Monday, March 31, 2008

Visual Masterpieces, Reasonably Priced.

When traveling, it's uncommon for me to go back to the same restaurant twice. I like to find new and different cuisine to share, no matter where I go.

But this time, I had to make an exception.

On one particular Saturday evening in March, a group of my companions and I were looking for good sushi in the Memphis area. We crossed over into Southaven, MS and found Nagoya, a Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar. Before entering, I promised to relax and not work for one evening, and left the camera in the car.

I didn't make the same mistake on Sunday.

Nagoya, from the outside, could be just any old Japanese restaurant. It's located in a relatively new brick strip mall in the northeast corner of the Airways and Goodman Road intersection. It's near the Malco Theater and just down the strip from Baskin Robbins.

But it's not your usual "sushi in a boat" restaurant.

Our Saturday night fare was varied. My husband and I had tried the Dinner for Two ($31.95), and were so overwhelmed with it we questioned our decision to also partake of the Vegetable Tempura
($4.95). Both were good decisions -- just way too much food. The dinner alone contained six pieces of Nigiri, several pieces of Sashimi, and three different rolls.

So we were back. On arrival, we were greeted with hot, wet handtowels and bowls of miso soup. The handtowels were lovely and refreshing on such a cold, rainy and miserable day. The soup was nourishing -- small pearls of tofu, green onions, and a litte seaweed in a clear soybean broth.

I ordered hot green tea for a bit more of a warmup, and was greeted quickly with my own cup and pot. The tea is strong, and greener than I have become accoustomed to, but oh so warming.

Our dining party made its choices, and we quickly received the first of our appetizers. I had ordered a Tuna Tataki ($5.95), and it was quickly delivered -- succulent, buttery thin slices of lightly seared tuna seasoned with ginger and green onions. The vinaigrette dabbed on top only enhanced the flavor -- a true, red meat reminiscent of a delicate filet mignon. The color contrast in the presentation was striking -- the deep red of the tuna against deep green leaves with parsley and cherry garnish was striking.

One of our companions received the Unagi Donburi ($11.95), barbeque eel served on a bed of rice. The presentation is in a hard black plastic box, filled to the brim with food and seaweed. We were surprised that it came out before the accompanying salad!

I shared a Rock 'n' Roll Sushi Roll ($7.95) with the party. The thick roll comes with a sauce reminiscent of an Oriental honeyed mustard sauce, which I personally didn't care for and thought the roll didn't need. The roll itself is packed with fried shrimp, cucumber, crab stick and snow crab pieces, tempura batter bits that had been deep fried, and avocado. The slices are almost too large to be handled with chopsticks, but the roll was both light and hearty, a good combination of savory and sweet and enough to be worthy of a light lunch itself.

Right on the heels of the roll came the salad... a large bowl of iceberg lettuce garnished with a little purple cabbage and a heap of spiral-shaved carrot. The milky ginger dressing hinted at tones of both horseradish and ranch dressing, but strangely that worked well with the rest of the ingredients. It was very fresh and an excellent palate cleanser.

Another of our companions ordered the Beef Udon ($8.95) -- thick, hearty noodles in a deep brown broth with chunky slices of beef that was once again a meal in itself. One of the others ordered the Yakisoba ($7.95) -- yellow noodles cooked with chicken and vegetables in a lighter broth, a savory and delicious temptation in itself.

Mere moments later we received the dinner we had decided to share -- the Sushi and Tempura Combination ($16.95) -- another large and beautiful platter of fishly delights. On one end, a delicate crown of tempura battered vegetables and shrimp perch in golden glory -- fragile onion rings, clumps of broccoli, planks of still slightly crunchy zucchini and sweet potato, and large straight shrimp, all in that perfect and ungreasy delicate tempura batter. On the other side, a delicious display of nigiri and a California roll (you also have a choice of snow crab or tuna roll). The menu says it comes with tuna, fresh salmon, shrimp, and whitefish sushi -- but ours also came with a piece of fresh salmon and crabstick sushi.

