Friday, January 30, 2009

Eating around Georgia Tech: The Silver Skillet

The Silver Skillet, a Southern restaurant, has received a steady stream of media attention, most recently on Tuesday's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."  I missed that episode but I made sure that I went back this morning for their biscuits and gravy.  I cut back on coffee just so I could keep the rich taste of gravy in my mouth a little longer.  But one aspect of their menu doesn't receive enough attention---their icebox lemon pie.  It's cold and creamy with the right balance of sweet and sour.  It's good for either breakfast or lunch.  Pie is, after all, the All-American breakfast.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Meers OK: Meers Store and Restaurant

Subject: Meers Store and Restaurant
Location: Meers OK
Last visit: July 2008

The Meers store is known for growing its own hormone-free beef. I had seen it on TV several times, but when I saw them just a few days before a trip to Oklahoma City, I took it as a sign from God and made it my top priority. The family could wait. My cousin, it turned out, had been there, so we regaled my uncle with stories of hamburgers that fill pie pans.

I had to drive an hour and a half from Oklahoma City to get to the restaurant; that’s only slightly less time than I spent on the airplane flying from Atlanta to OKC. Meers is north of Fort Sill, roughly in the middle of nowhere. It’s close to 30 minutes off the Interstate; in the 21st century, anything not within 100 yards of an exit ramp is considered to be dragon territory.

Meers is even smaller than it appears on television, really just one building. But that building is quite capacious and they are set up to accommodate not just a couple of hundred diners but also a long line of aspiring diners. I arrived around 5 PM but managed to pull in just after a school bus full of Boy Scouts. I was worried that I would be waiting for a long time, staring longly at hamburgers going past me to a room full of boys with hollow legs. But in fact they disappeared into the restaurant and I was seated very quickly.

For those of you who haven’t seen the food on TV, the hamburgers are served in pie pans---this is one large hamburger. I went to the salad bar just to be sure that I had enough roughage in my system to keep all that meet moving. I also tried the fried green tomatoes and had a little cobbler for good measure.

The meat is excellent. It has a rich and subtle flavor that one does not associate with hamburgers. The meat has to be well done given the danger of salmonella, but it is juicy and tender. The condiments are similarly fresh and flavorful but the meat is the star of the show. I’ve had Kobe beef in Kobe and I prefer the Meers hamburger meat.

My only complaint about my Meers hamburger is the hamburger format. The meat is so flavorful that I considered the bun, good as it was, to be an intrusion. I would have been quite happy with a naked ground beef patty filling that pie pan. It’s somewhat startling to realize that all the components of the hamburger, which form some of my earliest memories, are there to hide the mediocrity of the meat that is at the center of the burger. The Meers Store Web site says that part of their secret is the melding of the flavors of the toppings and bun with the meat. But why not put lettuce and tomato on top of a naked patty? Or maybe a minibus? Meers Store & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tokyo: Ginza Kyubey

Subject: Ginza Kyubey
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Last visit: January 21, 2009

Just before my visit to Japan, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the record prices paid for tuna by sushi restaurants in Tokyo. I took this as a sign and decided to visit one of them. Since Kyubey was the only restaurant mentioned that has an English Web site, it became my objective. The thought of an expensive meal in Tokyo didn’t phase me. I’ve paid good money from some very bad meals in Tokyo; while there is a lot of good food in Japan, it is also easy to find bad food and pay for the privilege. And sushi is one cuisine in which price is more reasonably correlated with quality. Barbeque, for example, is the art of making good food out of mediocre cuts of meat, but money often buys noticeable quality in raw fish.

Kyubey is located on the Ginza, which is a very expensive district but also one of the older sections of Tokyo. Our chef told us that the restaurant had been there since 1935; many of the stores on the Ginza were established in the 19th century.I went with my former student Yuan Xie. I tried to call for a reservation but I couldn’t make sense of the reservation, so we decided to arrive right at the 5 PM opening and take our chances.

As it turned out, we didn’t have any problems getting a seat, though we were asked to finish by 7 PM. Like most sushi restaurants, it is small. One would have a hard time playing billiards in the room even after removing the sushi bar. Because we were the only patrons in the restaurant for quite some time, we received even more attention from our sushi chef than usual. The sushi chef normally spends time chatting with his patrons, who sit in front of him while he prepares their food. Our chef’s English was more than adequate for the purpose and he was very gracious.
Well thought out meals are orchestrated. Ours started with two small appetizers, followed by raw fish, then grilled fish, soup, and sushi roll. We had tuna in three forms. First was the raw fish course, where we were able to enjoy it without worrying about any other elements. Next was fatty tuna sasimi. The tuna had zebra stripes of fat through it; the chef handled it with great care. Third was a roll with finely chopped tuna, once again very subtly flavorful. We had several types of shellfish, each served with salt. The shellfish did not have the taste of the sea that one sometimes finds in Western seafood restaurants so the salt was a vibrant accent. One of our interludes was a baked eel spine. It was crunchy and nutty. I am not a big fan of eel, a story that I might tell in another entry, of this journal nor am I in the habit of crunching bones, but it was wonderful. Later in the course, we were served eel meat sushi: one piece with salt and the other with a teriyaki-style sauce. Both were very delicate and without the taste of oil that is so common with eel.

