Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Top 5 Romantic Restaurants

Valentine's Day is just around the corner and so I've been thinking about where I should take my wife to eat. Don't worry, I'm smart enough not to announce it to the world in a blog. It's a surprise. But in light of this upcoming holiday and to help others like me who are pondering where to go, Neel and I are going to submit our top 5 most romantic Memphis restaurants list.

This list is a bit unusual because it is a joint list rather than a list created by just one of us. We figured the topic demanded a joint list because what is Romantic should be determined by both a male and a female. Going to a romantic restaurant wouldn't be much of a success if one party found it unappealing!

Before we get to the list, three caveats. First --- and somewhat obvious --- we're only going to list places we've actually been. We say that because there are numerous restaurants on our "places to go list" that we think will qualify as romantic and have high expectations for. Such restaurants include Andrew Michael's Italian Kitchen, Grace, and a few others.

Second, we need to define what makes a restaurant "romantic." As we use that term, and compile the list, we're basically going to be weighing atmosphere and mood much more than usual. Certainly, food quality and price and other factors will play a great role in the list, but we're going to give atmosphere much more than its usual due in the analysis. But even that definition is partly question begging since we also need to define "romantic atmosphere" or "romantic mood." For those terms, we're thinking about a restaurant that lends itself by its layout, lighting, etc to intimate, private conversation. There is nothing less romantic than trying to carry on a conversation when your table is located a foot away from the table next to you and that table can hear everything you are saying (and vice versa).

Third, though we're giving more weight to atmosphere than usual, we're giving a bit less weight to price. This is not to say we're making that factor completely irrelevant. I (Jon) don't think I could eliminate the price factor even if I tried. It is to say that, for that special occasion and/or person, it's justifiable to expend more funds. Thus, all the restaurants on this list are going to be relatively high priced. If you feel like you need to scale back, we would suggest referencing our forthcoming Best First Date List. With all that in mind, we can now turn to the list.

1. Pasta Italia: Though it's a long drive to Collierville, Pasta Italia has to be one of my favorite restaurants in Memphis! I went here about a month after I returned home from my summer in Italy. It is probably the closest I have come to eating authentic Italian (Northern Italy) food in Memphis. The plates are a practical size with huge flavor - so fresh! I recommend the pasta sampler. The staff is extremely charming. The first time Jon and I ate there they asked us to come meet the executive chef. After finishing a bottle of wine or two(?), we were up for anything. We followed our waitress to the back and chit chatted with the chef for a little while - not really sure what was communicated (Being a native to Italy, he spoke only broken English).These are true Italians cooking for you! The atmosphere is quaint, dim with warm lamplight and candles, rustic yet clean, and very intimate for sweet conversation.

2. Iris: Neel and I have been to Iris three times and it has been great each time. It is located off Cooper in an old house. This fact creates a unique atmosphere that really lends to romantic dinning. Like any house, each room is somewhat separated from the other and they don't put too many tables in each room. As a result, you are usually set off from the other dinners and can easily carry on a conversation (usually at candle light) in a somewhat private setting. As for food, it is amazing. The shortrib might be my favorite dish in all of Memphis. The service has always been great as well. They take care of you, without lingering over the table. It's a great dinning experience.

3. Flight: Neel and I went to Flight as our Christmas gift to each other and we had a great time. Flight took over Stella's and is located downtown. The layout of the restaurant is cool because there is an upstairs and downstairs. The lighting is somewhat dark and creates that romantic food. Flight is a bit more open than two restaurants listed above, but it is not too cramped so you can still get that sense of privacy, though at some tables more than others. What separates Flight is the menu. It is based on small plates (though you can get full entrees), so you can get to try a few different things. You can also get "flights" of wine, so you can try out 3 different types of wine. I think that unique factor creates a sense of community between you and your date and also a fun sense of discovery as you try new things together. As for the food, they try not to make things too crazy but they are good at what they do, solid, tasty small plates. It was great.

4. Tsunami: This restaurant has been a long time favorite of mine. I'm a big fan of its creative menu and fresh fish. I recommend the scallops. The atmosphere definitely lends to enough privacy, but not seclusion. It has a more modern feel with hues of green, gray, and blue. Additionally, I truly enjoy its location. Cooper Young is always a fun and entertaining area to walk off your dinner if the weather permits and great people watching if you're sitting at a window table.

