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