Exceptional


If you’re a foodie with an ounce of pride in what you eat, and you are anywhere near Suwanee, a suburb north of Atlanta, then you need to run, not walk, to Cafe Gourmandises. Seriously. It hasn’t gone away, and it continues to produce some of the finest food value around. Staff? Ridiculously amiable and chatty. The chef? The most approachable guy this side of Guy Wong. The food? Terrific.

A fine Kobe burger.

The shaved and crispy lamb sandwich is to die for.

I snuck in for lunch recently. My daughter had the shaved and crispy lamb sandwich, and I had their Kobe burger. And perhaps I’m spoiled, as decent burgers for me are just a couple blocks away, but the lamb was definitely over the top. And as good as the lamb is, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten the same thing twice in this restaurant.

We’ll be back. My wife now recalls this place and I’ll need some excuse to get her here.

Cafe Gourmandises
686 Peachtree Industrial Boulevard
Suite 200
Suwanee, GA 30024
(770) 945-6599

Cafe Gourmandises on Urbanspoon

I’m not prone to superlatives, but this is a dish that deserves one.  Haru Ichiban (reviews here and here) is a family favorite, and we were there to celebrate my wife’s birthday. Although the main menu is the same as the last time we were there, they have added three new small menus. One is a sushi menu, another is a list of appetizers and paper hot pot specials. Among  the paper hot pot specials was a yosenabe version.

Yosenabe is one of my favorite forms of nabemono, so I had to try it. I’d never had Haru’s version before. So imagine my surprise when this comes out.

It’s a square stone, with holes in it, burning either wood or charcoal. The paper (because Americans use metal forks, instead of wooden chopsticks) is replaced with a thin metal “flower”, held in a metal mesh cup above the flames. Inside the cup – sorry, the photo cuts off the cooking mix of foods – are seafoods, greens, mushrooms, broth.

Dipping sauces and garnishes are provided.

Other than the yosenable, we tried a conch kushiyaki. It was great on the grilled edges, rich and a little burned. Otherwise, chewy, a bit like squid or octopus.

Haru has added yakisoba back to their menu, though only a vegetable or pork yakisoba. My wife ended up with her Japanese staple, tonkatsu. My daughter went for the nabeyaki udon. We added tempura and a California roll as sides.

Verdict: Haru’s new paper hot pot dishes are amazing eye candy

Haru Ichiban
3646 Satellite Blvd
Duluth, GA 30096
(770) 622-4060

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It’s a small place, Taka Sushi, and without the road sign would be easy to miss. The Pharr location brings back memories of driving into town to browse at Oxford Books, unfortunately long since gone. Ever since Foodie Buddha posted his list of chefs that blog, though, I’ve had Taka Sushi marked down for a visit. Part of the appeal is the size: I know I won’t get a loud crowd in a tiny eatery. Further, it hearkens to the tendency in Japan to very small eateries. Zack Davisson, for example, is open about the lack of personalized eateries, so often seen in Japan. So yes, Taka is the “real deal”.

My daughter was going to a prom, just off Clairmont Road. My wife wanted to stick close by. I saw a chance to pick a Buckhead eatery and I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. So we suffered the minor hell that is Lenox Road and made our way down to Pharr. I was expecting to see a park and then the eatery but the sign soon loomed to our left. Parking is small and a little cramped. Taka itself is in a small brick building too far from the road to see. The sign is your best bet.

Taka has indoor and outdoor seating. With the weather being cool, staff was offering outdoor seating a lot. With my wife’s asthma and the harsh-for-asthmatics Atlanta spring, I asked to sit inside. A quick look at the menu showed a lot of sushi and a lot of drinks. There were a few Japanese foods. Udon was one, and there were also soba noodles. Tonkatsu, one of my wife’s favorites, was one of the specials this day. I ordered a salmon ceviche while my wife made up her mind.

She asked for the extended Japanese menu, and then asked plenty of questions about the differences between the two udon Taka served. As the fancier version seems too fancy to her, she tried the plainer udon. In the meantime, I ordered salmon roe sushi and then later black cod. The sushi was inhaled; I have almost no pictures of sushi because it was getting eaten way too fast. Sorry, it had been a long day and we were hungry. That said, the salmon roe were tasty, salty, pristine. The cod was delicate, fatty, savory.