5. Interim: Interim is in a great location, right on Sanderlin in East Memphis. As for food, it's very good with a good deal of options. Everything I've had there has been very good. But a special shout-out needs to go to the burger. Wow. Yes, this place is fine dinning but they've probably got the best burger I've had in Memphis. As a bonus, that is the cheapest thing on the menu. Neel often gets the scallops and thinks they're great. As for atmosphere, it has a new, chic, modern feel inside. Strangely enough, I think that adds to the romantic feel. I thoroughly enjoy it. More so than the other selections, the layout is open and public. You can easily carry on a private conversation because of the background noise of other conversations. Significantly, the tables are not too close together; so even though it has an open bright look, you can still focus in on the person you're eating with.

Runners-up: Circa, Itta Bena, Spindini, Cafe 1912

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Neel's Top 5 Dessert Places

Alright, my top 5 dessert places are...

1. Muddy's Bake Shop: I love their homemade goodness. It feels and tastes like you just walked into your grandmother's kitchen. EVERYTHING is delicious!

2. TCBY: Such a consistent classic! Love the frozen yogurt! Cold, light, and not too heavy when you need to satisfy that sweet tooth. Love choosing the special daily flavors - peanut butter, white chocolate moose, and cheesecake. And, you can never go wrong with a parfait when you can't decide between flavors and toppings!

3. Cheesecake Corner: Love their uniquely flavored cheesecakes and authentic atmosphere - great girls' night or date place!

4. Cafe Eclectic: Love the 50's diner inspired dessert menu. Lots of creative and yummy milkshakes!

5. Jerry's Sno Cone: Love the authentic locale and former car wash building. You can never go wrong with a supreme - the best of both worlds - sno cone and frozen yogurt! Perfect for summer cool down in the hell-ish heat of Memphis' summer.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Mosa Asian Bistro

Neel beat me to the punch and posted the first official "review" of a restaurant on our blog. Now it's my turn, and Mosa: Asian Bistro will be my initial foray into the world of being a restaurant critic. We picked up from Mosa last night when we ate with Neel's parents while watching a great NFC championship game. This review will not be based entirely on that one visit though. My parents really like Mosa, so I've been there numerous times.

Mosa was started by the owners of Formosa, a well known Chinese Restaurant in town. Mosa is a bit of a mix: Chinese restaurant meets fast food but with much higher quality. A similar idea has surfaced with Mexican restaurants like Swanky's, Chipotle, Baja Fresh, Moe's, etc, etc. Before I give the good & bad, I do have a confession. I've realized the more I eat Chinese food (meaning the American version served in Memphis), the less I like it. Don't get me wrong, I don't dislike it, but I rarely (if ever) crave it. Probably it's just too salty and heavy for me. Not the lightest and not the "freshest" style of cuisine for sure. I wanted to get all my cards out on the table.

So, the good first. Every time I go to Mosa the service is great and everyone is friendly. Everything is clean and it seems well managed. Another huge plus is the cost. The price is very reasonable, and I feel like you get plenty bang for your buck.

On the negative side, the first few times I went, I didn't like the food at all. However, after couple of trips, I "figured out" the menu, so to speak, and I found something I enjoy: the Hunan Shrimp Rice Bowl (prepared mild). It's basically brown rice with shrimp and vegetables prepared with a brown sauce. I've also had the Hot and Sour soup. For what it is --- Chinese food made cheaply for Americans --- it's pretty good. Serving portions are good but not over-sized. Everything is pretty tasty. But here's the rub. In the word's of Dennis Green: "They Are who We Thought They Were!!!"

All this means is that I just don't like Chinese food made cheaply for Americans. I think no matter how well it's executed, I probably won't enjoy it that much. This is not Mosa's fault. I'm sure there is a large demographic of people who really enjoy heavy/salty meals and can eat it frequently with no reservation. But I'm not one of them. It simply "sticks with me" for too long. So I think my predisposition against the style of food served at Mosa somewhat undercuts my appreciation for their quality in achieving their goal. So, where does that leave us? For me, it means that I couldn't handle going to Mosa frequently. It also means that I would never suggest it as a place I would like to go. But if someone else wanted to go there, great. I would go and could get something and enjoy it. Indeed, I've gone back numerous times at the suggestion of others and have appreciated their reasonable cost. For what is is, it's good. I just can't handle what it is. This leads me to give Mosa 2.5 Stars.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jon's Top 5 Dessert Places

In honor of our recent visit to Gigi's (which left much to be desired), I've decided to provide a list of my top 5 dessert places in Memphis. We will try to regularly post with "top 5 lists", whether it be best overall restaurants or best Mexican places, etc, etc. Enough said, here we go.

