July 2011

I have a wife who is half Japanese, and a mother-in-law who comes from a small fishing village on the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. My mother-in-law is from peasant stock, and hardly interested in pretending to be a urbane sophisticate. My interest in Japanese food is part a product of personal fascination with things Japanese, but also partly practical. I have to feed my in laws. And to that end, the Doraville roll just doesn’t cut it.

For those of us who lack Japanese blood, Japanese rearing, a year in Japan as an English teacher, or perhaps some time as an izakaya chef, there is one reference you should get your hands on beyond all others. I say this, not as someone who has read extensively about these issues, but as a scholar, who has an advanced degree from a good university, and thus has had to become a world class expert on a topic at least once in my life. I’m claiming some skill in learning, and some ability to recognize a great book when I see one.

Shizuo Tsuji's masterpiece is a must read for food bloggers and aspiring food critics.

Shizuo Tsuji’s tour de force cookbook and thorough blow-by-blow discussion of the Japanese meal, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” is a must read. Either you have read it, you have acquired what he knows through personal experience, or you simply don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to the Japanese meal.

To show what  this book can do for the food blogger and food critic, we’ll start with some common misconceptions.

Misconception 1: A Japanese meal begins with miso soup, salad and rice. It continues with an entrée, and ends with a sweet dessert.

Uhm, no. A traditional Japanese meal ends with things like miso soup and rice. In fact a traditional meal might be little more than rice and pickles (tsukemono).

The basic components of a Japanese meal.

The four course Japanese meal starts with clear soup or sashimi, proceeds to grilled, steamed, simmered, or deep dried food, perhaps includes a salad, and ends with rice, miso soup, pickles, tea and perhaps fruit. And in this  vein, the first part of Tsuji’s book, the part that talks about technique, lore, ingredients, the part less focused on just the recipes, is laid out in the order of the Japanese meal.

Misconception 2: Sushi is the highlight of the traditional Japanese meal.

Sashimi highlights a Japanese meal, especially if you are a guest.

No. High quality sashimi is what an ordinary Japanese family would give to a guest to show them respect. Preparing most sushi requires special skills, skills the average housewife does not have. To think that sushi is common food is to reduce the whole  of Japan to a nation of sushi chefs.

Misconception 3: Ramen is Japanese food.

The Japanese consider ramen noodles to be of Chinese origin.

The irony of this situation  is that everyone thinks ramen is Japanese except the Japanese themselves. Ramen, like yakisoba, is considered by the Japanese to be a Chinese import. It is, however, a popular import, much as sushi is a popular import in America.

Misconception 4: I have done a good job as a food critic by talking about a Japanese restaurant’s ramen and their sushi.

Sad to say, this makes about as much sense as discussing a hamburger joint’s French fries and shakes, as opposed to their burgers. But 90% of the criticism of Japanese restaurants in Atlanta can’t get past the ramen or the sushi. Although a place with great French fries and great drinks is worth noting – maybe you  go to the restaurant just for those –  it doesn’t capture the whole of the eating experience.

Misconception 5: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of its ramen.

See Misconception 3 above, and think about it a while. Yes, I’ve seen Atlanta food bloggers try this one out as well.

Misconception 6: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of  its tuna sushi.

This isn’t strictly from Shizuo Tsuji’s book, but it’s an issue worth mentioning. I’ve seen Atlanta bloggers go down the path of complaining about  the tuna sushi in Japanese restaurants, and holding it a against  the establishment. And to be plain, a good chunk of deep red bluefin nigiri was my first love in nigiri-zushi. But bluefin is a currently a step away from being classed as an endangered species, and making any judgments on the basis of tuna is exceptionally crass.

Misconception 7: All Japanese restaurants have a sushi bar.

Only in America are we so in love with sushi that all Japanese restaurants have to have sushi bars. Americans are so in love with sushi that Thai restaurants have sushi bars, as do higher end grocery stores. As an example, it would be unthinkable  for an Atlanta izakaya to lack a sushi bar, but that’s by far the common state of affairs in Japan.

