Monday, June 23, 2014

Little Szechuan Chinese Cuisine - Doraville

(Shorter version of this review also posted to Yelp)
I actually have a previous review of the old location for Little Szechuan that is a bit less flattering. The former location hosted a long history of great, then not-so-great food as that part of Buford Hwy experienced up/down swings. The quality took a bit of a hit as Chef Kong adjusted to a different clientele, trying his best to make a living yet struggling to maintain the original quality - ultimately moving locations to the current Sun Tan Center shopping mall. The new location makes it much more accessible to "townies" so I hope that this move improves things for this venerable restaurant.

Little Szechuan long had the reputation of attracting local restaurant owners and chefs, who desired a more authentic Szechuan menu (remember at near 20 years there wasn't the plethora of Asian restaurants, particularly good ones, along the BufHi corridor) - I frequented the previous location for close to 20 years and it was long my favorite. Sure there are some Americanized items on the menu and to some this would disqualify the food as not-worthy - but if you do you're missing out on some great tasting Chinese food.

Recently I attended a UYE (Unofficial Yelp Event) hosted by my old Yelp friend, Daniel B (hey man, thanks for hosting!) with about 20 other Yelpers on three-four tables. Since there were so many attending, we were able to sample a huge variety of Chinese dishes - some old favorites, and some I hadn't tried. In general everything was terrific, a great mix of classic flavors, Szechuan heat/peppers and well-cooked meats and vegetables. Even with the large group, the servers did a good job keeping up with the demands of over-picky foodies. I think everyone had a good time and I heard many good comments.

I was basically floored by the interior of the new location - my expectation was something brand new - instead it was as if the old location was basically moved with everything rearranged for a new space. It will appear quite familiar to most who have visited the original location. The exterior of the shopping center is a bit shabby but don't let that stop you.

Here's a rundown of what was ordered at our table:

Eggplant w/Spicy Garlic Sauce - one of my favorite vegetarian dishes, the eggplant has great, slightly sweet flavor with garlic and a delicate consistency. I fondly call them slugs as that's what they look like, but this dish is well worth it - the steaming hot eggplant across a bed of white rice - delectable!

House Special To Fu w/Black Bean Sauce - this tofu dish has bits of yummy pork in a savory black bean sauce. The Tofu is delicate and floats across both your rice and your palate, both savory and earthy - this was easily one of our favorite dishes.

Stir Fried String Beans - this is one of my favorite dishes, period, and a great introduction to this style of cooking. It's funny now, but Little Szechuan used to be the only Chinese restaurant in Atlanta that served this dish - it's now become a common item. Ask for it without meat if you're a vegetarian - it's not quite as good but still delicious.

I be by now you're thinking "wow, what's with all the vegetables?" - the next dish was the Basil Chicken - this is not something I would normally order - mostly as when I think of that dish I think Thai food - this is most definitely not Thai but still worth ordering, especially if you like basil. The effect is strong and the sauce thicker than what you would find in Thai - still quite good.

Filet of Sol in Chili Sauce - I've never had this dish previously (although I've tried it at other restaurants) - it's quite good here. This is lightly sautéed fish in hot, soupy chili oil sauce tossed with peppers and cabbage, with cilantro as a garnish - not too hot but definitely spicy.

Fresh Bamboo Shoots - this is something you should ask for (I don't think it's on the menu) - fresh bamboo has quite a different flavor from the canned stuff - it's quite aromatic and unlike what you would think. This is a huge plate of deliciousness that you don't commonly find elsewhere.

Another of my favorites that we didn't try, is the General Tso's Chicken - breaded bits of fried chicken in a spicy sauce, served with steamed broccoli - I like to suggest this one to my friends - they all have really loved it!

I also recommend the hot-and-sour soup (you get a choice of that or the egg-drop) - you're also generally served a plate of lightly pickled veggies (jicama with peppers, sweetened or spicy bean sprouts) - these are banchan style so they certainly appeal to my Korean palate. During lunch you also get a veggie egg-roll.

For pricing, the dinner menu is more expensive than the lunch - all of this food should be eaten in a large group (at least 4 dishes), family style.

In any case, I hope you will give Little Szechuan a try - it's a bit nostalgic for me at this point, but oh-so-good!