No fishy taste here... each piece of nigiri sushi was balanced well between the chunk of fresh fish and the sushi rice, complete with a tiny dab of wasabi paste in-between. The whitefish comes topped with a little salmon roe. The platter is served with a special sauce that tastes like a combination of beef broth and soy sauce, perfect for dipping the tempura.

The chicken fried rice served with the meal (and with all dinners) is divine -- savory and well cooked, with big chunks of pulled chicken. That rice and a couple of pieces of sushi would set me fine on any average day.

Once again, we missed out on dessert, unable to give in and order the tempting Banana Tempura ($4.95), that we would have loved to have experienced. Ah well, another excuse to go back.

Nagoya shares a menu with another eatery, Collierville's Fuji Cafe. We were very impressed by the attention the wait staff lavished on us, and on the clean cut and completely un-over-the-top decor. It was tasteful and chic without being kitchy or stereotypical. My second regret (after the inability to eat Banana Tempura) was that I didn't get to see one of the neat sushi boats filled.

Nagoya is open seven days a week -- 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to three Sunday for lunch -- 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Call for more information -- (662) 349-8788.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hickory Smoked Simple Goodness.

THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED.

You don’t have to go as far as Memphis for good barbeque. There are plenty of fine establishments in Arkansas that do a good job with smoked meats and great sauces, that make a drive that far out seem unnecessary.

Over on Highway 1 in Forrest City, about a half mile south of Interstate 40, you’ll find Hickory House BBQ. From the outside, it’s not much to look at (what good barbeque restaurant is?) but on arrival it smells right -- and if it doesn’t smell right, you just don’t go in.

My traveling companion and I stopped at Hickory House on our way east one Friday in February. The air was nippy, and a spicy lunch was called for.

When we entered, we found that the outside d├ęcor matched the inside. The walls are lined with wood shingles,
with big outdoor lantern lights and a couple of hutches with family pictures. Tables are “wooden” formica, booths are red, and the floor is a mishmash of broken red tiles sunk in cement.

For a proper barbeque restaurant, this was positively swank. And large -- there’s seating for about 50 inside.

One of the girls behind the counter told us to sit wherever we like. Another woman came out and asked us what we wanted to drink, and gave us the menus. The menus themselves are Spartan and to the point -- beef barbeque or pork barbeque sandwiches, combos with those sandwiches; beef, pork, chicken finger, or catfish dinners; and the special -- which includes pork, beef, pork ribs, BBQ beans, slaw, French fries, and Texas toast for $10.95.

In fact, the only sides offered are BBQ beans, slaw, and French fries, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’re all available in pickup packs to take home.

My traveling companion ordered the pork dinner (lunch $5.29, dinner $6.49) -- which came with a generous pile of pulled pork, doused in a healthy bit of sauce, served with a big slice of Texas toast, a pile of cole slaw, and the beans. My companion said the pork was still juicy, not the slightest bit dry. He told me he could still taste the smoke through the sauce.

That sauce, by the way, is mighty tasty -- strong on the hickory and with a touch of mustard, but just enough for the
meat.

My companion rather enjoyed the cole slaw, but said the beans were somewhere near average.

I ordered the jumbo beef sandwich combo ($6.89). The waitress had brought out forks for both of us, and for this I was glad -- it was a mighty big pile of beef! I had to indulge in a bit of the meat before I could pick up the massive bun. The beef without the sauce is moist and smoky, a little under spiced for my taste by itself, but a perfect match for the sauce. It's all perched on a pile of that sweet cole slaw on the bun... and somehow, someway, not a soggy mess.

The fries were crinkle cut. I have a soft spot for crinkle cut fries. Our waitress brought out Heinz ketchup with our meals, and kept checking back with us.

In fact -- we have to give big kudos to the staff. It was less than three minutes between our order and our food’s arrival. We do realize that barbeque like that is pretty much an assembly affair, but the attention was appreciated.