 There really is no restaurant I love more than an izakaya, and no matter how many trendy American restaurants like to put that on their website they never get it right.

Zack Davisson, in his review of Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook.

The Roswell Tap is a pretty restaurant, a virtue not easy to emphasize enough. There is a huge oak tree in front of the restaurant and outdoor seating in front of the oak. The house in which the Tap lives has plenty of glass, and the light through the glass makes for a wonderfully visual experience.

The food is pretty good too. They have a house salad with added bits such as pine nuts,kalamata olives, and hearts of palm. Their Pittsburgh Club sandwich has a layer of meat, a layer of peppered slaw, and then a layer of french fries. The bread is a soft white with a hard crunchy crust. Their mussels are flavorful and earthy; no heavy creams are there to drown out the flavor of the seafood.

I want to thank Northside Food for reviewing this restaurant, and without that review  I wouldn’t have tried this place. For those near Roswell, this is a bar well worth considering on your regular rotation.

One last point: the pale green house isn’t the easiest thing to see as you drive north on Alpharetta Street. Once you see the longish yellow strip mall to the left, look to the right for the house. You probably won’t see the “Tap” sign until it’s too late.

The Roswell Tap
1090 Alpharetta Street
Roswell, GA 30075
(678) 294-3620

The Roswell Tap on Urbanspoon

It’s not actually Japanese, it’s a Russian cultivar, a member of the purple tomato family . It has a pinched top, and  thus looks like a kind of pear. Don’t let the looks fool you, this thing has incredible flavor.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a coworker that grows these things. He  tells me they don’t refrigerate well, you need to store them at room  temp and eat them quickly. They don’t need much more than a little cracked pepper to deliver delicious flavors.

Notes: Interesting links to the  trifele can be found on the Tomato Gardener, This Garden is Illegal, and Moonglow Gardens. Things from Scratch has a beautiful picture of growing plants. The blog Tomato Lover has more than one article on the trifele, of which this the article, “The Move Into Red”, has the best photograph. Austin Urban Gardens has a short blurb on how the trifeles taste.

It’s a cookbook I’ve had for a while now, and one I’ve been meaning to write about, mostly  because it’s fun. A serious “this is how you prepare 18 course meals topped by those budget breaking bottles of wine?” Of course not. Is it a book a guy with a grill, a stove top, a decent beer, and a few utensils can take a shot at? Absolutely.

A fun cookbook, not just for guys (though it pretends to be).

The core of it are single item offerings (usually) by name chefs. Tom Colicchio does the intro.  Atlanta favorites are contributors. Ria Pell offers Fish and Grits on page 46. Linton Hopkins  offers roast chicken on page 136. Hugh Acheson does Bread n Butter Pickles on page 177. And a recipe akin to one my mother learned from a pregnant coworker from New Orleans  lives on page 173, shrimp boiled in beer. My mom once nearly ended up  in a brawl with a general’s wife who insisted her shrimp must have been flown in from the coast.

I miss my mother, and her shrimp boiled in beer. May she rest in peace.

Nope. But beer can kill that fishy whang off your frozen shrimp.

It’s a good cookbook for diabetics because most of what is cooked here can be eaten safely by diabetics. Not to put too fine a point to it, but diabetics should be living on meats (or cheeses), raw veggies, cooked (preferably grilled) veggies, and carefully managed bites of starches. This cookbook is a great way to add variety to the proteins a diabetic eats.

Highly recommended. If you like the idea of also getting Esquire magazine, the year’s subscription inside the book almost  pays for the cost of the book.

Back in the days before stir frying was common, there was the eating event called “Mongolian Barbecue.” I can’t speak for civilian culture. I grew up around Air Force bases. Mongolian BBQ was A Very Big Deal at officer’s clubs well into the 1980s. I’ve seen my share of generals making monkeys of themselves in front of hula girls on Mongolian barbecue night.

