Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Taco Mama

I've found my new favorite neighborhood restaurant. It also happens to be my new favorite Mexican place, and it has the best margarita in town. Taco Mama has 18 locations across the Southeast, but the inventive dishes, high quality of food and courteous staff has me thinking this is anything but a "chain". If you haven't been yet, prepare to get addicted.

Upon walking in, you're greeted with a smile and a menu. The staff asks if this is your first time, and if it is, they're eager to help. They suggest favorites and walk you through the ordering process. You can also check out the colorful chalkboard above the counter, to go along with the colorful lights strung about the restaurant. On nice days, they raise up the front walls to make it a screened-in porch.

Taco Mama boasts 10 flavors of margs (the Skinny is to die for) and the Prosecco Fizz is a really nice alternative because the bubbles cut the sweetness. If you're lucky enough to go in the summer when the Watermelon variety is available, it's irresistible. Insider tip - certain varieties are half off on Tuesdays. And in case you're wondering, a pitcher pours 6 healthy-sized margs. They also offer wine and beer if that's more your jam.
Watermelon Marg!
At Taco Mama, customization is the name of the game. You could select one of their suggested dishes, or you can build your own, which is what I like to do. You start by picking your base - Quesadillas, Tacos (flour, corn or hard shell), Nachos, Burritos or Burrito Bowls. Then you choose from a wide selection of proteins - Barbacoa, Grilled Shrimp, Ahi Tuna and Chorizo to name just a few. My favorite is the Shrimp - it's always perfectly tender and seasoned well. The endless toppings are where I tend to go a little crazy. You can have your choice of Chorizo Refried Beans, Grilled Jalapenos, Ancho Chile Slaw, Guacamole, Cilantro, Queso Fresco - the list goes on and on and it's hard not to ask for a little of everything! Inventive and flavorful sauces include Red-Chile Butter Sauce and Roasted Poblano Tartar.
I love the shrimp tacos. So much food!

Shrimp Burrito Bowl!
All entrees (with the exception of the Burrito Bowl) come with Chips and Salsa, but the Tacos and Burritos also come with another side - seriously, this is the best deal in town. The chips are thin, crispy and salty, and the salsa has incredible flavor and not too much heat. As far as sides go, I love the Black Beans and the creamy Mexican Mac and Cheese.

At Taco Mama, you can really have it your way. You can have it any way you want! The combinations are endless. I am always so impressed with how delicious everything is and how kind the staff is. That definitely keeps me coming back. And the margs. I really can't get over the margs.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, literally everyone else in a bit part
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running Time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Rating: R

Let me begin this review by saying that I'm a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I'll also remind you that Leo is my all-time #1. I've loved Brad Pitt since I watched "Legends of The Fall" at a too-young 8 years old. Margot Robbie is one of my top 5 girl crushes. So it pains me - nearly KILLS me - to write a less than absolutely stellar review of this film. I think I'm the only person I've heard of that did not love what others are calling Tarantino's "masterpiece". I did enjoy the film, but it was quite a departure from your typical Tarantino flick. What I love so much about his films was not present here. I'm very prepared for my readers to revolt and call me crazy, but this is my honest reaction.

Leo is pretty spectacular as Rick Dalton, an aging (hardly) but still beautiful action/Western star. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick's aging (hardly) but still beautiful stunt double from the beginning of Rick's career, but lately fills more of a buddy and support system role. The two drink their way from meetings to movie sets and back to Rick's pad in the Hollywood Hills, where he resides by 60's starlet Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski. Margot Robbie resembles Tate so eerily well and gives an understated performance here. I would have loved for the entire movie's focus to be about her (I think all of America is so fascinated by this story) but perhaps that level of mystery just adds to the intrigue. I don't think Quentin gave her enough to do in this film. I also hoped that Quentin would take us somewhere brilliant with the Leo/Brad storyline. Unfortunately, we never got there.

As a film buff, I thought the scenes where we see Rick on-set were fascinating, but perhaps there were one too many of them. Some of Leo's strongest scenes are when he's chatting with his 8 going on 50-year-old co-star (Julia Butters) and when he berates himself for being a washed-up drunk, only to follow this tantrum with nailing a scene in one take. Rick is clearly having an identity crisis - his talent and good looks are still there, but his hard-partying past and younger competition are beginning to run him out of town.