1. Cafe Eclectic: Ok here my propensity for ice cream gets me. Cafe Eclectic has a wide variety of desserts but their ice cream desserts are great. I usually get the "Malted Cow Milkshake." I love milkshakes and malts; so this fills the bill. Real ice cream and you can definitely taste the malt. One of the best shakes I've had, anywhere.

2. Muddy's Bake Shop: Neel did a great job reviewing Gigi's and I totally agree with her analysis. Gigi's Review. Muddy's does everything right that Gigi's does wrong. Muddy's specializes in cupcakes but does other things as well (cakes, etc). Their cupcakes are all moist and there is a perfect ratio between cake and icing. I've been there countless times and it's great each time. I highly recommend the grasshopper or the frankly scarlet cupcakes.

3. Cheesecake Corner: This delightful place is located downtown in the south main area. They serve a variety of funky cheesecakes, like chocolate chip, chocolate mint, sweet potato, lime, etc, etc. If you can imagine it, they have it. The pieces are large and truly melt in your mouth. As a bonus, they are open pretty late and serve wine. It's a great place to take a date or go with a large group. I also recommend going on the balcony/second level. It's quite posh and feels like you are in an episode of the Hills.

4. Jerry's Sno Cone: located on Waring, Jerry's of course specializes in sno cones but offers a variety of other frozen treats too. There is no better sno cone in Memphis. I highly recommend a sno cone supreme. It's basically a sno cone (pick your flavor) that also has layers of frozen yogurt/ice cream. It might not sound great, but trust me, it's amazing. I usually get a sno cone supreme with the blackberry & raspberry flavors. There is no better way to cool off when it's 90 degrees on a hot Memphis day.

5. Gibson's Donuts: I'm not sure if donuts technically qualify as a dessert, but I consider it so. And Gibson's is the place to get donuts in Memphis. Everyone knows this. Who can forget the Calipari debacle when we were getting live updates that Calipari had visited Gibson's and announced to his breakfast group that he was leaving. Well, if Calipari couldn't recognize the greatness of Gibson's, then it is his loss and our gain (Go Josh Pastner!). Anyways, Gibson's is great because they have great donuts and it is open late night. My fav is definitely the blueberry cake. It's quite amazing. Or go late night and get those warm glazed donuts. Yess!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

GiGi's Cupcakes

Welcome to Cupcakes of America! I cannot tell you how much it pains me to write a negative blog post as my first restaurant review. I recently enjoyed a trip to Nashville last weekend visiting a close college friend. While there, I noticed a cupcake place - GiGi's Cupcakes. Its sign and and cute appearance caught my attention. My friend later informed me that one is opening up in Memphis soon. So, what do I do when I get home Sunday afternoon? I, naturally, google the place and find out when and where it will be opening in Memphis. It opened this Friday and Jon and I decided to give it a sweet visit today, its second day of operation. I have to admit, being a Muddy's lover, I was skeptical from the beginning. Jon and I walked in and there were probably eight other customers in there. I'll start with the positives. The decor was nice, clean, and happy, but not as charming as the homey feel of Muddy's. The cupcakes had creative and enticing names. There was a wide range of flavor selections. The staff was very friendly. The cupcakes looked a little large, but they did also look delicious on display. It does have the conveniences of a take-out menu with pictures and detailed flavor descriptions. See our selections above. I opted for the Midnight Magic Chocolate Chip. For those who like specifics, it's a devil's food cake with dark chocolate chips topped with a white cream cheese frosting and chocolate chips. Jon opted for the Grasshopper, today's special. It was a chocolate cake with mint frosting. Now on to the negatives. As you can tell from the pics, there is an absurd amount of icing. Be careful, if you eat it all, it may put you into sugar shock. I was not able to finish it due to the queasy sugar feeling creeping up. The cake was a little too dry for my taste and I think that was the reasoning for the pound of icing - to compensate for the lack of fresh, moist cake. I do suggest they put out a pitcher of water for those eating inside so they can hydrate as they consume the sugar. If you do go, I recommend you split one. Jon and I ate the cupcakes around 3pm today and we're still full 5 hours later. GiGi's is a chain and it feels and tastes like a chain. Since we do not have much of a "cupcakery" selection in Memphis, I must compare it to its competitor - Muddy's Bakery on Sanderlin. As I hinted to earlier, I prefer Muddy's without a doubt. If you're looking for decent-sized, homemade, and moist cupcakes, go to Muddy's. If you're looking for large, commercialized, and dry cupcakes, go to GiGi's. I also favor Muddy's decor - it's homey, warm, and welcoming with an eclectic assortment of benches and tables and fun wall decor. GiGi's didn't even have one seat - just a bar where one can stand and munch. I give GiGi's 1.5 stars - don't really want to go back, but will go if my friends are just dying to try it.