-- John

Little Szechuan on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Kiosco A Taste of Columbia - Marietta GA

(Shorter version posted on Yelp)
It's really unbelievable how good the food is at Kiosco - I had the opportunity to feast here with a group of Yelp Elites. Since I live on the opposite side of the Northern arc of I285, Kiosco is well outside of my usual grazing zone - I'm so glad I had the chance the sample the fine fare here. I had heard of this small Columbian restaurant through some friends but up until now had only sampled an empanada - the real thing, freshly cooked it made my previous encounter pale in comparison. You really need to be on site to enjoy these delicious morsels hot, especially with the habanero sauce.

Kiosco can be found on 48 Powder Springs St - it's a one-way so I parked on a side street - the event I went to was set for 6:00 PM and it took me a good 45 minutes to make it on time from the Perimeter Mall area. I think that if you don't use a map app it's a bit hard to find (especially for me, being so far from my usual terrain as already mentioned). The restaurant is very unassuming with a couple of sidewalk tables under a green awning, a large banquet table (and I recommend you come in a big group to sample all the goodies), some smaller tables and a bar to service the great sangria.

Being a Yelp sponsored event allowed us to sample many, many more items than you would normally see in a regular visit. Here's a rundown along with my thoughts on each:

We started with one of two different sangrias - mango and red. I really enjoyed the red as a good, familiar sangria but man, was the mango sangria fantastic! I had several glasses and was feeling pretty good by the time things started to wind down (or is it wine down?).

Then came some of the best chicken and beef empanadas I've ever had with a smoking habanero sauce! These were hot and delicious - try them first as-is, then with a bit of the habanero sauce - I like to pour a bit inside for the best effect.

Next came courses of beef broth mushroom lentil soup and a yummy cold carrot, onion, pepper and garbanzo bean salad. I believe you normally choose one of the two as a starter to most meals - if you come as a pair, each should order one and try-the-other's to get the full effect.

Then out came a freaking huge pile of chorizo, mini empanadas, chicharrons, maduros, patacones, yucca, chicken and beef (Picada para dos)! This was one of my favorite meals and really intended to be split between two people - plenty of food here for those with big appetites and the food balance is very good - just enough starch, meat, fat and acid to be very satisfying, especially with the sauces.

I couldn't believe how good the huge plate of paella (with shrimp, bay scallop, muscles, clams and calamari rings) was (another dish intended for two) - no rubber seafood here and the aroma was out-of-this-world. Based on this dish alone I'll be coming back.

We also received another plate of grilled steak, chorizo, chicharrone, maduros, avocado and a side of rice and pinto beans (Bandeja Paisa) - think of this as the meat-lovers platter with enough to satisfy the most picky Adkins dieter.

Next was one of my favorites, the Medio Pollo al Horno (half roasted chicken with a delicious raspberry sauce) and a plate of mixed veggies! All I can say is "Wow." - this dish makes Pollo Tropical's chicken the equivalent of a box of chicken McNuggets. A bit of the raspberry coulis and you're in heaven and the skin is just perfectly rendered to a delicious crispiness that most restaurants can't seem to find.

As you can see I tried everything - I really had a hard time finishing - everything was so good!

We ended the evening sampling four desserts: a really delicious Tres Leches, one of the best flans (Flan de Café) I've had in Atlanta, a coconut custard fetish (Postre de Coco) and a homemade carrot cake (Torta de Zanahoria) - man it really sucks when the desserts are this good - I could feel the pounds ballooning out on my mid-drift but Oh So Good!

By the time we finished I was so full, but completely sated. This has become one of my new favorite restaurants and I can't wait to go back to sample more!

-- John

Kiosco on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sage Woodfire Tavern Dunwoody

(shorter version also posted to Yelp)
This is my first visit to Sage Woodfire Grill, I believe I haven't visited any restaurant that's held the same location since it was a fern-and-brass restaurant called Houlihan's - I used to go to that previous place, mostly for the faux potatoes (cauliflower mash) and Bloody Mary's - it was a great after-work relaxation place for a bite and a drink. I worked during the early 90's at a restaurant called Mi Spia in the same shopping center, Park Place - Mi Spia was previously Spiaggi's and owned by Doug and Claudia McKendrick who also owned the Park Place Tavern next door (both of these have been closed for many years - but you can try the very good steak house, McKendrick's on the South side of Park Place). Other places to try in Park Place include: Eclipse de Luna (great tappas and mojitos!); Café Intermezzo (this used to be my "deal sealer" for dates back in the day); and Alon's Bakery (best cakes in town in my opinion). You can park in the lot in front if you're lucky, otherwise swing around to the back and walk up through the open courtyard.