I’m trying to decide if that wasn’t a historical anomaly, 1950s culture projected forward, akin to someone still doing limbo dancing and singing folk songs on ukeleles. In any event, fast forward to the 21st century, and now you have the New American Stir Fry, as exemplified by Chow Baby.  And the advertising is so slick that someone like me doesn’t catch the hint, that this new fangled from-Mars style of eating is the old chrome plated drive on brick road Mongolian BBQ repackaged for a generation for whom the phrase “Mongolian BBQ” evokes real Mongolians serving authentic dishes.

The availability of brown rice was a plus for us.

There are three of these eateries around town, 2 of them called the Real Chow Baby and one called Big Chow Grill. And they are similar, yet not, to the chain Genghis Grill. For one, Chow Baby has the feel of a small chain. It’s not as slick or as packaged. It knows the Atlanta landscape and Where  You Have to Be to Count in the Atlanta Food Universe (places like Howell Mill Road, instead of Mall of Georgia). Staff are well dressed and plentiful, and when “Billy Jean” by Michael Jackson pops up on the omnipresent, loud speakers, staff will dance to the music.

This article will be talking about the Ponce De Leon location.

Ok, the deal. You get two bowls, one for meat and one for veggies. Fill your bowls up with what you want, and if you’re me, avoid the wet sauces as they’re full of sugars. You get a swizzle stick as well, and you’ll put that stick into your bowls when you leave your food to be stirred. You’ll write some identifying scribbles on the stick, so staff can find you. Then leave the bowls in the queue for staff to grill.

Staff then cooks the food on a round grill. After it is prepared, staff gets the cooked food back to you.

There are some important, small details that made this a better experience than alternatives, such as Genghis Grill. The lines are shorter, once you’re in the restaurant. This may not be true at Howell Mill but it is true at Ponce. Lines for Genghis at Mall of Georgia can take 45 minutes to navigate, mere minutes here. They serve brown rice at the Ponce location, and my wife was able to get a small bowl of it beside her grilled items. They have basil as an option here. You would  be surprised how much flavor a couple basil leaves add to a stir fry.

Downsides? There is complimentary valet parking at the Ponce location. I’m old fashioned, I like to park my own cars. I  know why they do it here, it’s cramped, but I’d rather park myself. This location can get crowded easily, so it’s best to arrive early. Otherwise, it’s a better managed Mongolian experience than any other I’ve had in this town, and it’s pretty convenient to those of us living along highway 78. It’s certainly a reason to go into town, visit the Fernbank and then head down Ponce for a bite to eat.

The Real Chow Baby
782 Ponce De Leon Ave NE
Atlanta, GA 30306
(404) 671-4202

The Real Chow Baby on Urbanspoon

The Real Chow Baby
1016 Howell Mill Rd NW
Atlanta, GA 30318
(404) 815-4900

The Real Chow Baby on Urbanspoon

Big Chow Grill
1 Galleria Parkway
Atlanta GA 30339
(770) 405-2464

Big Chow Grill on Urbanspoon

P.S. – I highly recommend Marie Let’s Eat’s review of these restaurants.

July 3 – Big Shanty Smokehouse

Original review of Big Shanty is here.

This was a makeup for my family being largely out of town on Father’s Day. A special was available: Turkey Ribs. My wife ordered it, and ended up regretting it. She told me, “I thought I was ordering turkey and ribs.” They weren’t bad tasting, just nothing special.

We had a bit of a disagreement over which pork product was better, the pulled pork or the chopped pork. My daughter loves her pork pulled. I was more impressed with the dense, smoky flavors of the chopped pork.

Turkey ribs at Big Shanty. Not bad, but my wife thought they were something else.

Steve's Sampler. Far better brisket this time around.

Big Shanty Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

July 4 – Fox Brother’s Barbecue

Original review of Fox Brothers is here.

