All posts by tallahassee table

Romance on the Menu

With Valentine’s Day less than a week away, the search is on for that perfect, romantic dining destination. No pressure, right?

But what makes a restaurant romantic? For some couples, it’s just the site where you had that first date or a memorable night. With the right recipe for romance, sharing a big juicy burger can be as magical as diving into beef bourguignon.

Still, there are some places that help set the mood. Maybe it’s the candlelight, the pampering service or the delicious meal — or likely a combination of all three.

To help your search, here are 14 places we (with help from Tallahassee Table readers) think have that special something. Make reservations as soon as possible, and let love do the rest.

+39
The white tablecloth restaurant is named for the country code of Italy. Chef Alessandro Di Maggio, who graduated from culinary school in Tuscany, presents creative fare at the handsome Italian restaurant, ensconced inside the Urban Food Market. +39 will be serving Valentine’s Day specials including roast duck, scallops in a cream sauce and a rib-eye with pine nut truffle butter. The Centre of Tallahassee, 2415 N Monroe St.; 850-536-6843.

319 Wine & Cheese Shoppe
The charming  cafe, owned by Lynne and Bill Edwards, is offering a three-course Valentine’s Day menu with a complimentary glass of champagne for $80. The evening will feature live music by acoustic singer Kevin Wahoo. You can also order a wine and cheese dinner to go if you prefer to spend the holiday at home (order in advance, $50). 6265 Old Water Oak Rd.; 850-765-7053.

– Joe Rondone, Tallahassee Democrat

A la Provence
This classic dining destination presents French-Mediterranean cuisine, with items like foie gras, pot au feu and a charcuterie. Expect the regular menu plus Valentine’s Day specials like chateaubriand and lobster in a romantic setting. 1415 Timberlane Rd.; 850-329-6870.

Blu Halo
The swanky space, owned by Keith Paniucki, offers an elegant menu featuring huge steaks, an array of seafood and a decadent selection of desserts you can pair with after-dinner drinks. A special Valentine’s Day menu will be available Feb. 13 through 17. Bannerman Crossings, 3431 Bannerman Rd.; 850-999-1696.

– Joe Rondone, Tallahassee Democrat

Clusters & Hops
Wander to the back of this gourmet wine and cheese shop and you’ll find an intimate, 45-seat cafe featuring adventurous cuisine like reindeer sliders, elk carpaccio and rack of lamb from chef/owner Kent Steels. The cozy spot offers a wine list with more than 2,500 choices. Here’s a bonus: You can pick a wine off the shelf and pay the retail price with an $8.50 corkage fee. 707 N. Monroe St., 850-222-2669.

– Joe Rondone, Tallahassee Democrat

Cypress Restaurant
Known as a special occasion destination, owned by chef David Gwynn and his wife, Elizabeth, the up-market venue offers elegant versions of Southern-inspired regional cuisine in a sophisticated setting, 320 East Tennessee St.; 850-513-1100.

– Hali Tauxe

Food Glorious Food
The contemporary restaurant, open for more than 30 years, serves a global menu in an intimate space decorated with vibrant art work. Sinfully good desserts made in-house. 1950 Thomasville Rd.; 850-224-7279.

Georgio’s Fine Food & Spirits
Owner Georgio Koikos has been at the helm of the Greek-Mediterranean venue for more than 50 years, and still makes an appearance daily. The commendable service, attention to detail and extensive menu help make Georgio’s a Tallahassee staple. The Valentine’s Day menu will feature specialty dinners, cocktails and desserts. 2971 Apalachee Pkwy., Tallahassee; 850-877-3211

The Hawthorn
The upscale restaurant is the third dining destination from chef Jesse Edmunds (Liberty Bar & Restaurant, El Cocinero), who creates a sophisticated, white-tablecloth dining experience at The Hawthorn. Edmunds features cuisine inspired by the dishes of the American South and the south of Europe with special embellishments for Valentine’s Day. 1307 N Monroe, Unit #1, 850-354-8275

Little Italy
The classic Italian restaurant, owned by Enver Sulollari and his wife Vjollca since 1987, offers traditional red-sauced fare in a homey, welcoming space. On Valentine’s Day, Little Italy will offer its regular menu and a special holiday menu with a bottle of wine for $65 per couple (available all day if you prefer a Valentine’s Day lunch). 111 S Magnolia Dr.; 850-878-7781.

Melting Pot
Diners like Tallahasee Table reader Eric-Kim Justice consider the Melting Pot a Valentine’s Day staple because “it’s more than a meal. It’s an experience.” Justice said the fondue dinners “take two hands and focus. No time for phones.” The Valentine’s Day menu is available now, through Feb. 18. The prix fixe menu will be offered exclusively on Valentine’s Day. 2727 N. Monroe St.; 850-386-7440.

