Thursday, June 17, 2010

Arcade Restaurant

To continue our Memphis flavor last weekend, my parents, Laurence, Spencer, and I got an early start (at least earlier than usual) Saturday morning and headed downtown to the Farmer's Market at Central Station. If you haven't been to this farmer's market, you must go at least once. Here are all the details. It's small, but it's a fun thing to do on a Saturday morning and you can pick up some fresh fruit, veggies, baked goods, or what my mom is always thrilled about - organic, grass-fed beef from Neola Farms (a local farm where a lot of nice Memphis restaurants buy their organic food). We usually lose her in the crowd at some point, but can always find her at the Neola Farms truck conversing with someone as much as one can converse about organic beef. If those aren't enough good reasons to go to the Farmer's Market at Central Station, well then go so you can follow it with a hearty breakfast at the Arcade Restaurant like we did. I've eaten breakfast here a few times and have loved it every time! Everyone should try it at least once! It's the oldest restaurant in Memphis - founded in 1919!! Elvis ate here often during his lifetime. Arcade was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (means it is worthy of preservation). Arcade has been featured on TV Networks such as The Food Network and The Travel Channel. Arcade has been featured in publications such as Travel, Esquire, Southern Living, and Sports Illustrated. Scenes from Hollywood movies such as Great Balls of Fire, 21 Grams, The Client, and Walk the Line have been filmed at this restaurant. More important to us foodies, the food is fabulous and the service is super duper speedy! I usually get the sweet potato pancakes (a Food Network favorite). They are divine and probably the best pancakes I've ever put in my mouth! You need to go just to try these.

However, after walking in the heat at the farmer's market, I just wasn't feeling the pancakes this time. Instead, I chose the "Make your own omelet" and I was pleasantly pleased :) I ordered an omelet with brie, artichoke hearts, and spinach....mmmm. It was perfect! So, there you have it....lots of reasons to go to the farmer's market and lots of reasons to go to the Arcade Restaurant....and, no one's even paying me to say all of this! I give Arcade Restaurant 3.5 stars. Go soon and go hungry!

Mollie Fontaine Lounge (Take 1)

Well, the Iris dinner ended and we walked out full and happy. However, we were itching for a little more. So, what do we do? Jon and I take Laurence, Spencer, and my parents to sip on some after dinner drinks at an eclectic lounge hidden on one of the most historic streets in Memphis. We took them to Mollie Fontaine's. Now, if you are one who does not like culture or likes to be surrounded by people who look like you and everyone else in the place, don't go here. I, on the other hand, am a HUGE fan of Mollie Fonatine's. I love its funky, eclectic, soulful, artsy, avant-garde atmosphere. To be honest, you kind of feel like you're walking into a renovated brothel as you open the enormous old, wooden doors. Talk about people watching while sipping on a yummy key lime pie martini, cosmo, lemon drop or all three! Mollie Fontaine's serves supposedly great tapas and we, unfortunately, have not had an opportunity to try any of these. Click here for their menu. However, we have enjoyed quite a few of their bevies. I wanted to go ahead and write a little blurb on this place because I think it is a great place to go for drinks - maybe just the girls, unless your man favors the metro side. I'm not saying southern gents can't go, but from my experience the girls seem to enjoy it more than the guys we're with. I will blog and rate the food whenever we get to try their tapas! Until then, go experience this place! It's like none other in Memphis!

Learn here about the history of this old Victorian house and the owner's idea behind the whole lounge scene. And, read the shout out it received in the New York Times!!

Check out new review.

Restaurant Iris

Restaurant Iris
2146 Monroe Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
(901) 590-2828

Click Here for Google Map

My Aunt Neel, sister Laurence, and brother-in-law Spencer were all in town last weekend so what does that call for?! A dinner date! And, what does a dinner date call for? A blog post on Memphis Spork :) Now and days, it's hard for me to go to restaurants without wanting a notepad to right the pros and cons down as the night progresses - what a nerd/weirdo, I know.