Neel's Food Biography

In case you haven't already noticed, my husband is the verbose one. So endearing. He has already completed four blog posts and yes, I am just now beginning my very first post. My husband said it is required that we both journal about our food preferences in order to give our readers an accurate bias we may have in our reviews. So, here it goes...

I, too, am born and raised in Memphis. I have spent most of my time in Memphis besides a four year college experience in Auburn, AL. I must say Auburn does play a huge role in my love for trying new restaurants. It is there that I began my interest and curiosity in local dining. I was pleasantly surprised to find many locally-owned quaint bistros, cafes, fine dining restaurants, and fabulous ice cream and burger shacks. Trying these new places (fortunately, while on my parents' budget - thanks mom and dad!) was a great way to learn about the culture and cuisine of small town Alabama, but also to spend that time hanging with close friends and enjoying new ones. I lived in Italy for three months while in college and naturally my love and curiosity for food and dining grew enormously. How can it not when you are surrounded by the most delicate wines, creamiest gelato, freshest bread, richest home grown vegetables, homemade mozzarella, and handmade pizzas and pastas?! It was a summer of fine delicacies and of course hard studying while abroad :)

With all of that said, like my husband I am not a food snob. Unfortunately, I will eat most anything. I used to be a picky eater as a child - remembering sitting at the dinner table refusing to eat if it did not look just right or smell just right. Sorry for those days, Mom. I love trying all types of cuisines - American, Italian, French, Spanish, Thai, Indian, German, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, etc. However, I will note that Mexican is probably my least favorite cuisine. I know I stand alone many times by claiming this; however, I've had too many experiences with it where I can still taste it in my mouth 24 hours after I've eaten it - not appealing. Except for one of my favorites in Memphis - Deli Mexicana. They prove me wrong. This leads to what I like in food. I like fresh food - some healthy, some artery-clogging. I do not like food that sticks with you for too long. I prefer fish over steak (though I love a good filet mignon every now and then when the budget is willing), veggies over fruit, chocolate over creme brulee, risotto over mashed potatoes, wine over beer, lemon drop martinis over jager bombs, onion rings over french fries, cheeseburger over hotdog, pizza over pasta, sushi over mexican. Some of the foods I despise include beets, creme brulee, whip cream, carrots, and tiramisu. I may come across more in this adventure of trying new restaurants. Though good food is a delight, good atmosphere also plays an important part in my dining experience. The atmosphere may include, but not limited to, the restaurant's decor, wall colors, lighting, music, waters/waitresses service and hospitality, room temperature, and cleanliness. Naturally, I pay more attention to a restaurant's atmosphere and food than I do the price :) With that being said, don't get me wrong. I love the good ole rustic burger joints. I love originality.

Jon's Food Biography

When reading a restaurant review, it is helpful to know who is reviewing and what the reviewer likes/dislikes. So, for everyone who posts a review on Memphis Spork, the reviewer will first post a brief description of their tastes and background. This is not just random information published to make us feel good. It is useful because it let's you know what the particular reviewer is looking for when he or she reviews. For example, if I eat a good steak and a good piece of fish, both prepared equally well, I'm going to prefer the steak because that is just what I like. But that is something you (the reader) should know when assessing my review.

