March 2012

Samurai Chicken is a brightly colored restaurant at the corner of Oakland Road and Lawrenceville Highway, Highway 29, and at first glance it looks like another Japanese influenced eatery oriented towards inexpensive hibachi style meals. This is, of course, a concept that has been tried in Lawrenceville before, with the now-closed Totori Fresh Grill. But a careful perusal of the Samurai Chicken menu shows some interesting quirks, things that push this restaurant up into the “worth discussing” range, perhaps even to the “culinarily interesting” point.

For one, the staff is clearly aware of the Chinese heritage of various Japanese noodle dishes. Their yakisoba is also labeled Lo Mein. For another, if the magazines the staff were reading are any indication, they are fluent in Vietnamese (I asked afterwards; the staffer who spoke with me had both Korean and Vietnamese heritage).

That makes Samurai Chicken’s soups and their sandwiches yet another deal entirely, as I don’t recall a single Vietnamese restaurant in Snellville or Lawrenceville.

Samurai Sandwich or banh mi? When it looks like a duck..

So, after having had hibachi, I went ahead and ordered their grilled chicken Samurai Sandwich.

Yep, it has the good banh mi bread. it has the nice banh mi spicing. The sandwich is nicely wrapped, and large, substantially larger than other banh mi I’ve had. In retrospect, maybe more mayo than I would have preferred, but the chicken was nicely done.

I haven’t had their pho yet, but I’d be interested in trying it.

To note, there is no pork here. The proteins du jour are chicken, steak, fish, and shrimp. Outside of hibachi, sandwiches, pho, they also serve Samurai Wings (buffalo wings), spring rolls, cooked sushi. So, this is an easy place to get a fast meal. But for the Snellville/Lawrenceville foodie, the first appearance of a convenient source of pho or banh mi is of perhaps more interest, as Japanese (i.e. Sushi Avenue, Sushi Gallery, Kanpai) is not hard to come by in these parts.

Samurai Chicken
2346-A Lawrenceville Highway
Lawrenceville, GA 30044
(770) 559-0672

Samurai Chicken on Urbanspoon

From the Five Forks – Oak Road intersection, the easiest way to get to Samurai Chicken is to head down Oak Road towards Lawrenceville. It will turn into Huff Road after the railroad tracks (if you take the right turn) and Huff will intersect Lawrenceville Highway. Head north one block. Samurai Chicken will be on your right.

Otherwise, from Snellville head down Ronald Reagan towards Duluth and exit at Bethesda Church Road. Follow the road until you intersect Lawrenceville Highway. Head north to the intersection of Oakland and Highway 29.

Fig is a pretty restaurant on McFarland, just a few minutes north of the Interstate. I had been aware of this restaurant for months, but every time I had traveled, this place had been closed, until my recent trip to Texas. This time, Fig was open, and I made sure I stopped on the way to relatives.

Fig is a small shop with an original menu. The sandwiches were enticing, and I chose one, a bacon, lettuce, and fried green tomato sandwich. If there ever was a southern riff on the BLT, this is it.

Bacon, lettuce, and fried green tomato sandwich.

The sandwich was enjoyable, the tart of the green tomatoes an interesting contrast to the normal slice of beefsteak tomato. The plating is good here, service is good and the staff a delight. If you are traveling, it is well worth the time to pause, take a few minutes to head north, and try their sandwiches.

1351 McFarland Blvd NE
Tuscaloosa, AL 35406
(205) 345-8888

Fig on Urbanspoon

Tuscaloosa Things To Do on raveable

The Bleu House Cafe is a cute sandwich shop, no more than a couple minutes walk from the heart of historic Norcross. It’s on a side street though, a little small. The color theme is blue, with the inside painted in different shades of blue. There is a festive mural of masked jugglers on one wall.

Sign and Parking.

Converted house.

A dice marks your seat and meal.

Bleu House offers a nice collection of sandwiches, with quality meats in use. There is some humor in their sandwiches: witness the Roman Muffalata, with turkey and prosciutto. I ended up with a Bronx Bomber, a sandwich that had prosciutto, sopressata, salami, chunks of moist, fresh mozzarella, and roasted red peppers.