My wife liked her udon but thought it a little too plain. She later ordered octopus sushi and that went over extremely well, so much so she ordered a second pair. Her comment was, “Very fresh”. I had mackerel sushi and it also lacked any fishy flavor I’ve normally associated with mackerel. When you go to a sushi expert, it should be no surprise that you get expertly crafted sushi.

I ordered a salad and Taka’s tsukemono (pickles). It’s perhaps the best tsukemono plate I’ve seen served at a Japanese restaurant. Yes, it does not compare with Korean banchan in terms of sheer diversity, but quality and taste were there.

In short, this is a terrific place to eat. Staff is graceful, helpful, largely unobtrusive. Any reputation Taka has is earned. Sushi quality is high, the digs are nice, the place a keeper. I will be back, even if it takes another prom visit to get us here.

Verdict: Perhaps the best example of a small, high quality sushi shop in Atlanta. I’d rate this place as exceptional, my highest ranking.

Taka Sushi and Passion
375 Pharr Road
Atlanta, GA 30305
(404) 869-2802

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Posados Cafe is a chain that started in Tyler Texas, and has expanded into the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Austin, and across select spots in Louisiana. This East Texas/Louisiana favorite was an immediate hit with my father, and their original location in the Shreveport area, in Bossier City, is by far his favorite. The reason is simple: they make better tasting food at this location.

Going to Posados has become a Christmas tradition, a ritual really. And the one dish that powers all of this food lust is their quail. Posados also has a good tortilla soup, a good red salsa, and their chips are crisp, dry, and reliable. Other entrées are good, but not as clearly “five star” as the quail.

Quail is a dish served in the same style as fajitas in these kinds of Mexican eateries, and like fajitas they arrive at the eatery marinated, in bags I’m told. They are served on a hot plate. The Posados plate is wooden, with a comalesque circular iron liner on one side and a slot to hold a plate with toppings on the other side. Tortillas are usually served with the quail, in  keeping with the fajita tradition, but quail are so small and the bones so tiny that eating them as fajitas seems almost a waste of time.

Service here has been very good for us. Waitstaff dress in all black, are fast to tables and come back repeatedly.

Verdict: A family favorite. The quail is what you want when you come here. The highest of recommendations.

Posados
1703 Old Minden Road
Bossier City, LA 71111
(318) 747-6200

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Cafe Gourmandises is strikingly friendly, and it seems Christophe Houy and Jennifer Allen have all the time in the world to explain what they offer and what is unique about their food. We came on Memorial Day, on a day where they were largely “cleaned out” by a previous customer. There was no bread for sale. Trays that would contain baguettes and honey bread lay empty when we arrived.

The restaurant is on the far end of a strip mall in Suwanee and it’s easy to miss. We passed it once before turning around to come back to it. Inside, the floor and tables are clean, spare and modern in style. There is a fine bakery cabinet, glass, lighting and chrome, half empty this day. Towards the back is a stand up refrigerator with soft drinks and on the walls, a nice collection of still lifes.

I wouldn’t have known about Gourmandises but for a bang up review by Chow Down Atlanta, and my wife had been collecting articles out of the newspaper talking about the fine French bakery in Suwanee. We started discussing going there early on Memorial Day. It was promising. My wife usually cannot eat in French restaurants at all, because she doesn’t like the ingredients found in many rich sauces (e.g. milk, cream, cheese, butter). But the cafe was, among other things, a bakery, with a focus on bread. Bread and my wife get along wonderfully well.

When we walked in, they had some food choices and some specials in chalk up on a blackboard. When my daughter saw that escargot was an option, she suddenly became really happy about coming here. My wife chose a turkey sandwich and I had one of the daily specials, a filet mignon crusted in peppercorns. Filet mignon was something my mother would make back in the 1960s, wrapping it in bacon. And filet mignon was a little tricky to cook, because if you didn’t give the meat enough fat, it would end up tough. So yes, I was curious. And the price was reasonable, about 15.00, if I recall correctly.

As we waited for the food, the restaurant began to fill up a bit, and I heard Jennifer explain to the others that there were “no crepes, no croques, and no lamb”. It wasn’t long though before Christophe brought out the food, warning my daughter not to touch the metal plate with the escargot. “It’s hot,” he explained. My wife’s sandwich was huge, so much food I knew she would share it. And the filet mignon was spot on, tender, juicy, and a perfect medium rare. It was crusted in peppercorns and covered in a tasty gray sauce. It came with fries, the fries mixed with a bit of herb.