Largely enjoyable. The superior quality of Fox Brother’s sides tends to make any changes in  the ‘cue seem trouble free modifications. One was notable this day however, a much more tender rib product and a lot less smoke flavor. I direct tweeted BuHi about it, who suggested the ribs may have been partly foiled and pointed me to the 3-2-1 method of BBQ creation.

Fried pickles. Fried jalapenos. Just excellent.

Chicken and ribs. Ribs hidden behind some sauces.

Wings, brisket, and pulled pork.

Fox Brothers Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

July  9 – Heirloom Market Barbecue

Original review of Heirloom is here.

Finally got my family here. I knew this place would be a hit, with the Korean touches and my daughter’s love of pulled pork. The lady behind the counter snuck my wife some ribs at the last moment. I never fail to be impressed at  the quality of service in what is an eatery heavily oriented to take out. It can be exceptional.

The brisket wasn’t as fatty as last time and as a consequence, was merely good as opposed to mind blowing. Really good ribs, really good pulled pork. My wife was a little disappointed in the Asian yam chips. The french fries were a big hit with my wife and daughter.

Ribs! also brisket, iirc.

Brisket and pulled pork.

Heirloom Market BBQ on Urbanspoon

Atlanta Things To Do on raveable

In my wife’s lexicon, our meal at Empire State South has become “The Disaster”, a peculiar way to speak about a meal where of the 5 dishes we ate, 4 were nominally good and 3 were really good. But there were service issues and a difficult to navigate menu, which amplified the problems my wife often has in new restaurants. As for me, I knew upon reading the restaurant menu days before that it would present difficulties to someone such as me. This restaurant is a little too fond of sweets on meats, of putting jams, jellies and preserves on their proteins, and in general appears to design dishes for the carb loaders of the world. But I was thinking, get a salad, get an entree, what could go wrong?

The bottle of water at the table was a nice touch.

For one, this was the salad – the only salad – we had available to us:

Pretty, and my wife thought it tasty. But when she ordered it, she was expecting at least some lettuce and carrots, perhaps a tomato or two. Instead, she ended up with the beast that was soon dubbed the diabetic coma salad, and of course though she asked for the dressing to be put on the side, it was not. Staff, it seemed, weren’t paying that much attention to what she was asking for.

Entrees came, along with a side of collards.

Shrimp and grits. Really good, smoky flavor in the grits.

My daughter loved her shrimp and grits. This was by far the most successful dish we had. “The grits were a little smoky,” she told me. The smoked trout had a very mixed reception, however.

While I thought my trout to be a trout on a biscuit in terms of size, it at least delivered a ton of intense smoky flavor. My wife’s trout, on the other hand, was dosed in enough of a citrus dressing that it was spoiled for her. I believe the same dressing was used on the tomato next to the fish. Staff blunder #2.

The collards: again, a very small serving of food, but quite good, first rate.

We were offered desserts, but we found none of them appealing.

To summarize, our experience was mixed. The technical skill of this restaurant is high, and when they could deliver food, they did so well. But the menu choices leave much to be desired for someone who eats like me. As a result, I can only recommend this restaurant to certain types of people.

If you’re a foodie, of the kind for whom others can have your bagel when they pry it from your cold, dead hands, then run, don’t walk to Empire State South. For diabetics, people on diets, people with food issues in general, the menu, as I found it, is not for you and I cannot recommend this restaurant.

To note, I believe there are easy fixes to my issues, such as providing a simple house salad, shorn of carbs, or providing entrees with vegetable choices more akin to the “Super Food” item, seen here and here. But until I see them, I can’t recommend Empire State South in general.

Empire State South
999 Peachtree St NE
Atlanta, GA 30309
(404) 541-1105

Empire State South on Urbanspoon

Darbar is a brand new eatery on Pleasant Hill Road, east of I-85, one still in the process of being made. They have a large working space, and although they’ve begun the task of shaping it into their own, it still has a partly unfinished look. I’m sure that over time they’ll remedy that, but if you arrive in the next few days just realize that some eateries have a long gestation period.

