It’s a store and eatery with a modest front on a strip mall, a bit to the east of the intersection of Five Forks and Killian Hill Road and very easy to miss. The outside shows a bit of outdoor seating and pretty red stone. The inside is much larger than the outside appears, as this is a deep restaurant, with a long bar, some seats, a sofa or two, plenty of wine and a refreshingly casual air.  It reminds me,  in some small ways, of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore.

It was a little confusing when I arrived, perhaps because there was a wine tasting going on, and I arrived in the  middle of it. Staff were worried about the people trying wines, so it took a minute or two before staff found me.

“Inside or outside?”

“The outside looks pretty, great light, let me eat  there.”

In retrospect that was a mistake. The light was fantastic, and it let me get some great food shots, but it was cold outside. I wasn’t dressed for it, and even after moving back inside, I never really warmed up the whole day, until I fell asleep.

Inside, though, I had a much better feel for why you might want to come to TBM, and I’d say it’s really friendly, very social, and a great place to talk and eat. There is an engaging owner/chef, Matthew, who has opinions but doesn’t come off as opinioniated, and a crew of regulars who seem happy to chew the fat. The bar is long and deep, and if you’re here to say your hellos, please find your way to the bar, shake the hands of staff and say hello to the owner.

There are six good beers on tap, and not just a wine list, but a fine beer list as well. The salad  I had was tender and the chunks of bread nice and crunchy. I ate too many of those, but they were a bit too tempting. The salmon was tasty and tender,  the skin was indeed crisp. Prices ran a couple dollars more than the local chains, but of course, you’re dealing with a single outlet small eatery.

So, if you’re eating just to eat, and you want a lot of food at a great price, then one of the local buffets will serve you well. There are plenty of those in the Snellville/Lilburn/Lawrenceville area. Small local restaurant with an engaged owner chef? Those are as rare as four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. And while good social spots like Leon’s in Decatur and Holcomb and Finch are common inside the loop, a place with a smart owner, intelligent clients and a Cheers-like atmosphere are pretty rare in the ‘burbs, and this place appears to have all that.

Very highly recommended. Good food, stellar atmosphere, friendly and smart without any pretense.

Three Blind Mice
1066 Killian Hill Road, Suite 101
Lilburn, GA 30347

Three Blind Mice Restaurant and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

I mentioned to my wife that I was interested in Star Provisions, and it got under her skin in a way that places to buy groceries seldom do. So after a hellish Saturday at work, I was taking off into the middle of town to find Star Provisions.

I get lost down on Howell Mill plenty, but this time a pair of cop cars marked the way. We turned into the lot, parked, walked inside. Roomy! I let my wife and daughter wander while I went to find Tim the Cheese Man.

Much fun. I ended up with the chunk of cheese above. The Cabot, like most high end cheddars, lacks the bitter tastes you often see in supermarket sharp cheddars. Tim was affable and patient, worth the 50 minute trip downtown. If you’re needing not a good cheese for your dinner, but the right cheese,  this is clearly a place to go.

We missed the sandwiches though. We’ll have to come back sometime.

Mad Italian. Easy to find, just off 285 heading east, perhaps the easiest of the Savoy Drive restaurants to see along the Interstate. Great commuter stop, especially when the Loop resembles a parking lot. Known for cheese steaks, so I was developing an interest, yes.

Foodie Buddha, the Enlightened One, has troubled more with cheesesteaks than many (posts here and here), and on the latter link some time back, I said what I thought of steaks. It is indeed true that the best I ever had came from a basement cafeteria at the University of Pennsylvania, using provolone cheese and a lot of those spicy cherry peppers the Philadelphians favor. I had my share of street steaks back in the day. The basics of a cheese steak are simple: inexpensive cheese, lots of onions, inexpensive thin sliced steak. It’s in the execution that it succeeds or fails.

By that criterion, I think Mad Italian’s steak is a success. Dripping with cheese, I’d have liked a few more onions, and I was slow asking if they had hot cherry peppers. Otherwise I think this steak is pretty stinkin’ good. Drippy cheese is everywhere. The onions they do have add to the flavor. The roll is soft and doesn’t get in the way. A pair of thumbs up from this commuter.

