn't be too greasy. Everything else is bonus.
Feelin' hot hot hot
       I got Hattie B's regular hot, hot. Rose got "Shut the Cluck Up," two steps up ("Damn Hot" is the level between).  Everything is made to order, and at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, Hattie B's was packed to the gills with Vandy students, tourists, and African-American families, so we had a good 15-20 minutes to chat and take in our surroundings while we waited. As Nashville restaurants go, it was an interesting mix.
      Seating at Hattie B's is provided in the form of picnic tables, with smaller tables indoors and larger ones on the 19th Avenue South-facing porch. There's a little bit of a pub atmosphere in that, if you want to sit outside, and you don't have a party of 6 or more, you're going to sit with
strangers, if there's a line outside the door. It was full when we arrived, so we ended up sharing a table with two families; one that was already there when we arrived, and one that grabbed the empty seats when they left. Once you get your brave on and relax enough to talk to your unknown neighbors, this turns into a great casual experience. So let's get down to it and hope Hattie B's score doesn't suffer from having gone first. 

"Shut the Cluck Up" is the hottest you get

Moisture: 7 Neither of us had any complaints, but I wouldn't write home about it.

Tenderness: 7 Again, good and tender, but nothing to stop a truck.

Flavor: 8 Now we're talking. Plenty of chicken savoriness came through the heat (hot; I tried a bit of Rose's dish and couldn't taste anything but hot hot hot), and during our wait the smells on the porch were whine-inducing. Of the coating, obviously there was cayenne, but there was more to it. This wasn't like someone just shook a jar of Frank's Hot Sauce over regular fried chicken.

Grease: 8 There was very little remarkable separation.

Atmosphere: 9 I likes it. I like the communal seating, I like that there's a screened-in porch in Midtown Nashville, and I like that the clientele is anything but homogenous.

Cluck & Waffles (Sundays only)
Sides: 9 The Pimento Mac & Cheese was excellent. I'm not a grits lover and can't be a fair judge there, so I'm not taking any points off for those. I've had worse.

Overall: 8 Hattie B's makes a great yardstick for beginning our hot chicken journey. Definitely a place to return to.

Hattie B's Hot Chicken on Urbanspoon