 

Nefetari’s Fine Cuisine & Spirits
The lavish destination, decorated with Egyptian and African art, features a special Valentine’s Day menu showcasing its international menu, plus there’s live entertainment by The Few G’s, a jazz, neo-soul ensemble. Owners Sharon and Dana Dennard tout a “royal experience” (there’s even a queen’s table) in this unique space. 812 S. Macomb St.; 850-210-0548.

Sage
Chef/owner Terry White is known for his from-scratch gourmet cuisine, particularly his array of seafood (he was named “King of American Seafood” at 2014’s Great American Seafood Cook-Off). Dine in a cozy space surrounded by local art or the landscaped patio. 3534 Maclay Blvd. South; 850-270-9396.

– Shula’s 347 Grill

Shula’s 347 Grill
Tallahassee Table reader Alix Kalfin touts Shula’s as a favorite for Valentine’s Day “because it’s a quiet, intimate atmosphere with excellent service.” The quintessential steakhouse, inside the Hotel Duval, will extend its dining room on Valentine’s Day to include its LeRoc Lounge. Customers seated in the lounge can listen to classical guitarist Morgan Stuart from 6 to 9 p.m. Diners will have the option of the regular menu or a five-course Valentine’s Day special. Top off the night at the hotel’s Level 8 rooftop lounge, for a cocktail and view of downtown Tallahassee under the stars. 415 N. Monroe St.; 850-224-6005.

Z.Bardhi’s Italian Cuisine
A longtime favorite in Tallahassee, Z.Bardhi’s has served fine Italian fare for more than two decades. Dine in the cozy dining room or the lovely patio, with white tablecloths, candlelight and a romantic atmosphere. 3596 Kinhega Dr.; 850-894-9919.

Rochelle Koff writes about food and dining at TallahasseeTable.com. Reach her at TallahasseeTable@gmail.com

 

New Tallahassee Tastes

The culinary scene in Tallahassee was bittersweet in 2017. We welcomed a host of new restaurants, including our first cat adoption cafe, but we also said goodbye to a few faves.

On the plus side, we savored new flavors, but also discovered we still love comfort food (and tacos).

Here are some of the noteworthy ups and downs in our restaurant world this year — with a look at what’s coming up. We realize there are a lot more newcomers, so please send along your recommendations to TallahaseeTable@gmail.com.

A treat for cat lovers: Customers can order a cup of coffee and pastry, then pay $7 an hour to enter a playroom and cuddle cats that need a home. The goal of The Fat Cat Cafe, and other similar venues opening around the world, is to spur adoptions — 35 cats have been adopted at the Tallahassee cafe since the place opened Aug. 11. There are also special events geared to kiddies and kitties. Fat Cat Cafe, 2901 East Park Avenue, Suite 2600; 850-402-9850. Another feline venue, The Tally Cat Cafe, is planning to open in 2018.

Ethnic cuisine: From Afghan kebabs to Vietnamese-style beef stew, several ethnic restaurants debuted in 2017.

  • Arepana Latin Grill: Viet and Nam Vu (Taco Republik, MoBi food truck) have opened two tasty additions to Tallahassee’s dining scene — Arepana and Izzy Pub & Sushi. Nam opened Arepana in April, featuring inexpensive dishes influenced by Colombian, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan fare. Find arepas (corn cakes with a protein or vegetable filling), rice bowls with roast pork, carne asada (steak), chicken or vegetables, salads and sides like yucca fries and plantains. 1176 Capital Circle SE; 850- 597-9931.

    Joe Rondone/Democrat
  • Izzy Pub & Sushi: Viet Vu joined forces with chef Xinzheng “Alex” Fang to create the chill, Japanese-style gastro pub. Diners can devour an array of sushi, sashimi and small plates plus a choice of sake, including the first kegged sake in Tallahassee. Open since February, the pub is also bringing in harder-to-find fish from Japanese markets. 1123 Thomasville Rd.; 850-222-5000.
  • Chuan Cafe: The restaurant’s slogan is “Never Spicy Enough” but there are lots of milder choices at this urban College Town space. Just indicate your spice choices when you order. Dishes include hot and sour soup, dim sum, Kung Pao chicken and vegetarian choices. Bento combos are available until 5 p.m. 619 Woodward Ave. (across from Centrale); 850-727-0228.
  • Da Khyber Grill: The restaurant is an exotic addition to Tallahasee. The place touts a fusion of Pakistan-Indian and Persian flavors with a few items influenced by Afghanistan cuisine, including a kebab with rice. An inexpensive buffet is available at lunch daily and during dinner Friday and Saturday. Order off the dinner menu on other evenings. Open since September, Da Khyber Grill touts a menu that’s 100 percent Halal (foods permissible under Muslim law). 2819 Mahan Dr.; 850-320-6450.
  • Dao: Open since April, Dao is an upscale version of Azu, offering a large, pan-Asian selection in Bannerman Crossings. Owners are Masa Nagashima, who was the general manager of Lucy Ho’s restaurants for nearly 40 years, and Azu’s Kenny Fan, the nephew of Ho’s late husband. 3425 Bannerman Rd.; 850-999-1482.
  • Lemongrass: Savor Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese cuisine as well as sushi and sake at the serene restaurant, open since June in the Centre of Tallahassee. Specialties include Vietnamese beef stew, bánh mì sandwich (at lunch), curries and rolls. From the owners of the former Far East Cuisine. 2415 N Monroe St.; 850-765-0672
  • Tour of Italy:  You’ll find housemade pasta, pizza, calzones, favorites like chicken parmigiana and shrimp fra diavolo plus “mama kababs” at this homey eatery, which launched  Nov. 6. Indoor and outdoor dining.  3805 N. Monroe St.; 850-629-8203.