Meanwhile, Cliff is out having his own adventure. The film takes place in late 1960's Hollywood, when the Manson Family slowly began to sink their teeth into society. In one scene, Cliff drives a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) home to the Manson Family compound. What begins as an incredibly riveting and unnerving scene falls terribly flat. I'm really not sure what Quentin was going for in some of these long and drawn-out scenes that didn't lead us anywhere. That's his style, but typically, the wait is worth it.

Blink and you'll miss an incredible supporting cast that are each given about 7 minutes of screen time. If you're a Tarantino fan, I'd love to know your reaction to this film. I think my bar was set so freaking high with this cast, concept and director, that it was impossible to meet. There was no way I was going to love it as much as I expected, and sadly, I didn't. This didn't make my top 5 Tarantino films ("Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill: Volume 2", "Kill Bill: Volume 1", "Django Unchained" and "Jackie Brown", in case you care) but it's one I would re-watch eventually, and may need to sooner than later so I can try to understand what all the hype is about. I'm just not in any rush to spend another 2 hours and 40 minutes(!) trying.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Reto's Kitchen Cooking Class

I recently attended a cooking class at Reto's Kitchen, a catering company and cooking school in Greensboro. If you're looking for something fun and different to do, this is a very entertaining and educational experience. The classes are themed and quite varied - Northern Italian, Spanish Tapas, German Night Out - and just a heads up: the classes are very hands-on! My class had a Mexican theme, and there were 7 participants. A few folks even drove in from Jamestown and Archdale for the class! We all had an awesome time, and left with new knife and cooking skills, and full bellies. Chef Reto Biaggi is not only a skilled chef, he is a fabulous teacher with a friendly and fun demeanor. It was a really great night.
Chef Reto's A+ student
We arrived at 6pm and put on our aprons while we sipped Watermelon Agua Fresca, a lovely and refreshing beverage for a hot summer day. Reto offered us red and white wine, and you could also BYOB. One by one, we assisted Chef Reto with prepping the ingredients for two dishes: Mexican Corn Salad and Scallop Ceviche. He instructed us on how to properly cut vegetables (lay your corn cobs on their sides to cut the kernels instead of standing them up!), preparing meat and chopping herbs, and how to safely hold a knife. Many of the class participants weren't familiar with Ceviche, a dish that uses acidity from citrus fruits to cook fish. It was fun to see their eyes light up when we tasted the bold, bright flavors and the tender, perfectly cooked scallops!
As we enjoyed the appetizer, Chef Reto got working on a Mole Sauce to pair with Pork Tenderloin. I've always been intimidated by Mole Sauce because there are several ingredients and it's a multi-step process, but I was shocked at how quickly the sauce came together! It boasted smoky, spicy pepper notes and dark chocolate brings it a surprising sweetness. It was incredibly luscious and went beautifully with the perfectly seasoned moist pork. Chef Reto prepared some seasoned rice and black beans to go alongside this - a great vehicle for eating more of that sauce!
Pork with Mole
The highlight of the entire meal was a simple corn salad. I have never had a corn salad quite like this - fresh kernels get charred, then combined with herbs, aromatics and a light yogurt and lime cream. Add in some cotija or feta cheese and let it chill so the flavors can marry. I lost my mind for this dish. I will be making it for dinner this week and every week this summer.
Delicious plate with the delicious corn!
For dessert, we learned how to make churros! The dough reminded me of a pâte à choux pastry dough: at first the texture was like wet sand, but then after incorporating eggs, it looked like sugar cookie dough. Chef put the dough in a piping bag and piped long strips into hot oil. We all watched them cook with anticipation, and then rolled them in cinnamon sugar. There's really nothing better. Some of my classmates would argue that warm chocolate sauce made it better, but I respectfully disagree. Just the warm, doughnut-like dough with the crunchy cinnamon sugar was enough to make me a happy girl.
Chef Reto making the churros
The finished product!
I highly recommend Chef Reto's cooking classes for a friends' night out, date night or adventure with a parent. You'll learn a lot and make new friends - it's a great way to spend your evening.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sir Winston Wine Loft & Restaurant