My parents, grandmother Toto, Aunt Neel, Laurence, Spencer, Jon, and I set a dinner date for last Friday night - my brother Mark was out of town....his presence was greatly missed :( . Toto, though not able to come at the last minute, chose Restaurant Iris. She's a big fan of this place - Jon and I would have to agree with her. Her presence was definitely missed as well! When we arrived at the restaurant, the host guided us to this nice, quaint, and quiet room in the back. Since it was such a big crew we had our own private room. I loved it! If you've been to Iris, you would probably agree with me that it can get a little stuffy in there....especially when you first walk in where the lobby/waiting area/bar is located. This private room cured the stuffiness completely! Though stuffy at times, I love Iris's unique atmosphere. It's in the old house where La Tourelle used to be. I'm a sucker for houses turned into restaurants (i.e. Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen). Here's a little excerpt from a July 2008 Commercial Appeal review on Iris.....

Four-star ratings are not handed out carelessly by dining critics at this newspaper. In the 10 years that we've used the four-star system, five have earned the honor. Today, Restaurant Iris becomes the sixth. Chef/owner Kelly English opened his casual fine-dining spot in the former La Tourelle house less than three months ago, and word of mouth has already made it improbable that you'll get a table if you walk in without a reservation even midweek. There are many reasons. English, who worked under renowned and James Beard award-winning chef John Besh at three of his New Orleans restaurants -- La Provence, Lüke, August -- and ran the kitchen at Besh's N'Awlins in Tunica, is probably cooking the most creative dishes in Memphis today. -Jennifer Biggs

And, to get to know Kelly English a little bit, here's a quick video for you blog readers....

Now, onto the review. Jon and I have had the luxury of eating at Iris a few times - family birthdays, Sunday Brunch with Toto, anything to celebrate with the fam. Notice, how we've usually gone with family - we'd be broke if we ate here every night on our own budget :) Jon and I both have had wonderful meals at Iris. However, I will say there have been a few mess ups here and there. One time, we went for their Sunday brunch. I loved what I got, but Jon's dish left much to be desired. I had the schnitzel of veal “holstein” with knöpfle, anchovy, caper, yard egg, and boysenberry (minus the anchovies)....yum!! He had the omelet of crisp pork belly, mushroom, and aged gouda ...sounds good, but nothing special. Last Friday night, the tables were turned. His dish was VERY tasty and bursting with flavor. However, my dish was a little disappointing. But, I ate every bite because by the time I got it I was starving!! More on that later. Back to our dishes. Iris's menu does change pretty frequently, which I like. This time, Jon ordered the flank steak and I ordered the tuna steak. Jon's steak was cooked perfectly and had this sauce that was to die for. My tuna was definitely over cooked and well, let's just say, not bursting with flavor. Though it was not my favorite of Iris's dishes, I ate every bite of it!
Now to my starving story. We sat down at our table at 7, but did not receive our food until 9. Now, after much thought, I do not think this is the restaurant's fault. There you go....there's a little grace! Jon and I should have known better. We were a party of 7 and most people ordered either a salad or appetizer to have before their main dish. My mom and aunt both ordered three different appetizers as their meal and naturally asked for the appetizers to be spaced out. So, it was like a 3 course meal, but Jon and I didn't order the first two courses. The waitress did what she was suppose to, which was bring the food out in a timely manner where everyone at the table was on the same course. So, that's something to think about when you go to a nice restaurant with a large group. Go ahead and order an app or salad if most everyone else at your table is, unless you can wait a couple of hours before eating. I was hungry the minute we walked in, so I should have known better. Filling up on bread and butter is not my ideal appetizer.
I've mentioned that we've had some fabulous dishes and some not so fabulous dishes at Iris. I've already informed you of our not so fabulous ones, but here are some of the fabulous dishes we've eaten in the past at Iris..... the flank steak; rod bailey’s raviolo “neola” with brown butter and mushrooms; gulf oysters cooked three ways: fried, polo, and “bread pudding”; salad of brussels sprouts, allen benton’s bacon, and sherry; american kobe shortrib, mughrabia, ripley tomato, and turnip; hand dived scallops, local peas, allen benton’s bacon, tomato, tarragon, and lemon; schnitzel of veal “holstein” with knöpfle, anchovy, caper, yard egg, and boysenberry; and the bread pudding for dessert is phenomenal and a must order if there's still room in your tummy!
So, though it can be spotty, I think the delicious meals we've had at Iris far outweigh the not so delicious ones. We give Restaurant Iris 3.5 stars. The 1/2 star away from 4 stars is due to the occasional spottiness of delicious meals and stuffy atmosphere unless you're in a private room. (And, we think Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen is just a little bit better - click here for its review.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