Sage Woodfire Grill is the primary restaurant towards the middle of Park Place (McKendrick's is on the right side facing while Eclipse and Intermezzo is around the back on the left) - when you walk in your eyes will need to adjust to the dark and intimate interior. The bar is to the left and is quite spectacular - if I were still in the dating circuit I could see myself enjoying a nice martini in the spectacular blue light. Sage is upscale and it shows in the fantastic furnishings.

We had a rather large party of about 20 co-workers - sending off one moving to live in Luxemburg. We called ahead and were seated immediately with a server there to handle drink orders. We were given the specials-spiel and told about how most items were grilled on an open flame - I could certainly taste the flavors (mostly oak if I'm not mistaken - I like this much better than the overpowering flavors from mesquite - try the nearby Chequer's and you'll see what I mean).

The group ordered individually but we did share three appetizer platters (included Thai Chicken Skewers, Beef Tenderloin Skewers; Bruschetta with tomato marinade; and Calamari Fritti). All were quite good and filling. I particularly liked the Bruschetta, cherry tomatoes, diced tomatoes, kalamata olives with crumbled feta on grilled Tuscan bread.

I ordered Salmon B.L.T. - something I hadn't had since I worked at the Buckhead Diner and something I was quite fond of - Sage's version was delicious and I was very happy. I wish I had taken more photos of the food but I felt a bit awkward doing so since it tends to take over the group and conversation and frankly I didn't want to be "that annoying guy"... Our party was large and of course it took time to feed everyone (I had anticipated this but I think some of the others there were complaining). I thought the service very good but the single server could have used the help of another.

I had an interesting encounter in the bathroom - the sink has a chrome plated slab of metal where the spigot normally would be - I had to puzzle out the single stem sticking up from the top (pull to have water flowing from the bottom of the chrome slab). Sorry but this stuff amuses me...

I asked around a bit about the food that others ordered and everyone had good comments - it was difficult to see what people liked the best but everything had evaporated by the end of the meal. I'll be returning to try other items on the menu. I also want to try out that fabulous bar - up until now from work we either go across the street to Chuy's, the Oakwood Pub or TacoMac (it's a guy thing); or when the group has more of our female members, we've been heading to Eclipse de Luna - I think I'll try to get a few of this latter group to try Sage's bar the next time.

-- John

Sage Woodfire Tavern on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 6, 2014

Co'm Vietnamese Grill in Chamblee Druid Hills

(Also published to Yelp as a shorter review)
I've reviewed Co'm a few times, but it was while visiting it twice in one week (dinner and a few days later for lunch) that I felt I needed to comment again. It's difficult to shoehorn Co'm into any particular style of cuisine - it's definitely Vietnamese (heck is says that in the name) but it's not your typical pho restaurant - you can go to any number of Phở places all along the Buford Hwy corridor and elsewhere as it's become ubiquitous for this style of cuisine. In fact, I don't believe Co'm even had that classic Vietnamese soup/noodle dish on the menu until recently, and while the pho here is good, it's not the reason I love this restaurant so much. Rather than expend energy trying to define the niche Northern or Southern style of Vietnamese traditional cooking, Co'm's approach is more international and I believe French influenced (although many would argue that this is more of an American affectation, rather than a French one - I still think the bread-and-stew, variety of meats and baguettes point more towards the French occupation of the South rather than an American influence). Whatever you want to call it, Co'm has become one of my favorite restaurants in the many years I've visited.

Co'm rests in the corner of an shopping center tucked behind a Chevron station - the better known Lee's Bakery is on the front end and Co'm rests several businesses behind it. When you walk in you'll find a very clean, borderline upscale restaurant with booths and tables. The service at Co'm is frankly fantastic - it's rare to find people who care so much for their patrons and if you've ever been to Asia you will never question the bad service you receive in many other Asian restaurants. Thankfully the owners of Co'm have more of an American take on service with quick attentiveness and water refills. The first thing you'll notice when you view the menu is that it's rather no-nonsense - just a list of interesting items by type: Appetizers, Fried Specialties, Signature Salads, Grilled Grape Leaves, French Indochine - what?!