I'm pretty obsessed with downtown Winston-Salem these days. Fourth and Trade Streets are booming as per usual, and with the newly developed Innovation Quarter, it's like my little hometown has graduated from preschool and is well on its way to getting its doctorate. I was so excited to try Sir Winston Wine Loft & Restaurant after several recommendations from friends, and honestly after just reading the menu. The restaurant is located in the new Hotel Indigo downtown, and the hostess stand and hotel check-in stand are on either side of the entrance. This doesn't feel like your average hotel restaurant though. The food is outstanding, the service is excellent, and the restaurant was full at 6pm on a Saturday. I got a thorough sampling of several dishes, and I already can't wait to return and try more.

My devoted readers will know that my cocktail of choice is a Dirty Vodka Martini with Blue Cheese Olives, so I was highly intrigued when I saw Sir Winston's Dirty Blue, a Dirty Gin Martini with Smoked Blue Cheese Olives. While it was tasty, I have to admit that I prefer my vodka martinis. The olive brine and the juniper flavor in the gin was a very interesting flavor combination though, and the smokiness in the blue cheese was just subtle enough so as to not overpower the drink. Sir Winston also features a strong wine selection, with 6 and 9 ounce pours available. I was excited to see some of my favorites including Louis M. Martini Cab and Caymus Conundrum available by the glass.
Yours truly, with the Dirty Blue
Being born and raised in the South, I am embarrassed to admit that I'd never had a boiled peanut in my life, until recently. But Sir Winston doesn't just offer any old boiled peanuts - these are soaked in spicy Texas Pete sauce and the spice level is real! Not for the faint of palate. They have the texture of chickpeas, so I'm curious to try their Texas Pete Boiled Hummus, which sounds addictive.
Texas Pete Boiled Peanuts
It was difficult to decide on entrees, since all of the selections sounded fabulous. I can't resist scallops, and these were perfectly cooked and tender, with notes of sweetness that paired beautifully with the bed of Corn Puree underneath. And if that weren't enough, three thick slabs of Pork Belly came alongside it. The fatty, unctuous meat was a nice contrast to the scallops, but it almost felt like an afterthought - it wasn't really necessary with the dish. A tart and refreshing pickled Melon and Mushroom Salad topped it all off. Really interesting flavors here, not like any scallop dish I've had before.
Scallops with Pork Belly and Melon Salad
The Hot Honey Hen immediately caught my eye. It's Sir Winston's rendition of hot chicken - a Sweet Tea-brined Young Hen with an outrageous Hot Honey Sauce, the best Collard Greens I've ever had, and slightly smashed White Cheddar Potatoes. This dish was a 10! I would just drink that hot honey sauce, but it was particularly good on the salty, crispy skin. The collards didn't taste like your typical, earthy collards - they must have been cooked in the nectar of the Gods - and while the potatoes could have used a little more white cheddar flavor, it was really a perfect vehicle to wipe up any remaining sauce. Highly recommended.
Hot Honey Hen
The Pickled Shrimp-Stuffed NC Rainbow Trout had one of the most unique descriptions I've ever read, and it was presented exactly as promised: a beautiful filet of trout was wrapped around flavorful, dill-forward pickled shrimp. Everything was so tender and the Toasted Caper Brown Butter that came with it really pushed the flavors over the top. This was served with Pearl Couscous (yum!) and more of those fantastic collards.
Pickled Shrimp-stuffed Rainbow Trout
You should save room for dessert so you can try the Salted Caramel Banana Doughnut Bread Pudding, a dessert that includes almost all of my favorite words (add the words "cookie dough" in there and I'd be in heaven). This was served warm, with a cinnamon whipped cream, and is the perfect fall dessert. It was so comforting and just dripping with butter and salted caramel. Really, what could be better?
Salted Caramel Banana Doughnut Bread Pudding
Actually, a stop for second dessert at the new ice cream spot Lil Dipper for a sampling of their dippings and toppings is the only thing that could have made the night better. And sample we did. You can pick between mini, regular and large sizes, and while the vanilla soft serve is delish on its own, the real fun begins when you can select dippings like cherry and cotton candy, and toppings like pistachio dust, lucky charm marshmallows and fruity pebbles. I can't wait to go back and try every combination in the book.
Winston is so cool!
Mini Cotton Candy + Fruit Pebbles
If you haven't spent time in downtown Winston lately, what are you waiting for? It's overflowing with new and exciting food destinations. Visit Sir Winston and Lil Dipper for two highly enjoyable experiences.