My daughter loved her escargot and they were finished before I could ask for a taste. Herbs were stuffed inside the shells, and on top of the hot metal plate was a layer of salt. As I expected, my wife shared about half of her turkey sandwich with the rest of us. My daughter swallowed half of the remaining sandwich and I finished off the rest of it. The bread was great, crusty, tasty and at least as good as its fillings.

Despite being low on baked goods, they still had an ample supply of sweets. My wife got a lemon meringue tart, and my daughter their lemon dome. I got a dessert they call a “Pleasure”, which has alternating layers of chocolate and light filling. The top was caramelized, and had a stripe of chocolate bits down the middle of the top.

All the desserts we tried were top notch. The lemon tart had a subtle creamy lemon flavor, the dome was a stronger lemon flavor, with a candy crust on the outside. What I remember of the “Pleasure” were the really intense chocolate flavors that dominated.

Afterwards, we meandered into the historic district of Suwanee (beautiful houses and churches, worth the couple minutes to get there) and then slipped back to the Interstate down Suwanee Dam Road. It was a terrific early afternoon jaunt, and the fantastic food just set the tone.

Verdict: Friendly, unpretentious, exceptional food, exceptional flavor, exceptional value.

Cafe Gourmandises
686 Peachtree Industrial Boulevard
Suite 200
Suwanee, GA 30024
(770) 945-6599

Gourmandises on Urbanspoon

Tip:

The easiest way to get to Cafe Gourmandises from Snellville is to head west down Pleasant Hill, head north on I-85, head west on Sugarloaf Parkway until it ends, and then turn right and head down Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. If, say, you want to make this a modest detour on the way to the Mall of Georgia, just head north a bit from the Cafe and turn right at Suwanee Dam Road. It will take you back to I-85.

By the time we were in the line for Paula Deen’s Lady and Sons, at 9:35am, the line stretched half way around the block and the front of the restaurant could not be seen. We had missed getting in for dinner the previous day, because of course we could clean up first and then walk over to it.  But by the time everyone was ready, there was no more seating to be had.

My daughter was really the driving force for this. She wanted to go, and badly. When we got our hotel room, we asked in the hotel office where it was located. We were told it was at the corner of Congress and Whittaker (an easy walk from the Riverfront).  For Lady and Sons, unless you have a party for 10, you have to line up and get your reservation in advance in person.

So we came back to the hotel room and plotted. We ate the continental breakfast the hotel offered and then realized that my wife takes her time dressing, and that the rest of us had better get seating. So, we made it into the long, long line, worked our way to the front, grabbed the second of the two time slots that were left (11 am or 1:45 pm) and then went back to the hotel to kill time and play tourist on the Riverfront.

When they give you your reservation, they tell you to line up 15 minutes before your appointment, but we showed up maybe 1:20 or so. They took our name, and told us to go into the waiting area through the gift shop. Now, if you’ve ever been to the Riverfront of Savannah, you’ll see Paula’s face, via a magazine or curio, in every single shop. And in Paula’s gift shop, it’s a Paula Deen flashback on steroids, because there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of items, all with Paula’s face (or sayings) on them. Thankfully our stay in the waiting area was short.

We were seated in a 3rd floor corner on the back side of the restaurant, where we had a window, a lengthwise view of a bar, a view of several nearby chairs and stools. The window view would have been better if they weren’t doing construction on the adjacent block. About 20′ in front of us was a large metal wheel. When we asked where it came from, the waiter said the restaurant was a converted hardware store.  Even though they were using the old elevator, they weren’t using the old pulley anymore.

Our waiter was excellent. We all chose the buffet because for all of us, it was about the southern vegetables.  And there was absolutely no disappointment in them. My daughter’s verdict on the macaroni and cheese was that it was “awesome”. The black eyed peas, in my opinion, could have stood alone as a dish by themselves. Yes, they were that good. The collard greens were also really really good. I went back for seconds, and my plate was basically half peas, half collards. My wife was taking her time with the green beans, and my daughter came back with the mashed potatoes. The chicken was also very good, but the vegetables were to die for.