Bronx Bomber with slaw.

I enjoyed the sandwich. The sweet roasted peppers added a flavor and texture component not often seen in a traditional sub. The bread was soft, as opposed to crusty, and the sharp taste of the oil and vinegar nicely offset the subtle, richly flavored meats.

I enjoyed the ambience, perfect for spring weather, and with useful outdoor seating. I had arrived a little early, and as I was leaving, a steady stream of customers, largely women, were filing into the eatery. It seems a bit of a “find” really, just one that requires a bit of a sense of direction and the right timing. And if eating along the railroad tracks of historic Norcross has lost its zest, this little aside might be just the trick to add some flavor back into your lunches.

Bleu House Cafe
108 N Cemetery St
Norcross, GA 30071
(770) 209-0016

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Local Republic was a chef’s recommendation, a bar, and on Urbanspoon, it’s classed as a gastropub. On a bright spring day, I was able to head up Highway 29 and into Lawrenceville and try it out recently.

To note, ‘gastropub’ is a moniker that is controversial in this town, because of Meridith Ford Goldman’s negative use of the term in her review of Salt Factory Pub (named Red Salt at the time). And of course this represents a problem, because her review really never bothered to say what a gastropub was.

So what is a gastropub? If only a name chef is required, then HD1 is a gastropub. If only great food is required, then Ria’s Bluebird is a gastropub. And since no one has bothered to tell Meridith Ford that an absence can’t define, we’re more or less left with a critical status quo that has Holeman and Finch as a gastropub, perhaps Leon’s Full Service as well (but maybe Leon’s is just too 2010 to count anymore), and that Red Salt isn’t (because, of course, burgers disqualify you as a gastropub, unless you’re Holeman and Finch and only sell them when vampires are afoot).

What is clear is that Local Republic is an ambitious eatery for its place and location, that serving escargot in a bar is not typical fare, and that putting a nice little proto-gastro-eatery right across the street from McCray’s is also quite gutsy. The owner isn’t afraid to take risks; witness his excellent looking Johnny’s in Grayson. The location is cute, has its own parking (important for an eatery close to the square in Lawrenceville), and some good outdoor seating.

In terms of beer selection, Local Republic has ten craft beers on tap. The selection varies, and they don’t print a beer list. On a blackboard, they keep a list handy.

So, the question: is Local Republic a gastropub? Let’s talk about the food we had and get back to that.

Local Republic has some very attractive small plates, and that’s what we focused on. Yes, the signature dish here is supposed to be shrimp and grits, but that’s dinner fare and we had been nibbling before lunch began.

My daughter had their escargot. That was the most successful dish of the night. She liked it, and my sample was flavorful, buttery, earthy at times.

Escargot. Our favorite dish when we ate.

The salad was a delight, tender leafy greens, but not in any sense ambitious.

Chicken and sausage gumbo.

The gumbo was something of a quandry. Yes, it was good tasting, smoky, some complexity in the broth, but really didn’t “hit the mark” as a gumbo, and there was no spice, or heat, to speak of. I’d had a good gumbo recently at the Froghead Bar and Grill in Mississippi, with on point flavor and spicing. Local Republic’s fare isn’t anything like the gumbos I grew up on in Lousiana. Nevertheless, it was interesting.

Huge serving of mussels.

The mussels were an enormous serving, and the size of the serving presented a problem. The mussels were better when dipped in the broth that came with the seafood (milky, with bits of garlic in it), but there were so many mussels, you really needed 3 bowls, one for the mussels, one for the shells, and a third for the broth. Dry, the mussels weren’t as delicious as they were when dipped.

So, is it a gastropub? Personally, there weren’t enough “wow” moments to class this eatery in the same strata as H&F or Leon’s. A more appropriate comparison would be Salt Factory Pub. That said, any eatery with this level of ambition and execution automatically becomes a factor on the northeast side. Any foodie from Tucker to Suwanee to Lithonia would be well served by the trek to Lawrenceville Square to try this eatery out.