Late Night

Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Denis O'Hare, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Rating: R

Mindy Kaling is one of my favorite comedians, which is why giving "Late Night" anything less than a stellar review is difficult. While this was a really cute, fresh and timely story that needed to be told, it was a bit forgettable. It went on about 20 minutes too long, even with the brilliant Thompson and Kaling at the helm. I appreciated the female leads, but honestly wonder how this film will resonate with men. For someone who is very interested in TV and talk shows, I found the "behind-the-scenes" concept fascinating, but this felt very niche to me. I don't know how much widespread success this film will have. That being said, Kaling is a brilliant writer, giving us some laughs and telling a pertinent story.

Emma Thompson is quite believable as Katherine Newbury, a boss bitch / bitch boss at risk of losing her late night talk show to younger comedian Daniel Tennant (played by the amazing Ike Barinholtz). Her refusal to do "Jimmy Fallon-esque" gimmicks with her guests has aged her, and ratings prove that her audience is hungry for something else. She tells show runner Brad (the lovely Denis O'Hare) to shake up the writing staff by hiring <gasp!> a woman, for the very first time. Enter Molly (aka Kaling) and needless to say, things slowly begin to change.

This story feels somewhat autobiographical for Kaling, who has talked openly about being the only woman and person of color on the writing staff of "The Office" for many years. Molly's determination to help the show, and not just to get everyone to like her, is apparent. She lives, eats and breathes the show, so it is disheartening when Katherine doesn't warm to her and her ideas.

Without spoiling too much, the film's take on the "Me Too" movement isn't as successful as it could have been. I see what they were trying to do, but I don't know that there was space for it - the story already tackles a tremendous amount about women and people of color in the workplace, so this side plot felt a bit like an afterthought and wasn't fully flushed out. I also would have loved more screen time with John Lithgow, who plays Katherine's husband. I'd never argue with this casting choice, but this didn't give me the Lithgow I know and love.

If you're a fan of Kaling, you'll be pleased (and not surprised) that she plays the same version of herself in the film. It's a story that needed to be told, but sadly, it falls just a little flat of being awesome.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Jake's Billiards Beer Dinner

Jake's Billiards' beer dinners might be the best kept secret in all of Greensboro. They occur every other month and for $40, you get a 5 course meal, each paired with a beer. And if you've been to Jake's, you know not to judge a book by its cover - the food is amazing, particularly the ranch dressing. (If you're a ranch fan, it really doesn't get any better than Jake's!) Earlier this month, a friend and I went to their beer dinner that featured brews from Haw River in Saxapahaw. Each course enhanced the beer, and nothing disappointed. In fact, everything exceeded my expectations.

As an amuse bouche, we were given the Demitasse, a Belgian Blonde Ale with Coffee. It was very drinkable, and I appreciated the fact that the coffee notes weren't too strong. After we made acquaintances with our table mates, the first course arrived: Israeli Couscous, Tomato & Arugula Pesto Salad. This was a perfect starter course, and a delight to eat on a hot summer day. They actually used arugula in the pesto too, and it had a perfect herbaceous note. If you haven't tried Israeli Couscous, it's super satisfying. It's like little noodle pearls, nothing like traditional couscous. I was a huge fan of this dish. The beer pairing was a bit too hoppy for me - the Belgian Oatmeal Pale Ale - but the Pale Ale fans at my table really enjoyed this.

I was stoked to try the second course: Strawberry Gazpacho! This is one of my favorite summer soups. It's packed with flavor, tomato is usually the star ingredient, and it's served cold. The strawberry note was a nice change so it made the soup a touch sweeter than usual. I really loved the Honeysuckle Spring Witbier that came with it. Notes of honeysuckle and Indian coriander really brightened the soup.