Page two continues with Co'm dishes (co'm means "rice" in Vietnamese, or perhaps "food" or "meal" - from native speakers I've heard it pronounced between "com" and "gum"), but the real stand-out for me is the Bún dishes (rice vermicelli) - both are similar, you basically get the ingredients listed in small piles, either on rice or rice pasta. Typically you mix it all together with a generous portion of sweet-sour fish sauce.

Page three explores the Flat Rice Vermicelli (Búnh Hội), the Shaking Wok specialty (something I recommend to friends who have never had Vietnamese - between this and the Phở I usually get them hooked) and finally the Phở itself.

Page four has some very special "French Inspired Indochine Selections" - basically the Vietnamese version of Chinese dishes - these are very special indeed. The menu finishes up with various juice selections - if you come for dinner you get a great scoop of coffee ice cream and delicate cream cakes (this last part is included).

Interestingly, the last time I visited (for lunch AND a different group), we basically ordered the same as the previous time. For me, the Bún with grilled lamb grape rolls is my favorite (note that it was pointed out to me that although the leaf is similar to grape, it's actually wild betel leaf - something I'm not too familiar with but delicious nonetheless) - these rolls are made up of meat (here the options are tofu, beef, lamb or duck) rolled in betel and grilled so they have a smoky flavor. You mix with fresh veggies and the fish-sauce and chow down.

The second and third items that my group had were the Phở and one of the Indochine selections, the Ginger Chicken. We also had one veggie dish, the curry tofu with rice.

We started with some duck grape rolls (a good way to see if you like them without committing). All were quite good and satisfying.

What I like about this restaurant is that through all the time I've been coming here for lunch and dinner, it's remained steadfast in it's food quality, and consistent in service. What more can you ask for? Elevating this one to 5 stars.

What I like about this place, is that I don't fell like I'm about to explode when we leave. I'm very satisfied but don't fell like I've over-eaten. Vietnamese food is just like that - it has an honesty and simplicity that emphasizes the components' freshness and doesn't try to hide anything.

-- John

My Yelp review from 2010.10.22:
I've eaten at Co'm about a dozen times - I think it was Robbie C. who introduced the restaurant to me (don't remember) and for a while it was a regular stop. The food here is very rich and tends to be on the sweet side - why we stopped going for a while. Last night we were on our way to Pho #1 and found it closed - since Co'm is at the next southbound intersection (behind the Chevron on the left) we decided to eat here.

When you walk into Co'm you get assaulted by the delicious smell of sweet grilled meats - if you've ever had Hawaiian food you'll know the smell. The decor is upbeat with these interesting photo-paintings of Siamese female models in rather awkward compositions. Everything in the paintings is very beautiful however the compositions are horrible (if you go. notice the angles, position of limbs, etc - they're very distracting). Rather than taking away from the restaurant, the images actually add to the experience - it's hard to explain but they just seem right in that setting. The music is upbeat and the staff (made up of younger Asian males) is super attentive. They both know their food and menu; and provide exceptional service and advice on what to order.

Co'm is a little different from the usual pho-fare you get at most Vietnamese restaurants - actually I don't believe pho is even offered (don't bother looking at the link for this listing for a menu - it's pointing to a very different restaurant in Dunwoody). The main dishes here are the Bun and the Co'm. With bun you get a jumble of noodles with fresh veggies on the bottom (they call it a "salad") and grilled marinated meats on top. You pour a fish-sauce mix over the whole thing and start wolfing it down - this is my favorite. With co'm you get a similar version of the meats only with a sweetened rice. They also offer the meats wrapped in grape leaves that have been grilled - sort of a fragrant  mini-sausage - for something different I'd go to one of these dishes. Shrimp is stuffed in a piece of sugarcane and grilled which I found very good and unusual.

I especially like the fresh shrimp spring rolls here - the ingredients aren't what you usually find - it's much more robust both texturally and with flavor layering (think of a typical soft shrimp roll then add some crunchy texture and a few extras and you'll get the gist). These are a must have. The menu prices are perhaps slightly higher than what you would find in a pho restaurant, but I'm only talking a dollar or two and you get a small complimentary dessert at the end (this may only be at dinner?). In all a very enjoyable experience - I would recommend middle-of-the-week dining as the weekends are very busy and noisy. I'm on the verge of giving the restaurant 5 stars - I hesitate as it's not a restaurant I can go to on a weekly basis - the food is a bit too rich for me.

-- John

 Co'M Vietnamese Grill on Urbanspoon