P.F. Chang's China Bistro

P.F.Chang's China Bistro
1181 Ridgeway Rd
Memphis, TN 38119-5309
(901) 818-3889

Click Here for Google Map

I usually try to avoid eating at and reviewing chain restaurants. But I figure that we need to post more than once a month on this blog in order to actually attract visitors (because that's what we're all about here). So expanding my repertoire is a good thing. I've been to PF Chang's numerous times, most recently for a business dinner. That recent business dinner is what sparked the present review.

We went around 6 p.m. and it wasn't too crowded yet, so we sat immediately. PF Chang's is basically the most Americanized Chinese food you can get. Case in point. The PF part of the name is from Paul Fleming: the same guy who runs Flemming's Steakhouse (another chain). The Chang part of the name is from Chef Philip Chiang who conceived of most of the menu. They just altered the name a little since they figured the name "Chang" would appeal to Americans much more than "Chiang." Or maybe they thought Americans couldn't pronounce "Chiang" or would be thrown off by it? It's a bit unclear. What is clear is that the name is completely made up and probably devised to insinuate "Chinese food" while appealing to mass America. I find the entire concept mildly insulting but I'm not sure on behalf of whom? Chinese people, who have to have their names changed/cleansed to appeal to American culture or to Americans, who are supposed unable to like/identify with authentic Chinese food. On the one hand, I'm probably making way too big a deal about this. It's just a name meant to attract more business. On the other hand, when I think about it, it does make we want to vomit.

This whole thing reminds me of the recent horror movie, SPLICE. From what I gather, in that movie, scientists combine (i.e. splice) human DNA with DNA from other animals in an experiment to push the limits and/or gain profit and fame. And surprise, surprise, it doesn't work out and their creation eventually kills/eats them. A classic tale of human hubris and refusal to submit to nature (see Frankenstein). Here is a short snipet of the movie to give you a taste:

Well, the founders of PF Chang's obviously should have watched SPLICE, because, much like that predictable movie, you pretty much know what's going to happen when you combine Americanized cuisine/diet with a Chinese name/restaurant. You end up with a Pseudo-Chinese restaurant that is really just heavy, salty stir fry. And just like the creature in SPLICE, this comes back to get you because PF Chang's eventually rises up and kills you either by obesity or by heart disease caused by excessive salt. Ladies and Gentlemen, let's now continue with our review!

Another important thing to know about PF Chang's: it is an upscale version of Chinese food and therefore more on the pricey side. Thus, this isn't your standard take-out. In comparison, the same company that owns PF Chang's also owns Pei Wei. Pretty much the exact same food, but the latter is cheaper and has a less classy environment.

Back to PF. As far as food goes, it is what you would expect. Heavy, salty Chinese food that is tasty but definitely sticks with you. For the most part, I find it hard to distinguish this type of food when made by one restaurant or by another. It usually all tastes the same. I got Chang's (Chiang's?) Spicy Chicken, which was basically a place of chicken squares stir fried in an unknown, mildly spicy sauce, with brown rice on the side. It was pretty good for what it was and I cleaned my plate. Of course, I was regretting that decision later that night when I was pounding waters in an attempt to rehydrate.