Dinner for the two of us, including drinks, was less than $15. Hickory House also serves up chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry milkshakes -- but we were just way too stuffed to attempt one.

Best of all -- for travelers, there’s a drive-thru, and it was busy the entire time we were there.

You'll find Hickory House BBQ at 918 N. Washington in Forrest City -- that's Highway 1, for us out-of-towners. You can even call ahead to (870) 633-7751 if you want to order your meat to-go. It's been there 20 years or more, but for me, it was a real food find.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The French Quarter restaurant you won't find on the tour.

New Orleans is known for jazz, Bourbon Street, history, and good food. And Katrina, but we won't get into that here.

If you're not into being drunk enough to puke, Bourbon Street isn't for you. If you aren't a history buff... or a jazz fan... chances are you've come to New Orleans to eat.

And what a place to eat. Seems every Food Network special has something in it about New Orleans. Its culinary contributions to the world include both Cajun and Creole food -- gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp creole, ettouffe, pralines, bread pudding (well, perfection of the creation, of course), blackened anything, Bananas Foster, you name it. And you can find places that serve these creations all over the Quarter.

But there's a little non-descript bar and restaurant on Decatur Street
that you're not going to
find splashed across some full color advertizement. Sure, it's in the Zagat Survey -- but that's about the only place you'll find it mentioned in the guidebooks.

It's called Coop's Place -- and it's about as down and dirty a bar as the average person will step into. But it's also home to
some of the best New Orleans fare you can find -- for a reasonable price.

My traveling companion and I ventured over to the bar on a windy Tuesday night in March. We stumbled past the plethora of bicycles (apparently newly popular again with the high gas prices) to the door, and found ourselves one available table by the wall.

On that wall, you'll find a big chalkboard with the menu. You can have a proper menu, if you want, but it has everything that's above your head -- including the appetizers, the wide variety of pastas, the burgers, the dishes... all there, all priced, all loud and clear in colored chalk.

We made our choices and settled down. The floor is rough here, a combination of brick and stone, cobbled together and well worn. The big bar takes up the center of the room, but there are about a dozen tables, and a pool table in the back. The electronic jukebox pumped out a groovy mix of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Led Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, waiting for someone to challenge it with another choice. The staff were rushed, but thorough.

We decided to start out with a trio of appetizers, and it wasn't long before they were brought to our table. They came on plain plates with little more than lettuce for garnish, but that was okay -- the food was good enough on its own.

The Crabmeat Stuffed Jalapena Poppers ($7.95) come five to a plate. These firm appetizers reminded me of hush puppies. They were soft and full of cornmeal, both sweet and hot, each with a long thick curl of jalapeno in the middle (instead of a whole pepper). They weren't quite as hot as I feared, but hot enough, and served with a surprising horseradish sauce instead of the traditional ranch dressing. Nice.

The Charbroiled Lamb Ribs with Red Pepper Jelly ($5.95) are one of the best deals I've seen in the Quarter. Lamb ribs aren't a very common thing, but these were great. They were slightly smaller than pork ribs, but cooked to medium rare and savory, a little fatty but falling right off the bone. The Red Pepper Jelly with its coolness and slight spiciness made a good combination.

But it was the Smoked Duck Quesadilla ($8.25) that truly got our attention. A meal in itself or an appetizer for two, it's a series of pleasant surprises. First off, there's the well-smoked and flavorful duck -- almost ham-like in its saltiness but with the traditional pull of poultry. Then there was the lovely tomato-bell pepper-scallion accompaniment of pico de gallo type vegetation scattered over the duck and cheese creation. A topping of sour cream and jalapenos crowned it nicely. But it was the sauce the quesadilla sat in that really perked us both up and surprised us. It was a perfect, sweet accompaniment to the dish. We both guessed at the base -- I thought it might have been mango on first try -- before word came back from the chef -- this heavenly ambrosial syrup was a reduction of orange marmalade. Who would have guessed that? So good.