Next up, we enjoyed tender, juicy, Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken and Pineapple Skewers with Balsamic Blueberry Salsa. I was really impressed with how well the chicken was cooked, and the prosciutto added a nice, salty bite. I'm not an IPA fan, but the Northeast-Style IPA with Pine was a brilliant pairing for this course (I joked that the Pine in the beer went with the Pineapple in the dish!) If you're keeping track, that's 4 beers and 3 courses down. You'll want a DD for this experience.

The Sriracha BBQ Salmon with Wild Mushrooms was absolutely delicious. The salmon was perfectly cooked (again, how did they manage that for so many people?) and the sriracha barbecue glaze was addictive. The Rustic Saison that came alongside seemed salty and almost off-putting on its own, but paired with the dish, it was quite enjoyable. That's why beer and wine dinners are so fun - the flavors can really change depending on what its served with!

Finally, we arrived at dessert, and to my delight, it was a Lemon Blackberry Cheesecake Cupcake. We each got a little mini cheesecake served in a cupcake wrapper, that had bold notes of lemon and blackberry throughout. In fact, the crust was a Lemon Oreo! Super creative. We enjoyed the Belgian Summer Golden Ale that came with it, and at 10% ABV, I can see why it was served last.

If you haven't been to Jake's, you need to check out their creative and elevated bar food. But the real treat are their beer dinners. If you like beer, good food and good times, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Southern Lights Bistro

Southern Lights Bistro is a long-time favorite of many people in Greensboro. The restaurant moved to a shopping center on Lawndale back in 2010, and while it was wildly popular in its previous location for 25+ years, I think the love is just as strong in their "new" digs. One of the biggest draws for me personally is their patio - there's not enough al fresco dining in Greensboro, and Southern Lights has one of the best in town. It's a relaxed atmosphere, and servers are patient, knowledgeable and want you to enjoy the evening. They offer ample specials every night, so you can get something different nearly every time you go. While I've had a few hit or miss meals here, it's quickly becoming a go-to for family visits and casual nights with friends.

I love to build my own salad, and the options at Southern Lights seem endless. They have a killer Crab Cake - it's more wet than dry (Crab Cake aficionados know what I mean) and very little filler. I also love to add their Salmon, which is always perfectly cooked. Salad toppings are all over the place - Artichoke Hearts, Avocado, Kalamata Olives, Roasted Red Peppers, Havarti Cheese - the list truly does go on and on. The salads are substantial in size and ingredients are of the freshest quality.

The Chili-Garlic Shrimp with Coconut Rice and Squash is not for the faint of palate - the heat level is real. I loved the coolness of the coconut flavor to balance out the spicy shrimp, but I was kind of surprised that squash was the veggie of choice in this dish. I think broccoli would have made more sense, snap peas even, because the squash seemed out of place. I would order this again and ask to sub in a different veggie, but I love the Asian flavors this dish presents.

I can't resist a Cuban Sandwich, and you'd be surprised at how few restaurants in Greensboro offer them! Southern Lights' version is called the Spicy Havana, and it features Spicy Ham, Pulled Pork, Swiss Cheese, Pickles and Dijon Mayo on a pressed sub roll. This seemed a little bread-heavy (usually the quantity of meat keeps me from being able to finish an entire Cuban sandwich!) but the expected flavors were all there and didn't disappoint. The spice from the ham and the dijon married beautifully, and I cannot rave enough about the Pesto Pasta that comes as a side option - it's studded with little green Peas and topped with salty Parmesan. It's ridiculous.

The Adrian consists of some of my favorite ingredients - Roasted Turkey, Cherrywood Smoked Bacon, Havarti and Honey, served hot atop a Croissant. I honestly could have used more havarti and more honey, to keep this from feeling like a plain deli turkey croissant. Next time, I'll ask for a side of honey and extra cheese, which might seem extra, but when you're going big, GO BIG!

Their specials always appeal to me, and on one night in particular, I fell hard for the pan-seared Grouper with Shrimp and Crab étouffée over Jasmine Rice with Broccoli. Being obsessed with all things New Orleans, I am an étouffée fiend, and I was blown away with Southern Lights' rendition. The depth of flavor, the ample shrimp and crab, the perfectly cooked grouper - this is an exceptional dish and I wish they'd add it to their nightly menu.