In the past, I usually get the Mongolian Beef: beef stir fried in a dark brown sauce. I think that is the tastiest thing on the menu. Something about the brown sauce they use in combination with the beef makes it pretty good. Those with me at the business dinner got the somewhat famous lettuce wraps and orders of fried rice. Overall, the food is tasty but heavy and not overly compelling. Thus, I never wake up in the morning and think, "Wow, I really want to go to PF Chang's Tonight!"

A brief shout out does need to be given to their "Great Wall of Chocolate" dessert. It is one of my wife's favorite chocolate desserts, anywhere period. Of course, I find it funny that it's served at a Pseudo-Chinese restaurant. But I'll back her up. It's pretty good if you're in the mood to handle the caloric intake. (After you guess how many calories are in it, visit here.

Service and atmosphere are pretty standard for a chain. The atmosphere is actually pretty good for people watching. PF Chang's is always pretty packed at night and especially on Friday and Saturday nights. It could actually be a pretty good atmosphere for a dinner date because it's rather dark inside and allows for pretty good people watching. But, I would never take a date there just because it's a chain. If you and your date can stomach that, then it would be ok.

So, in conclusion, we have a chain restaurant that serves somewhat pricey, heavy and salty yet tasty Chinese food with standard service and atmosphere. In light of this fact and despite the presence of the Great Wall of Chocolate, I give PF Chang's 2.5 stars. I think that Pei Wei is a much better bang for your buck. I would eat at Pei Wei and get your fix that way for a cheaper price. Meanwhile, I would also avoid attempting to splice anything, whether it be human DNA with animal DNA or American food culture with Chinese cuisine.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Owen Brennan's

To celebrate three birthdays and an early Father's day, Jon and I indulged ourselves at the famous Owen Brennan's Sunday Brunch with his parents today. While waiting for his parents to arrive, Jon and I were discussing how long Owen Brennan's has been around. I grew up right around the corner from this New Orleans restaurant and it's been open ever since I can remember. When we got home, I researched when Owen Brennan's first opened its doors - 1990. This restaurant has been in business for 20 years - that's pretty good in the restaurant business, much less in the Memphis restaurant business! They must be doing something right.

Owen Brennan's is well known for its Sunday Brunch and claims to be one of the best in Memphis. But, then again, I guess it doesn't have much competition. I've always felt like Memphis has a very slim selection when it comes to brunch food. I've been to Owen Brennan's a few times in my life, but before today it had been a while since I set foot in this Cajun cuisine establishment. This is just my opinion, but every time I have a dining experience at Owen Brennan's I walk in with high hopes. The decor does a great job of putting you in that jazzy New Orleans mood. It has an energetic, yet relaxed and sophisticated ole south feel to it. I like that. However, whenever I finish a meal there I leave thinking...."that was tasty, but definitely not worth the price." After today's brunch, I still feel the same way.

Owen Brennan's Sunday Brunch is always accompanied by a live jazz band. This is a very nice touch and really adds to the New Orleans atmosphere, which Owen Brennan's does a great job of creating. The brunch is a buffet that includes an omelet station, Belgian waffle station, prime rib station, entree station, seafood station, cook-to-order station, salad bar, dessert bar, breakfast bar, etc. Lots of choices! The food was tasty - especially the crawfish etouffee - but, it still left much to be desired. Jon and I both agree that the food is tasty, but just not worth the price you pay. It's about $32 per person for the Jazz Sunday Brunch. We give Owen Brennan's 2 stars.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Top 5 Mexican Restaurants

In honor of our recent trips to Las Delicias and the onset of summer, we thought that we would offer up our 5 favorate Mexican restaurants in Memphis. Enjoy!

1. Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana: there really is no Mexican restaurant like Las Tortugas. Unlike other places, Deli Mexican focuses more on "authentic" Mexican fare rather than the Tex-mex Mexican food we Americans are accustomed to. But don't just take my word for it. Listen to the owner.

As indicated, all the ingredients at Deli-Mexican are super fresh. Supposedly, if they can't find the ingredients that morning, they just don't make the dish. No abundance of melted cheese or grease. It has the best guacamole I've ever had, anywhere, period. I usually get the fish tacos or the fish salad. Either one is great. The green sauce they use on the dishes is the perfect compliment to the fresh fish. The only negatives are the prices are a bit higher than a normal Mexican restaurant. But that is to be expected given the high quality of food. No margaritas either and the atmosphere leaves much to be desired. But if food quality is what you are looking for (and you should be since this is a restaurant blog!), then this is the place for Mexican food in Memphis.

2. Las Delicias: Las Delicias is more of a "typical" Mexican restaurant but within this category it excels. The food is very good. I think that is mostly due to how well they seasoned their meat. Throw on some melted cheese and you've got a winner. I usually get the chicken burrito. The guacamole is also really, really good as well as the margaritas. But the big plus is the prices. Las Delicias is an awesome bargain. You can get out of there drinks, appetizer, entrees, tip & tax for under $40 for two people. A definite winner considering the great food.

3. Pancho's: here is a shout out to my childhood. That's a bit of a warning because this rating may be a bit biased. But hey, who dislikes Pancho's famous cheese dip or salsa? Well if you like that, you need to go to the actual restaurant. In my youth, there used to be Pancho's scattered throughout town: on summer, downtown, etc. All those have closed and so the only remaining one is in West Memphis. That's a bit of a trek, and it's not really in a great neighborhood either. But it's worth it. Pancho's is a true American Mexican restaurant, i.e. a lot of grease + melted cheese + horrible for you = tastes good. I'm a huge fan of the guacamole enchiladas. In fact, most Mexican restaurants don't even serve that dish. So it's a special treat anytime I visit Panchos.

4. Swanky's: In the past 10 years, Memphis has seen the infusion of dozens of fast foody type Mexican. Swanky's, Qdoba, Costa Vida, Moe's, etc. I think Swanky's is the best of the bunch. Their burrito bowls are great, and considering the fast food nature of the place, the ingredients are relatively high quality. I also like the vibe of the place for dinner, when it turns from a fast food place to more of a sit down type restaurant. And of course, I like the prices which are very reasonable. (Small aside, Memphis doesn't yet have a Chipotle, another of the fast food Mexican chains, but if it ever comes, it would sky-rocket up this list).

5. La Guadalupana: What would a Mexican restaurant list be without a restaurant on Summer Ave? What can't you get on Summer? Cars. Food of all kinds. Loans. Clothes. Drugs. Prostitutes. Ok, I'm not sure about the last two, just a guess. Anyways, you can certainly get Mexican food on Summer, and La Guadalupana is a great place to do so. It's reasonably priced and pretty large; so it's great for large groups or quick dinning. Burrito and enchiladas are good and are our normal choice. It also has more of an authentic feel than many other Mexican restaurants, probably because it's not a chain. Not the highest quality feel with respect to the interior and atmosphere of the place, so I wouldn't take a date there. But in terms of pure food and price, it's pretty good and always an option.

Las Delicias Mexican Bar and Grill

This past Friday night, Neel and I went with a few friends to Las Delicias. This was actually our second time to go in the past few weeks. The time before, we went with a few friends as well, only on a Tuesday night.

Rating Mexican restaurants is always somewhat of a challenge. Most of the time, Mexican restaurants all blend together in what they serve and in the quality of their food and in their atmosphere. Been to one, you've probably been to them all. All serve fajitas and enchiladas and other standard fare. And all have that team picture of the staff in a local soccer league. I always enjoy the pics. I would classify Las Delicias as a pretty typical Mexican restaurant in terms of selection and atmosphere, etc. But once placed in that category, Las Delicias excels in almost every way. Let me explain.