Now, as far as my background, I've lived in Memphis for most of my life. But I've also spent considerable time in Boston, Phoenix, and Nashville. Throw in a few visits to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and Dallas. This basically means I'm not chilling in my chateau sipping on $500 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. I'm not a food snob, just someone who likes food. Hopefully, I've travelled just enough to distinguish good and bad food, at least when sample size is limited to Memphis.

As for valuations, I generally weight taste and price above all else. That is not to say I don't care about atmosphere or service or other things. But I can put up with bad atmosphere if the food is really good. This is something to keep in mind when judging my evaluations.

In terms of my likes or dislikes, I'm pretty open to most types of food. I generally like quality over quantity; light, fresh food is what I generally prefer. So I'm going to avoid buffets and fast food at all cost. I'm not huge on spicy food. I'll take steak over fish most of time but of course like fish as well. I'm open to all types of ethnic food: Mexican, Italian, Thai, etc. I also love dessert, so I'll probably pick to have a dessert rather than have more of the entree. Foods I hate: chicken salad, pimento cheese. Foods I love: ice cream, artichokes, cheese, any dairy produce, almost any vegetable, blackberries.

Rating System

In order to review/critique restaurants, we need a consistent rating system. Every review we do will have a conclusion based on a four star rating system. Here is the key.

0 stars: Horrible, I got sick.
1 star: Bad, I wouldn't go back.
2 stars: Average, I'm Indifferent.
3 stars: Good, I want to go again.
4 stars: Excellent, I want to go ASAP.

About the Title

So, we should probably explain the name of this blog --- Memphis Spork. Every good blog has a cool name, right? Well, part of the name (Memphis) is somewhat obvious. This is a blog about restaurants mostly in the Memphis area. That is not to say we won't branch out to the surrounding environs, such as Nashville or Atlanta. But we were born and raised in Memphis, and we live in Memphis. Thus, not only are we most familiar with Memphis restaurants, but when we eat at restaurants, we mostly do so in Memphis.

The second part of the name --- Spork --- is a bit more random. We chose spork as an ode to one of our favorite eating utensils. The Spork! Think about it. How great is the spork. It has all the benefits of a fork (can stab things) and a spoon (can easily scoop). There's really nothing a spork can't handle. I'm really not sure how the Spork hasn't caught on more. Anyway, we hope that this blog is the equivalent to a spork. Somewhat unique, perhaps the forgotten member of the utensil family, but most useful. And, because this blog is about eating, the title should obviously reflect food or eating in some way. So, all in all, Memphis Spork seems to be an appropriate name. As an aside, some close runners-up for names were "Breaking Bread" (love the food/rap cross-over); Memphis Relish (Memphis is all about flavor); and Memphis Munch'n. I think we picked the best, but let us know your thoughts on our name or any other name you might suggest. We are a blog for the people.

Purposes and Goals for Memphis Spork

When you start anything new --- a project, job, even a relationship --- it's probably a good idea to know its purpose and your goal for the project. If you try to do too much, then usually you don't do anything at all. Or if you wander aimlessly, you won't get anything done. Or you might end up accomplishing something bad, you didn't intend!

Therefore, it would be most appropriate to publicly announce the purpose of this blog. And this purpose is quite narrow. It is to describe/provide information about restaurants in Memphis. Which are good and which are bad. Where are good places to eat and where are places to avoid. My wife and I started this blog because we love food and dining at new places. Studies have shown that one key to a lasting marriage (or any relationship) is to try to do new things and new experiences together. So one thing we try to do is eat at different places together (and now to start a blog together).

Because we like to try new places, our friends would often ask us where is a good place to go. Like almost everyone we know, we have compiled that internal list of places we like and don't like. So we love to draw from our internal list and direct our friends to a place that they would enjoy, whether on a date, with a large group, or with a legal guardian who can handle the tab (thank your parents!).

So this blog, in a sense, has merely expanded our friend network to include you, the readers of this blog. We hope that you find the information on this blog helpful as we attempt to point you to some great places to have a laugh over some dessert, strike up a deep conversation over a salad, de-stress over an entree, work some game over a cocktail, or simply eat a large piece of meat. Either way, good food and good times seem to go hand in hand. So here's to good eating.