Another special combines Grilled Sirloin with Angel Hair Pasta and Truffled Cream Sauce, with Mushrooms and Wilted Spinach. I had this when it was featured about a month ago and I lost my mind for it. Truffled Cream Sauce? Are you kidding me! It was insane!! When I saw it featured as a nightly special again recently, I went back to get it (rather, I swam through my pool of saliva to get there for it) and I hate to say, it was not as good. I detected no truffle and instead it tasted more like an Alfredo sauce. Disappointing, but maybe a different chef prepared it that night.

If they're featuring pan-seared Scallops with Bacon and Corn Risotto, do yourself a favor and order it. The scallops are perfectly plump and have a nice salty crust, and the smokiness from the bacon paired with the sweetness of the corn makes this a really well-rounded dish. I would eat this every day if I could.

Their Fried Brussels Sprouts special appetizer also needs to get a permanent spot on the menu - they were roasted to tender perfection and topped with blue cheese, slivered almonds and drizzled with balsamic glaze. This is my favorite way to eat Brussels. It's really the only way.

Whether you want to take advantage of their half-off wines on Thursday, their patio on a beautiful evening, or their Sunday brunch (which is also awesome!), there's really something for everyone at Southern Lights Bistro. I'm thankful the fan base has remained steady in this new location. After a move and 35+ years, this place really stands the test of time and great, quality food.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Hyatt Place Greensboro Downtown

Step aside, Proximity. Move it or lose it, O'Henry. There's a new hotel in town and it's offering a hip, new vibe and some incredible food. Developer Roy Carroll's new Hyatt Place Downtown Greensboro just opened this month, and coupled with the Carroll at Bellemeade, it's probably the most talked about addition to downtown Greensboro in recent years. I wasn't aware of the ample food offerings at the Hyatt - this is way more than just your grab-and-go packaged snacks. I was pleasantly surprised by everything I sampled, enough that I would return here for lunch or dinner anytime. And be sure to check out their exciting cocktail list at happy hour. I know you'll be impressed too.

The Strawberry Mule features Blood Orange Vodka, Campari, Ginger Beer, Lime Juice, Honey and Muddled Strawberries. It is too easy to drink. It's a beautiful light pink hue that's perfect for spring. I've been on a Whiskey Sour kick lately, and the Hyatt's unique rendition might be my new favorite in town. Maker's Mark, Disaronno, Lime Juice, Pineapple Juice and Bitters make for a really tasty flavor combination. I never would have thought to add Disaronno and Pineapple, but now I don't think I can have it any other way! They've also got Mezcal Margs, an Old Fashioned with Chocolate Bitters, and an ample wine and beer selection. Seriously, come for the cocktails, but stay for the food.
Happy hour at the Hyatt!
After you've munched on some addictively salty Citrus-Chile Popcorn, you might want to indulge in another appetizer like the Parmesan-Paprika Fries. The fries are crispy and topped with Parm and Paprika (obviously) but you won't be able to resist the Basil Aioli and the slightly hot Boom Boom Sauce. Or maybe you're in the mood for the best Fried Okra you've ever had? Cut into bite size pieces and cornmeal-dusted, the okra is served with garlicky Spinach, Bacon Jam and a Tomato Aioli that is absolutely to die for. I could not stop eating this. Just trust me on this one. The Crispy Brussels Sprouts are also a must-order. They're perfectly charred and topped with Bacon and a whole-grain Honey Mustard sauce. These are the sexiest Brussels in town.

The Flatbread is extremely satisfying - it's more like a personal pizza. The base is an extremely flavorful, basil-forward Pesto, and it's topped with Prosciutto, Genoa Salami, oven-roasted Tomatoes, Arugula, Mozzarella and Parmesan, and drizzled with Honey. The sweet honey finish goes so well with that salty meat, and it just oozes with cheese. We loved the Chicken and Waffles. The Fried Chicken was perfectly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, but the Chile-Spiced Honey made it a showstopper.