The buffet is ended with desserts, either peach cobbler, banana pudding, or butter cakes. They were all good, though my wife wished she could have gotten a larger dessert portion. I understand her feelings, but the buffet was all you can eat and people were really eating. And $13.99, for the amount of food served and where it was served, is actually a pretty fair price.

Menus for this restaurant are online.

Verdict: This is one restaurant that is everything it is cracked up to be. Really good meats, vegetables to die for, excellent service. I don’t say many restaurants are exceptional, but this one is, without qualifications.

Lady and Sons
108 W Congress St
Savannah, GA 31401
(912) 233-2600

Lady & Sons on Urbanspoon

Tip:

If you line up in the morning, you can get reservations for lunch or for dinner. No need to wait until the evening to get dinner reservations.

The high ranking on Urban Spoon, the fine review in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, none of this adequately encompasses the way Benny’s Bar and Grill handles food and prepares meals.  The kind of talk you can hear on the Food Channel, about how food can be “rich with flavor”, comes into sparkling clarity when you try one of Mike “Benny” Miller’s dishes. So don’t let the tough driving conditions, the menu on the outside, the rave reviews drive you away.

The restaurant is located at the site of the old Mellow Mushroom just south of Golden Corral, on Highway 78. Benny’s is a little north of the Highway 78 – Killian Hills intersection, and for those a little west of this restaurant, approaching it by heading down Killian Hills and north on 78 might save you some grief. There is some parking in front of the restaurant, but a lot more parking in the back of the building, down a ramp to the left.

Once inside, it doesn’t seem as cramped as the old Mellow Mushroom was. There is much better use of space and, it seems, a lot more places to sit and eat. The layout is graceful, but unpretentious. There are big screen TVs on the walls, a bit of bar seating, elegant tables and on the tables, no salt or pepper. I didn’t notice the lack of spices, Mike Miller pointed it out. And to be honest, I didn’t need it.

A description of the food might be a fusion between the kind of food California has made famous (more accurately, modern American cuisine) and Cajun/Creole cooking.  If that’s too high falutin’, think of it as guys in a kitchen with Louisiana roots trying to make really good food while incorporating neat tricks friends from elsewhere have taught them. The results are a lot of original dishes, entirely the opposite of the chain experience.

On to the food:

The soup of the day was a gumbo, and gumbo can be a make or break experience in a restaurant with aspirations to deliver Louisiana favorites. The bowl was appealing when it arrived, with nice chunks of sausage floating in a rich broth. It looked great, smelled good, and it was delicious. It had a lot of flavor, and it managed it with just a tiny bit of heat, enough to let you know it was there.

I also had the boudin egg rolls, perhaps because a lot of restaurants that claim Cajun roots can’t even spell boudin. They were good, bits of sausage and rice in the egg roll. The rolls looked to be a bit unwrapped, and there was cheese, I think, melted into the portion of unwrapped roll.

I didn’t order an entree until I had eaten the appetizer and the soup and the jerk pork tenderloin was too much to resist at that point. And before I trip over superlatives describing how good it was, let’s just say it was exceptionally good.

The beer selection here is really well thought out, with a small number of beers that encompass a wide range of tastes. If you like light beer, you can get that. If you want an extra stout, you can get that too. If you’re like me and want something more like a brown ale or Anchor Steam, they have those as well.

For those wondering why I haven’t described the po boys or the desserts, they are very well covered by the AJC review, and I really want my wife, who has made me drive 90 miles for a good po boy in the past, to have her say first.

By the time I was into the pork tenderloin, Mike Miller came out, and we spoke for a bit. It’s impressive, his grasp of his craft. Prices in Benny’s Bar and Grill are also equally impressive. Entrees run 10 to 14 dollars, their famous po boys run about 9 dollars. You should be able to come here, have a salad and an entree, and beat the prices of every mid priced Snellville steakhouse, or even Ruby Tuesday’s. The desserts, which the AJC raved about, are also competitively priced with any low to mid priced chain.

Verdict: Exceptional food, exceptional value. This is original food, not cookie cutter stuff. The setting is appealing without being pretentious.  Despite the informality, this is the kind of restaurant that would be considered an asset in any city I’ve eaten in, from Seoul, Korea and San Francisco in the east, to Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Boston in the west.

Benny’s Bar and Grill
3902 Highway 78
Snellville, GA
(678)-209-0209

Benny's Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Update 10/27/2009: Benny’s has a letter posted on the front door saying it is temporarily closed.

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