The menu  is small, the choices just a few. There are kababs, some curries, some combos of kababs and curries, breads, rice, desserts. I ordered a seekh kabab and a chicken qorma (a curry) when I came. Staff came out, insisting that I buy naan, that their food was spicy. I had to say I was a diabetic, naan and I don’t really get along.

I was happy for the spicing though. Too much Indian food in this city is dumbed down for Atlantans who can’t eat spicy foods. About half the so-called “Cajun” in Atlanta is a shadow of what Cajuns really eat. Darbar has plenty of spice in their food, and not so much that it’s overwhelming. If I eat, say, a grilled jalapeno or two, I end up wanting bread by the end of the meal. Not here. There was enough spice to let you know it was there, but not enough to ruin your day. I liked the spicing a lot.

Darbar, House of Kababs
1455 Pleasant Hill Road
Lawrenceville, GA 30044
(678) 205-8777

Darbar House of Kababs on Urbanspoon

Local Three is not the easiest place to find or park at, but thankfully the section of road this eatery is found on was delightfully free of traffic the day I managed to get there. Yes, it’s very pretty. Nearby is a small sandwich shop punfully named Local 1.5. As in many self consciously good looking places, the staff dress down a little, in a nice shirt, often an apron, and jeans. Abstract pigs from Muss and Turners adorn the walls, and pictures of Jeff Bridges in his role as the Dude in Big Lebowski are all over the place. There is a lot of light, and many well lit places to eat. There is a long bar, and probably plenty of great drinks here. I was just here for something I can eat.

I talked them out of the corn on this dish, but that's it.

Great roasted vegetables, thin sliced. Total explosion of flavor.

This is a place that borders on violating the principle of separation, which is to keep ingredients of different kinds well enough separated that someone with food issues can fix their meals. I spent forever getting the corn out of my arugula salad, and of course, succotash is the vegetable du jour of type 2 diabetics. That said, they have a rotating vegetable plate, and the vegetable sandwich was not only a complete delight, but beyond any doubt the best thing I ate all week.

Local Three Kitchen and Bar
3290 Northside Pkwy
Atlanta, GA 30327
(404) 968-2700

Local Three Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

John Boys is pretty much the opposite of hot, and proof that hotness, to a certain degree, is irrelevant. This restaurant has had no entry in Urbanspoon for years, and in fact I didn’t write about it once because I couldn’t find an entry for it in Urbanspoon. It’s only when you realize that the clientele of this place couldn’t give a flip about those kinds of tools is when you get it. This place is about serving people for whom trends are never “OMG, so last week!” The selling point is simple fare, sold at a great price.

The price point for John Boy’s buffet is $7.50, about 4 dollars less than Golden Corral. As a consequence, this place is well served by an older crowd.  They’re the kind of folk whose opinions won’t be given away in facial expressions.  You’ll have to look at their eyes, and the corners of  their lips to know how they think and feel. Or maybe, just count the numbers in the eatery. That will give you a clue.

A typical weekly John Boy's Menu.

This place  is very comfortable for someone like me  to eat. The plentiful supply of good vegetables and ample quantities of meats make this a good pit stop for a diabetic. And there are lots of families here as well, often large ones, with grown kids and mostly grown grandkids, and some patriarch at the head of his bountiful table.

Now, at the price, don’t expect fancy meats or television ads. The food, however, for what they serve, is competitive with any  buffet in the area. And for those who wonder what ever happened to the cafeterias of the 20th century, well, they either evolved into these modest (and critically underserved) buffets, or they perished from the face of the earth.

John Boy’s Home Cooking
3050 Main Street W.
Snellville, GA 30078
(770) 969-6988

Johnboy's Home Cooking on Urbanspoon

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