I can't resist a good Cuban Sandwich - smoky Pulled Pork, Ham, Pickles, Swiss Cheese and Creole Mustard on French Bread? What's not to love?! My only request would be to change the Bread & Butter Pickles to Dill - just a personal preference. The BBQ Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese was a hit, though we all remarked that the mac and cheese was likely not homemade. This surprised us all, since everything else tasted so fresh, from scratch, and cooked to order. The Chicken and Brie Club layers tender Grilled Chicken with Brie Cheese, Kale, Tomato and Bacon, and it's topped with Honey Mustard. Any club that's warm and features Brie gets an A+ in my book.

I apologize for the lack of photos, so you could have really seen for yourself how delicious everything looked. While we may have made a dent in the menu, there were still so many other tempting choices. Maybe next time I'll try the Avocado Toast and Charcuterie Board. Or perhaps I'll indulge in the Baked Brie and Kale Chicken Caesar. The Hyatt Place Downtown really has it all, and it is all so good. Make it a point to stop by and see for yourself.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Crook's Corner

When I was a student in Chapel Hill, my go-to spots were East End/Deep End (RIP), Lucy's (under new management) and Elmo's (still rockin'). My friends and I didn't make it to many high-end restaurants, partly because of our budgets, but mostly because our world didn't exist past the Eastern block of Franklin Street. As I got older, I realized the number of outstanding restaurants in Chapel Hill, namely a famous one by the name of Crook's Corner. According to their website, Chef Bill Smith is "the only James Beard Foundation 'America's Classic Restaurant' chef ever to have been named a final-five finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast - and twice." Don't be put off by the casual atmosphere and diner vibe - you'll likely pay $30 for a top-tiered restaurant entree. The bar is cozy but ample, and it's a very inviting spot. I'm kicking myself for not going here more when I was a Chapel Hillian!

Their cocktail list features the classics done right. You might order a French 75 (a personal fave), a Sazerac, or how about a modern twist on a Mint Julep: a scoop of Mint Sorbet with Wild Turkey poured on top. I couldn't get enough of this. It was perfectly boozy, perfectly sweet, and it also appears on their dessert menu. I was very torn between this concoction and a Red Hot-Orange Sorbet topped with Reposado and Bubbles. Next time.
Mint Julep Sorbet
We were offered crusty bread with butter (always a plus) and while the menu changes often, there are some staples. The Carolina Sampler features Barbecue from Picnic in Durham, which was fun to try. The 'cue had great smoke flavor and the Eastern style vinegar sauce that accompanied it was killer. There truly is no better barbecue sauce. My only note for improvement is that this 'cue was pulled, and I prefer chopped. The sampler also comes with tender Collard Greens that had no offensive, earthy flavor - they were awesome. If you don't think you like collards, try these, as they are cooked with bacon and topped with parmesan cheese. The rendition of Hoppin' John featured Black Eyed Peas on a bed of Rice, topped with Tomatoes, Scallions and Cheddar Cheese. It was tasty, but totally upstaged by the other items on the sampler. This all comes with a fat stack of Black Pepper Cornbread - not too peppery and with a hint of sweetness. It was a lovely counter to all the savory notes on the plates.
Carolina Sampler
I loved Crook's rendition of Flounder. It was thicker than you'd expect, and lightly fried, atop a sweet Onion Puree and Farro. This was an awesomely constructed dish. You get the nuttiness and chew from the farro, the crispy, salty crust on the fish, and the sweet sting of the onion puree. Everything might have been the same color, but it tasted amazing together.
Flounder with sweet onion puree and farro
Crook's is famous for their desserts, namely what's listed on the menu as "Good Banana Pudding". Let me break it down for you. I was never a banana pudding person until I had the warm banana pudding from Mr. BBQ in Winston-Salem. I'm here to tell you that warm banana pudding will change your life - homemade vanilla custard beats boxed vanilla pudding, and torched meringue beats cool whip any day. I thought it was interesting that Crook's Banana Pudding featured the elements of warm banana pudding - the homemade vanilla custard and meringue - but theirs is served cold. It was divine and still beats traditional cold banana pudding, but I was very tempted to ask them to microwave it, because that would really be the ultimate.
"Good Banana Pudding"
Crook's is also known for their Atlantic Beach Lemon-Lime Pie with Saltine Cracker Crust, an Eastern NC classic that I had never tried until a few days ago. The crust had a perfect salty note (obviously) and the custard was nice and tangy. If you love Key Lime Pie, you will love this.
Atlantic Beach Lemon-Lime Pie with Saltine Crust
I was really grateful for the opportunity to try so many classic dishes at a famed restaurant in one of my favorite places on Earth. I can't wait to go back and try the Red Hot cocktail and just about every other item on the menu.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