The chef prepared each piece very carefully. Many of the pieces received lime juice. For each one, he squeezed a couple of drops on each piece from a fresh half lime, then disposed of it, even though there was plenty of juice left for the next piece. The sasimi and sushi were very carefully garnished: a few drops of lime juice, a touch of wasabi, and a basting with just enough soy sauce using a brush. I tried to respect his preparation by eating each piece as he gave it to me, without dipping or dabbing. Our final course was two large strawberries, each cut in half. Each strawberry was perfectly shaped and unblemished.

The only other customers who joined us at the sushi bar were an elderly gentleman, followed by his young lady friend. The man was clearly a regular with whom the sushi chefs were very comfortable. When we stepped out the door, we saw his Rolls-Royce waiting out front, accompanied by his patient driver.

Tokyo: Doughnut Plant
Location: All over Tokyo and environs
Last visit: January 20, 2009
The Doughnut Plant (note that the spelling is not “Donut Plant,” which would clearly be too lowbrow for such a culinary endeavor) is a gourmet donut establishment on the Lower East Side of New York City that has received a lot of press attention over the past several years. But despite several attempts, I had been unable to locate it in Manhattan. Little did I know that all I had to do was to get on an airplane and sit for 14 hours. Tokyo is riddled with Doughnut Plant locations. While on a train ride through Tokyo, I switched trains at Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest train station, and found a Doughnut Plant booth right in front of me. All thoughts of dieting immediately vanished from my head and I rushed over, consumed by thoughts of round fried dough.

Keep in mind that not all Japanese licensees of U. S. food concepts are worth walking across the street. Our visit to the Kyoto outpost of Café du Monde was a huge disappointment. Luckily, not all fried dough outlets are created equal and the Doughnut Plant’s wares were excellent. The decision was difficult, but I decided to try the triple chocolate doughnut, a cake donut with a chocolate drizzle on top. The doughnut was tender and moist. The chocolate was very high grade. The concoction was certainly sweet but not overpoweringly so; I am less and less interested in sugary treats as I get older and wiser. Of course, for three bucks, it should have been good…

Those who haven’t been to Japan may be surprised to know that it is, in fact, a paradise for donut lovers. The Mister Donut chain, originally from Boston, has a large number of outlets throughout Japan; I even went to one on the island of Hokkaido, home of the snow monkeys. Mister Donut treats the experience much more seriously than do U. S. donut spots. For those who dine in, they serve their donuts and coffee on china. Their seating areas are not luxurious but very restful, decorated in wood tones rather than the sixties color palate that Dunkin Donuts uses in the United States. Nor is Mister Donut the only purveyor of good donuts in Japan; I remember a particularly good donut from a Japanese shop underneath the Kyoto train station. The next time you’re in Kyoto, skip Café du Monde and go for one of the many real donut shops.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Des Moines: Chocolaterie Stam

There's no better way to celebrate a Tokyo->Des Moines flight than chocolate...

Stam's sign says "Amsterdam Des Moines".  I've never visited their Amsterdam location, but their stores' ambiance, particularly the Ingersoll Avenue location, show a European influence.  The Ingersoll store is decorated and furnished with heavy wood furniture and rich fabrics that recall old world Europe; their style stands in stark contrast to See's new world tile efficiency.

I just returned from the store and am enjoying their hot chocolate. The milk is well-balanced with the chocolate. A more exclusively chocolate drink has its charms but I appreciate the milk after spending the past day stowed in an airplane hold. Their chocolates are excellent---I'm looking forward to the hazelnut pieces---and they have a large selection of sugar-free chocolate.
Chocolaterie Stam on Urbanspoon

Nashvile: Monell's Restaurant

Last visit: December 2008
Web site:

We first visited Monell's about 10 years ago on the basis of a tiny ad in a newspaper for passengers at the Nashville airport: all-you-could-eat for $11. This proposition sounds attractive to a hungry traveler independent of the quality of the food. But Monell's turned out to be an outstanding experience. The restaurant is located in a restored 1880s house in the old German section of town. Guests are served at communal tables and served family style. The food is excellent; the family-style service helps them serve extremely fresh portions. I would never say that a restaurant is as good as my mom's cooking because it wouldn't be true and such a statement would endanger my safety, but Monell's has mastered Southern home cooking. Their fried chicken is outstanding; they always serve a selection of meats at every meal. Their dressing is more corn-based than the typical dressing, which suits my taste.  The communal service adds to the enjoyment, particularly for travelers who are ready for companionship. The house is marvelously restored.

Since our first visit, prices have gone up, all the way to $16.95, but nothing else has changed. On our last visit, we drove into town and promptly arrived for dinner: fried chicken, pork, cornbread, mashed potatoes, and corn pudding. After checking out of the hotel, we drove directly to Monell's for breakfast before hitting the road.  The guests at the table were new but the staff greeted us warmly, not surprised that we would show up again so soon.  The food was both plentiful and wondeful: pancakes, cheese grits, thick bacon, and (of course for a true Southern breakfast) fried chicken. If I have to fault them on anything, their gravy is a little thin for my taste. I believe that gravy should spackle one's innards to last through a hard day's work. As we were eating, a fire truck pulled up, two firemen came in, and left with take-out breakfast.
Monell's in Historic Germantown, Nashville on Urbanspoon