Local Republic
225 W Crogan St
Lawrenceville, GA 30046
(678) 205-4782

Local Republic on Urbanspoon

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Tried soon dubu again, this time with clams and some sirloin, and real home made soon dubu paste. The difference between home made and the commercial paste is pretty astounding. There are notable color differences, and all the futzing we did with flavor in the last batch almost completely went away.

Made with home made soon dubu paste.

One more chicken sous vide note: worked with a chicken breast at 146 degrees, starting from frozen, a breast that was frozen with three kinds of peppers, onion and garlic powder, and a little salt, and this was the best product yet. It was left in the pot for 1 hour, 50 minutes (1 hr 20m + 30m to defrost), and was uniformly juicy and flavorful. There was one ‘bad’ spot, a little bloody and I suspect near a vein of some kind. But otherwise, quite excellent.

Sushi Gallery is located at the strip mall near the corner of Five Forks Trickum and Dogwood, in the same location as an older dollar sushi place. This location is almost immediately accessible if you exit Ronald Reagan from the Five Forks exit. I’ve been curious about this place, as it is close to where I live, but never had the opportunity to drop by until now.

Short version? It’s a good looking restaurant. Further, I was surprised by the quality, the ambience, the care this eatery puts into its food.

Sashimi special.

Staff are dressed in kimono or chef’s apron. The atmosphere is soothing and warm. The restaurant is largely a sushi place, though there are some useful small plates. I had the sashimi special. They were good pieces, though not as diverse a collection of fish as one might get in a larger establishment. No matter, I was happy with my selection and thought it good value, given its location.

No, it probably won’t make you forget the kinds of places that use Learjets to fly in fresh fish from the coast, but you won’t have to pay Learjet prices for your food either. As a place to take a date to impress, or just a quiet respite for the evening, this place has the goods.

Sushi Gallery
2948 Five Forks Trickum Road
Lawrenceville, GA 30047

Sushi Gallery on Urbanspoon

It’s one thing to have a good, easy to access bar and grill alongside an Interstate. It’s yet another to have one with local ownership, an original menu, and above average food. That’s what Clinton MS has, just off exit 36 on I-20, in the Froghead Grill. Yes, you can find bar staples such as burger and quesadillas here, but it’s the Cajun touches that stand out to me. The gumbo? One of the better I’ve had. There was no need to add any spice to that mix of sausage and crawfish. The burgers are oversized and juicy. The burger choices in general are creative (they have a version of SpongeBob’s Crabby Patty), and feature interesting bread on the bun.

Good gumbos are hard to find, and this is a good one.

If you’re a foodie, and tired of the chain scene, this is a stop on the way to Louisiana or Texas to mark down and find time to enjoy. I did. It was well worth it.

Froghead Grill
121 Clinton Center Drive
Clinton, MS 39056
(601) 924-0725

Froghead Grill on Urbanspoon

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If you, like me, miss Pete’s Wicked Ale and were looking for something to fill that flavor gap, I have a suggestion.

I got this bottle at Publix on Pleasant Hill, in the “pick a six pack” section. Bell’s Best Brown Ale is richly flavored without being overpowering. I find few of the “muscular” beers ( I AM A CRAFT BEER; YOU WILL SUFFER WHEN YOU CONSUME ME ) to be balanced enough to be worth more than one try. This one hits a sweet spot with me, and I’ll probably be buying more of this.

I have an accuracy issue with my Auber temperature sensor, and it goes something like this. I have a separate thermometer, and when the Auber is first on, the rwo agree within a degree. As the Auber probe remains in the pot however, the difference in measurements increase, until after some time, I see this.

Pot equilibrated to a measurement of 144, a few minutes after adding chicken. Note the temp difference between the two probes. Who to believe?

So who to believe? I’m concerned the Auber is underestimating temperature, because of the beef color of cuts like this, which was supposed to be cooked at 130 to 132 degrees F.

Nam Dae Mun ribeye, sous-vide and plated. Cooked perhaps 4 hours at Auber nomimal 130.

The above, sliced. Does that look medium rare to you?

So yes, I’m looking into how to accurately gauge and calibrate temperature with this setup. I’ve also been playing with higher temperatures, in part so I can cook chicken, which is a substantially smaller portion of meat than some of these big steaks I’ve been eating.