In terms of atmosphere, Las Delecias is nothing too special and rather standard for a Mexican restaurant. I will give a shout out to the lounge-like chairs with red upholstery. When we went Tuesday night, it was busy but we sat immediately. When we went Friday night, there was a pretty long line; so go early if you want to eat immediately. Another atmosphere factor is that all of East Memphis was eating when we were. Neel knew half the restaurant. Who knew Las Delicias was the place to see and be seen?

On to the food. Both times, Neel and I got the guacamole appetizer and it was great. You can definitely tell it was home made and it had huge chunks of avocado. The only guacamole I've had better in Memphis is at Las Tortugas (more about that later). Of course, they give you free chips and salsa too. The salsa is nothing to write home about. A bit to watery for my taste. But the chips compensate for that a bit. I think Neel told me that their chips are all homemade and I believe it. You can taste the freshness.

As an entree, both times I got the chicken burrito. I think it's pretty good and I'm not a huge burrito guy. Half of the burrito is open and they melt cheese over the chicken. They do a really good job of seasoning the chicken though and I think that's what sets it apart and makes it so tasty. Neel got the Alambre (see picture below). Basically, this is their version of fajitas. They really don't have standard fajitas. Instead, the Alambre is basically steak and some veggies with seasoning and melted cheese grilled up and thrown together. Then they give you tortillas on the side. I tasted it and it was pretty good. Neel enjoyed it as well. Once again, I think their ability to season the meat so well with the combination of the melted cheese made it good. Both times we went, all our friends enjoyed their food too. No complaints from anyone. Of course, it's important to remember, it's still Mexican food. Thus, it is rather heavy and greasy. But for what it is, the food comes through on the high quality side. As for drinks, Neel and I got the frozen margaritas. They were quite enjoyable. Of course, it's hard to make a bad frozen margarita.

During our visit on that Tuesday night, the service was good but nothing spectacular. Our Friday night trip was much more of a struggle. It took us a long time to get forks, knives, etc. And it was impossible to flag down our waitress. Not that it was her fault too much. The place was so busy, you could tell our waitress was swamped. But still, it's never a good sign when I have to go to the cashier and ask for silverware before we could start eating. Nevertheless, no one minded too much since we were munching on our salsa and guacamole.

So overall, the food and drinks were very good and everything else about average or above average. But here is where Las Delicias comes through big time: the price. It really is a great bargain. Appetizer + 2 drinks + 2 entrees + tax & tip = all less than $40. I think that is a great deal. In terms of bang for your buck, Las Delicias might be one of the best bargains in Memphis. And of course, as the one paying check, that is a huge factor for me. It also makes it much easier to go to Las Delicias on a regular basis. Therefore, in light of the food and the great price, I give Las Delicias 3.5 stars.

In light of that rating, allow me to add a brief addendum. I think it might be helpful to compare Las Delicias with my favorite Mexican Restaurant in Memphis, Las Tortugas. The comparison is helpful because they are really two totally different restaurants. Las Tortugas is like no other Mexican restaurant I've ever been to. Everything super fresh and very light. It tastes healthy and homemade and delicious. Of course, Las Tortugas doesn't have many of the things you expect at a Mexican restaurant: no melted cheese over dishes, no grease, no margaritas, etc. Instead, it focuses on fish and lighter fare. It is also much more expensive than a standard Mexican restaurant. In contrast, I would classify Las Delicias as more of a "typical" or "standard" Mexican restaurant but just better in what it does. Las Tortugas almost deserves a category of its own because of its focus on light, healthy, authentic dishes. For that reason, it's hard to say which restaurant is better. It really depends on what mood you're in. No doubt, the food is better at Las Tortugas but it is also different. If you're in the mood for "typical" mexican though, Las Delicias might be a better choice, especially in light of the much more manageable prices at Las Delicias.