We didn't have time to relax before our main dish came out. Since we were in a sampling mood, we'd decided on Coop's Taste Plate ($12.95), a combination of several local favorites. Because of our combined allergies, we substituted french fries for the red beans and rice, but out came the rest -- seafood gumbo, shrimp Creole, rabbit and sausage jambalaya, and a piece of Creole fried chicken.

The sight of so much food can make one ache. We gave it a try.

The rabbit and sausage jambalaya is spicy, but not as spicy as you might suspect a Quarter jambalaya to be. Instead, it was spice-ful, with nice bite-sized chunks of strongly flavored sausage and savory rabbit. Not a hint of gaminess here... it amalgamated quite well.

Where the jambalaya wasn't spicy, the shrimp Creole was, in just that "hey, wait a minute" sort of way that a good afterbite has. Loaded with tomatoes and large shrimp, the dish completely deliniates itself from other regional offerings. The spice isn't evident at first, but moments after my first bite I was reaching for the iced tea.

The Creole fried chicken was pan-fried instead of deep fried, with a cornmeal and flour dressing. Once again, the bite came late -- not apparent on first taste, but drink-inducing moments later. It was savory and full spiced and didn't lack for good seasoning.

The gumbo, though, was to die for. Coop's uses a very, very dark and patient roux, and it shows. This is a file gumbo -- no okra here -- and there's no skimping on celery or peppers. Or, for that matter, the meat -- large chunks of crabmeat and quarter size shrimp lurk beneath the surface on the submerged bed of rice below.

One taste plate, three appetizers, and no room for dessert -- though, if you really want dessert, there are plenty of places nearby that will serve you beignets, fudge, or Bananas Foster.

Coop's Place isn't the sort of establishment that spends a lot of time and effort on frou-frou items like that. But it does have a mean mojito (in three flavors, at that) and a wicked Bloody Mary.

If you find yourself in the Quarter and want to dine without breaking the bank, check out Coop's Place. It's at 1109 Decatur Street -- across from Margaritaville. And don't worry if you're out late -- it's open until 4am. And you can call if you like -- (504) 525-9053.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Don't skip Skip's.

Skip's on 43 keeps its desserts by the door, so you can see them when you walk in. You have to give them a good look, because chances are you won't see them coming to your table.

Not, that is, unless you're planning to have dessert first.

Skip's on 43 isn't something you'll see signs for 30 miles away. In fact, I've been hard pressed to find anyone from my neck of the woods who's ever been there. But I can't imagine why the heck not.

Well, maybe I can. It's a good distance from the well-traveled route, and
a completely accidental find on my part. My traveling companion and I were wanting a good lunch, something not from a restaurant chain. We'd rolled into Picayune, searching out Two Sisters Creole Kitchen, but alas it was closed. As was the Dockside Restaurant, Fat Boy's BBQ, and a host of other local eateries. Well, Panda Kitchen was open, but I hadn't come south on I-59 to smother myself in Chinese buffet.

We pulled in for gas at a Shell station and asked what was good to eat in the area. The poor girl at the counter looked a little bewildered when I told her Ryan's wouldn't do. She pointed in the direction of Kiln (which she pronounced as "Kill") and said if we were willing to go a bit down the road we were like to find something halfway decent.

We followed the signs for Bay St. Louis, reasoning if we didn't find something before then that we might just roll down the coast and head to New Orleans. We passed subdivisions and churches and a lot of rural scenery, and nothing.

Until we came to a straight part in the road next to a small lake. And there, perched out on a dock, was Skip's on 43. At first, we both mistook it for a church, since there were so many cars in the parking lot. But the words "Casual Lakeside Dining" caught our interest, and we decided this was a good place to kick off the road dust.

We crossed a small bridge to the restaurant, and noticed all the sunear, bream, and smallmouth bass eagerly awaiting a nibble. Inside the door, we found a fish feed machine, and a sign entreating customers not to feed the hand-sized fish with crackers and bread from the restaurant. Nice, homey touch.

Don't let that tablecloth draped dessert table fool you. This is casual dining, inviting and wonderful, with the aroma of too many good fish dinners recently prepared permeating the air.

