Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fuel Cafe

Today, we had yet another chance to try a new eatery in Memphis, midtown to be exact. Fuel Cafe is where we decided to grab some Sunday brunch after Church with some friends. I noticed this place yesterday as I was driving down Madison. Naturally, I wrote down the name and googled it when I got home. Sadly, there is no website to be found, but it did have an entry in Urbanspoon with an article in the Commercial Appeal and a little write-up in the Memphis Magazine. First tip, they need to get a website up and running pronto. I believe they have been in business since February this year and, in my opinion, there's no excuse for such a trendy, new joint. Now and days, a restaurant's website is the first impression for us and many others. Who wants to drive all the way to a place without "web-checking" it first?

I've always been intrigued by this restaurant space. It's an old gas station and though there's no emotional attachment, its vintage look feels somewhat sentimental and timeless. The restaurant it formerly housed was Petra. We always wanted to try it, but never got around to it - too late now. It's OK though, because I think I was always drawn more toward the building than the restaurant itself. So, today was a perfect opportunity to try a new cafe and to experience/enjoy the vintage surroundings. I'm a sucker for sentiment :)

Onto the review, the space was very eclectic, trendy, and vintage. I loved its uniqueness and out-of-the-box atmosphere. It's quite cramped, but just adds to the rare gas station/restaurant experience. The idea behind this restaurant is the ever so trendy natural/organic/fresh ingredients approach. They had an interesting collection on the menu, which you can find on the urbanspoon entry above. The menu is pretty much the same for Sunday Brunch with the addition of some supposedly phenomenal pancakes. However, our group decided to bypass the pancakes and opted for selections more unique to this place - bison burger, salmon and whitefish cakes benedict, and a couple of salads. The bison burger left much to be desired - tasted like a typical burger. It was not extremely impressive, but it was tasty. However, the french fries were quite delicious, but Jon and I agree that Interim still holds the trophy for best fries. The salads were fresh with an enticing sweet vinaigrette, but needed more toppings and a little less salad. The salmon and whitefish cakes benedict was definitely different and tasty. However, the eggs were over-poached and the cakes a little overpowered by the green onions and capers. I enjoyed the benedict dish, but it's nothing to write home about. The service was, well.....interesting. The waitress was a little awkward, we were served water with floating who-knows-what, and the waitress raved on and on about our delicious dishes that tasted pretty ordinary to us. Overall, I probably won't go back unless I'm with a group who wants to try it. We give Fuel Cafe a rating of 2 stars.

Sweet Grass

Yes, it has been a month since the last blog post. We haven't eaten at many exciting places in a while. But that ended last Friday night when we went with a relatively large group (9 total people) to Sweet Grass, a newly opened place in the Cooper Young Area. In fact, this restaurant opened just a few days before we went; so we made it on the opening weekend. If one word summed up our experience, it would be "low-country." (see the above picture). We went and worked our game in the "low country." Of course, I'm not really sure what "low-country" cuisine means. But we definitely experienced it at Sweet Grass.

Aesthetically, the interior of the restaurant fits the Cooper Young Area nicely. It is very pleasing and pretty chic with an interesting selection of paintings on the wall. It was pretty full when we went, but the layout handled the noise well and everyone at our large table could hear everyone else. The ambiance was pretty good too. Dim but not too dark. I think it would be a pretty good place for a first date or a good place to converse over a meal.

First, the good. I really enjoyed the structure of the menu. It is divided into small plates ($4-10), medium plates ($13-17), and large plates ($22-24). Thus, you really have a lot of options depending on how hungry you are and how much you want to spend. I very much appreciate that in light of the need for us (and most people) to save up. I really think the flexibility of the menu and its variety are the best part of the restaurant and is something that will set it apart from everyone else.

As for the food, it was pretty good, but not great. Neel and I made use of the flexible menu and got two medium plates. I got the grilled portobello, zucchini, eggplant, tomato, goat cheese croutons, basil pesto and balsamic reduction for $14. Basically, grilled veggies + goat cheese + balsamic. I really enjoy grilled veggies and this really hit the spot. Good but not great. Worth $14 though.

Neel got the shrimp and grits with sea scallops and andouille sausage. She enjoyed it and remarked how the dish was extremely flavorful, with a kick but not too spicy. It was a rich dish and Neel definitely would get it again. I tried it as well and thought it was again pretty good but not great. I did like the combo of sea scallops and sausage, a bit unusual for a shrimp and grits dish.

When we decided to get two "medium" plates, I was a bit concerned whether there would be enough food. But they gave us healthy portions. So when I combined my meal with a piece or two of the complimentary bread, I was full. I was hungry but not starving going into the experience; so if I were very hungry, I would probably opt for a large plate, but most times I think that the medium plate would suffice. I think a good bet would be to get two medium plates and then go for a dessert; or switch out the dessert for an an appetizer (small plate).

I think most people at our table enjoyed the food but no one found it amazing. One person got the quail and thought it a bit too chewy. Another person said the mussels were great, but they thought the shrimp and grits were a bit too salty. So, overall the food was a tad hit and miss but good overall .

Another plus was that the chef came out and conversed with us after the meal. I was impressed because he flat out asked for constructive criticism and on how they can improve. It's always encouraging to see a chef willing to consider the wishes of the people.

As for the bad, the service was a bit spotty. Part of me wants to contribute that to the fact that it was opening weekend and they still need to work out the kinks. But our food came out at different times, and I almost finished my dish before others got theirs. Other things also took a while to come to the table, whether another drink or more bread, etc. Again, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on these points: our table was pretty large, it was opening weekend, it was pretty crowded. Next time I go, I'm hopeful that they will have worked out everything.

Overall, I would compare Sweet Grass to a place like Cafe 1912, but the latter has much better food and better service. Yet, it's like Cafe 1912 in the sense that it's a restaurant that fits into that medium category (not inexpensive but not overly expensive). And Memphis doesn't have many places like that. I do think Sweet Grass would be a pretty good date place that is not too tough on the wallet. I am also hopeful that Sweet Grass will continue to improve after some trial and error. Thus, in light of these positives and some negatives, we give Sweet Grass 3.0 stars.