Jimmy (@EatItAtlanta) tweeted before my experiments that he wasn’t happy with the meat near the bone of chicken cooked at 140 F. Since I’m using a PID controller, and it overshoots temp by 2 degrees during the first couple hours, then the kinds of temperatures I’m looking at for my setpoint are 2 degrees below the cooking point. But if it’s actually running 3 degrees cool, I need to compensate by 5 degrees. Does that make sense?

PID controllers overshoot and then narrow in on their target temperatures. That first overshoot peak defines the actual cooking temperature for my controller. In practice, I overshoot by about 2 degrees F. Image above from Wikimedia, and the PID controller article on Wikipedia.

The French Culinary Institute’s PDF on sous-vide recommends 1-2 hours for chicken at 65-66C (149-151 F), and that means the two Auber temperature settings I needed to test are 144 F and 147 F. So we tested those.

Nam Dae Mun chicken thighs. Note the price.

Spiced and sealed. I used cracked black pepper, red pepper, crushed red pepper (pizza pepper), some onion and garlic powder, and a dusting of poultry seasoning.

Cooked 90 minutes at 144 from room temp and plated. 2.5 hrs at 147 from frozen has a similar appearance. I prefer the flavor and texture of the hotter product.

Results? I liked my chicken better at 147 than 144. The looks are about the same at both, and at both, you really do need to trim off the chicken fat, because unlike frying, the fat that results from this technique isn’t much fun to eat. The chicken is amazingly juicy, and you might find it not cooked enough for your tastes. If so, just keep ramping up the temperatures until you’re happy with what comes out of the controller.

As for me, I need a better way to calibrate my device. I would like to nail a good medium rare on the steak side. For now, I have a useful working temperature on the chicken side.

El Molcajete is a small chain, with a version out in the Hamilton Mill area, an exit or two north of the Mall of Georgia exit. Exit 85 onto Hamilton Mill, heading west, and the restaurant will be on your left. It’s in a strip mall, one that has a restaurant named ‘Oriental’ and that bright ‘Oriental’ is much easier to see than the green letters of El Molcajete.

This is a restaurant with a large menu. Parts of it look like the same old Atlanta style Tex Mex. Yes, you can find a “Speedy Gonzales” here. But other parts, especially dinner entrees, are more authentic. My daughter spotted the Super Molcajete and ordered that. I saw a spicy seafood soup and ordered that. We called my wife and she wanted fajitas to go.

You get free chips and salsa with your meal. Chips are crisp, dry, and good. Even the ‘to go’ chips retain that character. El Molcajete has 2 salsas. The chipotle salsa, the dark one, is rich in flavors and much better than the stock red.

Super Molcajete. A dish for two.

Spicy seafood soup. Plates like canned vegetable soup, but much better tasting.

The servings size here is enormous. The molcajete dish (grilled meats and veggies in a stone mortar) is a meal for two. The soup was enough for one. The grilled pepper in the molcahete has some real bite, if you eat it with seeds. But it looked so enticing I asked my daughter for a bite.

In terms of sheer display, the molcajete here is a disappointment compared to Zapatas. No bubbly cheese, the dish arrived barely steaming. The soup, for that matter, arrived with carrots as a significant component of the ‘eye candy’. Yes, it was nice that a half cluster of crab was visible, but plating a beautiful dish isn’t the focus at this eatery. Instead, it’s a clearly suburban joint. The “Speedy Gonzales” shows that. The decent food in enormous quantities shows that.

My soup had a partial crab cluster, plenty of fish, some shrimp, a good broth that got better as the meal went on. My daughter’s dish had things like grilled sausage, grilled chicken, a skewer of shrimp, the lovely pepper, and some grilled cactus. Both dishes were worthwhile.

In summary, the originality of El Molcajete makes it worth the trouble, if you’re up around Buford, to seek out. But the style of food is clearly playing to neighborhood tastes, as opposed to being a routine destination for ITPers.

El Molcajete
2590 Hamilton Mill Road
Buford, GA 30519
(678) 394-5200

El Molcajete Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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