The hostess came up and asked us if we'd like to sit in the back, where the water was, or near the front. She told us the back was noisy, so we went for a quieter spot in the main dining room.

We knew it'd be a good meal when we saw the posting above the table next to ours... proclaiming proudly, "It's all good."

Skip's is a place where the waitresses still call you "sweetie," and local ministers sit down for an after-church dinner with their congregations. The couple at the next table had their small baby, in a carrier, perched on the table with them. One of the waitresses kept coming by and cooing at the young 'un.

It took a few minutes for service to get to us, but that was okay. In restaurant talk, it was "slammin' and jammin'" and busy as all heck. We called for drinks and placed our orders, and our waitress bustled herself back over to the kitchen.

My traveling companion excused himself for a restroom break. I captured some shots here and there, including this great shot taken from the window by my chair, looking out over the lake. The day was beautiful, and the picture inviting.

My companion came back and told me I must, certainly must, go check out the restrooms. I did, and I received a happy surprise. Not only were the facilities clean, they were also spacious. There's a lounge area in the outer room of the women's restroom, with rockers and seashells and lots of room.

The inner chamber has two stalls, complete with a sign that tells you to pull rather than push to get in. After the tiny restrooms we'd found elsewhere, this was a real treat.

When I came back, our salads had arrived. As per usual, I ordered my side salad without onion. The side salad is a nice fresh mix of salad greens (mostly iceberg lettuce and a little purple cabbage), sliced tomatoes, and shaved carrot. Pretty decent. And the bowl was chilled, which is always a winner in my book.

But what came next was even more special... fresh, hot bread from the kitchen. I expected a sourdough from the scent -- but if this was sourdough, it was very mild. The bread was just slightly chewy, and with the butter had the surprising taste of a top of the line saltine cracker. The salt came mostly from the bread... there was very little in the butter, but it worked quite well.

While the food was a little while getting to us, our waitress was attentive, and she kept checking back to see if we needed refilled drinks or more bread.

And then... here came lunch... two amazing plates to make salivation necessary and uncontrollable. My traveling companion had ordered the Surf and Turf, an 8 ounce ribeye with a choice of seafood. His ribeye came out cooked perfectly medium rare, topped with a few slender hand-battered onion rings. His loaded potato was slathered in butter and sour cream, Cheddar cheese, and real bacon pieces.

And mine? Well, I have to try a little bit of everything. I tried the Seafood Platter, with its wide selection of local fishy favorites. It came with two generous catfish filets, a crab cake, seven large shrimps (shrimps? or just shrimp? I can never guess the plural), seven large fried oysters, and seven crab fingers, along with a baked sweet potato and three sweet hush puppies. The fish was light and lacked the muddy taste you get with some less than fresh offerings at other restaurants. The shrimp was lightly
breaded with a little cornmeal, a lot of flour -- and was that buttermilk? The oysters were plump and tender, and the crab fingers came off their shell picks with ease. And that sweet potato? It's served with just butter, but boy was it soaked in it.

Of course, there were doggie boxes involved. There's no way normal folks like us could eat everything. So the dessert table went unsampled.

Such a repast is fit for a late dinner and early bed... for two travelers on a long road, it was a welcome 90 minute respite and then a halfway sleepy drive back into Picayune and down to our next destination, New Orleans. We actually found ourselves stopping in Slidell for Mochassippis (think Community Coffee's version of Starbuck's Frappucino) to keep going. And on arrival at our lodging of choice, we collapsed and slept the good sleep of those who have been well fed.

Skip's isn't a main-drag sort of place; you have to know where you're going to, to get there. But it's well worth the extra miles to experience some great seafood, a comfortable atmosphere -- and, oh yeah, some nice bathrooms, too.

You'll find Skip's on 43 -- on Highway 43 down southeast of Picayune from I-59. If you think you might have missed it (though you probably just haven't gone far enough), give them a call at (601) 749-0714.