1618: Pahlmeyer Wine Dinner

1618 Seafood Grill is one of my favorite restaurants in Greensboro. They recently hosted a wine dinner featuring Pahlmeyer wines from Napa Valley in California. I was unfamiliar with this winery, but let's be honest, I'm pretty obsessed with wines from Napa, and the food at 1618 is always exceptional. I was expecting a delicious and unforgettable evening, and they delivered. 

Perfectly fried oyster
1618 does one of the best renditions of fried oysters in the entire Triad, and the first course featured a perfectly crispy and salty Fried Oyster with a Goat Lady Goat Cheese Fondue and Fresh Herb Salsa. It might have been my favorite dish of the night, and I would have eaten ten of these. The richness of the goat cheese fondue, the savoriness of the oyster and the acidity of the salsa made for a perfectly balanced and composed bite. This was paired with a 2017 Jayson Sauvignon Blanc, which was thankfully not too grapefruit-forward, a complaint I usually have with Sauv Blancs. We were off to a great start.

Duo of crab cake and short rib
One of the many things I love about 1618 is their over-the-top creativity with each dish, and I think our second course perfectly encapsulated that: duo of Crab Cake and Barbecued Beef Short Rib with Mango, Pancetta, Cilantro and Mascarpone. That sentence contains so many of my favorite words and ingredients! The crab cake had no filler - it was straight crab, which is how they all should be - and the short rib was super tender. The mango and cilantro brightened up the dish, and pancetta makes everything better. This course was paired with a duo (get it?) of a buttery 2016 Wayfarer Estate Chardonnay and a smooth 2014 Wayfarer Estate Pinot Noir. They each enhanced the dish in their own lovely way.

Duck breast with sweet potato pan sauce
We were offered beautiful Asian flavors in the third course: Hoisin and Plum-Glazed Duck Breast with Baby Corn, Broccolini, Crispy Duck Egg and Sweet Potato Pan Sauce. This dish was all about that crazy delicious sweet potato pan sauce! The duck was tender and the vegetables were crisp, and it was a stunning visual to pop the duck egg yolk and watch it drip down the meat and mix with the pan sauce. This dish was paired with a 2016 Jayson Red Blend and a 2015 Pahlmeyer Merlot. It was really fun to compare these wines with the dish - the blander of the two wines really opened up with the dish, while the spicier, more robust wine was overwhelmed with the flavors of the dish. Dueling wine tastings are so much fun!

Wagyu beef with foie gras and bordelaise

If you're wondering how it's possible to eat this much in one sitting, know that the servings were appropriately sized and the courses were well-paced. Thank goodness, because we had one more large course to go: Wagyu Beef and Foie Gras paired with a Portabella Mushroom stuffed with Wagyu Tartare and Blackberry Compote, and finished with a Bordelaise Sauce. Again, so many of my favorite words. This is the ideal steakhouse dish, and once again, it was all about the sauce. Love or hate foie gras, if it's going to have a place, it's atop perfectly seared Wagyu beef. I did appreciate the sweet acidity of the blackberry compote to brighten the dish. We had one final wine comparison, and these were the best (and most expensive, not surprisingly!) of the bunch. Both the 2014 and 2015 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Reds were fabulous with this dish. Proprietary wines are Cabernet-heavy blends. No wonder I loved them. 
All the wine!!!
We finished the meal with a decadent Chocolate Torte. Readers, you may recall that I don't love chocolate (I know, I know) but this surprisingly wasn't too dark or rich, and it was actually a nice end to the meal. I Ubered home and began planning my next trip to Napa. Or at least 1618.