Mad Italian
2197 Savoy Drive
Chamblee, GA 30341
(770) 451-8048

Mad Italian on Urbanspoon

Cheeses are an indulgence I can deal in without issues, but the pressures of a diet and trying to remain healthy also factor into buying decisions. Is it worth it to get the butter from grass fed cows, or just buy the cheap stuff at Wall-Mart? What about eggs? Free range grass fed or feedlot eggs? Is it worth it, on a taste basis, to buy healthy cheeses? These are questions I ask myself almost every day.

To help answer these questions in part I did a taste test of 5 cheeses, including 2 new arrivals from Pastureland, and kept notes.

1. Black Diamond Grand Reserve. I eat so much of this I think I know what to expect. It’s a flavor I’d call cheesy and cheddary, and it’s almost immediate. Unlike some sharp cheddars, there is no bitterness and no overpowering flavor. Instead the flavor just grows on you and then seems to linger forever. The rich, deep cheesy sensations are what separates this cheese from wanna bes.

2. Boar’s Head Canadian Cheddar (Old World Collection). I tried this just to see if I wasn’t kidding myself in my Black Diamond addiction. My notes include: up front flavor less than that of B(lack) D(iamond), and more of a sharp salty aftertaste. Flavors include overtones of creaminess, butteriness. Lingering tastes. Good eating cheese.

3. Pastureland Organic Cheddar. Notes: more subdued, smoother, milky, creamy, a hint of some bitter flavors. Tastes do linger. Lingering flavors less concentrated and intense than the first two cheeses.

4. Pastureland Sogn Artisan Alpine Style Cheese. This was a bit of a misfit in the comparison process, being more aptly compared to a Swiss. Notes: initial tastes include aromatic overtones. Aftertaste very mild, buttery, milky, salty. Coffee flavors would work well with this cheese.

5. Kerry Gold Ivernia. Another mismatch, as this cheese resembles more a Parmesan than a cheddar. Notes: immediate and upfront. Nutty. Rich lingering aftertastes of salty cream, nuts, fruits.

In terms of delivering sheer flavor, Ivernia was at the head of the pack, followed by Black Diamond and the Boar’s Head cheddars, then the Aged Pastureland Cheddar and then the Sogn. But given the approximate variety of these cheeses and how long they were aged, that was the expected result. In conclusion? If you don’t expect flavor miracles from the Pastureland Cheeses, they’re just fine. Issues I had with them on receipt were that the cooling ice had melted and they weren’t in the best of condition on arrival. If you want picture perfect cheeses, it would be best to have them shipped 2nd day air.

Ran into this Kerrygold product in a Whole Foods, and wanting something new, picked up this cheese.

I’ve had really good luck with Kerrygold’s Dubliner cheese, so wanted to give this a try. It’s very rich in flavor, with overtones of salt and cream. It lacks the nuttiness that marks Dubliner in favor of a lingering cheesy aftertaste. Others have compared it to Parmigiana-Reggiano in terms of character and smell.  In terms of cost, at about 12 dollars a pound, it’s cheaper than Dubliner on an ounce by ounce basis, and considerably cheaper than a good Parmesan. In any event, it’s a good harder cheese, well worth adding to your pantry.

Back in the days when I was a grad student (mid to late 80s), roughly about the time I was bartending at Valhalla, the cheese guides I would read would mention a white cheddar from Canada, Black Diamond, and it was proclaimed “the best cheddar in North America”. That was a claim that really stood up in those days. Good English cheddars were hard to come by, and were often dry when they made it to the cheese shops.  Not only did Black Diamond pack a lot of flavor, have a phenomenal aftertaste, it was easy to get without dry crusty edges.

Nowadays, Black Diamond is a trademark of a whole variety of cheese products, so when I speak of Black Diamond, I’ll be largely referring to Black Diamond Grand Reserve. Finding this cheese is not easy. It’s not routinely found at Alon’s or Whole Foods, but Fresh Market seems to carry it on a regular basis, and you can buy Black Diamond Grand Reserve through igourmet in 8 ounce, 1 pound, and 5 pound blocks. Amazon shows up on searches as well, but has been out of the cheese every time I have looked.

I’m having trouble describing the taste of this cheese. It’s not as harsh or as bitter as the taste of say, Kraft Extra Sharp, but the flavor is more mellow, richer on the tongue and it lingers. It has some of the rich aftertones you might see in Kerry Gold’s Dubliner cheese. Dubliner is probably the closest match to Black Diamond in a regular supermarket. But in my opinion, Black Diamond is worth the price tag you pay for it these days (ca $18.99 per pound), because a very small amount of this cheese goes a long way.