An eclectic bunch: These intriguing newcomers are offering a change from tacos, pizza and burgers.

  • The Bark: The restaurant has moved to a new, larger venue (formerly Perry’s Lounge) and it’s now a full bar and music venue as well as a cafe. Open since Sepember, The Bark serves fresh bread and a vegan/vegetarian menu, with Saturday and Sunday brunch. 507 All Saints St.; 850-900-5936.
  • Cafe Taverna: This is a new venture from the team behind Lucy Ho restaurants, touted as “Southern American cuisine with a Latin twist.” Dinners include small and large plates, with fried eggplant, rib-eye, pork tenderloin, charcuterie and a vegetable plate. Brunch choices feature breakfast fajitas, crab-filled crepes eggs Benedict and fried chicken and biscuits. 1019 Monroe St.; 850-999-8203.
  • Hawthorn: The elegant new restaurant is a white tablecloth establishment from Jesse Edmunds and the team behind Liberty Bar & Restaurant and El Cocinero. The menu, offering small and large plates, is inspired by the dishes of the American South and the south of Europe in an atmosphere Edmunds calls “refined dining.” 1307 N. Monroe St.; 850-354-8275.
  • Lucilla: The restaurant, in the former home of Sahara, has been serving breakfast and lunch, and just started offering dinner on Jan. 2. The fun menu, from owners Joe Richardson (the chef) and Lara Hooper, focuses on American comfort food with Creole and Southern accents. Dishes include pimento cheese fritters with a smidgen of bourbon peach glaze, fried oysters, root vegetable pot pie and bread pudding with white chocolate and pumpkin (scrumptious). 1241 E. Lafayette St.; 850-900-5117.

Sweet stuff: New bakeries and pastry shops are popping up (with more to come).

  • Lucy & Leo’s Cupcakery is moving to the second floor of Midtown Reader, at 1123 Thomasville Rd. (the pink house is where the shop’s story began) in late January.
  • Au Peche Mignon, at 1415 Timberlane Rd., has opened a second location at 220 N. Duval St.

Newcomers:

– SoDough
  • SoDough opened in Midtown in September, baking doughnuts, kolaches, cookies and brioche bread. 1306 Thomasville Rd.; 850-765-8991.
  • The Goodberry, which opened in June, specializes in açaí bowls with a choice of other toppings and avocado toast. 1325 Thomasville Rd.; 850-778-5167.
  • Nothing Bundt Cakes, which also opened this summer, revives a nostalgic treat with these rich cakes, drizzled with a cream cheese-based icing. 346 S. Magnolia Dr.; 850-765-5188.
  • Southern Velvet Cafe, featuring coffee, tea and pastries, will be opening in 2018 in Frenchtown.

Taco madness continue

  • Locos Tacos & Bar: This  locally owned, mom-and-pop taco spot has been a star with foodies on the local Twitterverse since it opened in April.  With good reason. Go for tacos, burritos, quesadillas and much more. 1525 W. Tharpe St; 850-597-7741.
  • Tin Lizzy’s Cantina:  The  chain, part of a College Town mini restaurant boom,  was founded by FSU students Chris Hadermann, John Piemonte and Mike Evertsen. Open since August, the Tallahassee branch features a “FlexMex” style, with items like low country boil or Korean barbecue tacos and skillets including the Cowboy with fried chicken, bacon and baked beans. 619 S. Woodward Ave.; 850-558-5592.

Final course: We said goodbye to some standbys in 2017, including Old Town Cafe, Red Elephant Pizza and Grill (Midtown location) and Kitcho and Sidebar Gastrobar along with newbie Tequila Tribe. Yostie’s Chili Parlor was a casualty of the upcoming mixed-use housing development called Freight Yard. Owner Gary Yost served his last hearty dogs on the site on Dec. 29, but he’s looking for another site.

What’s next:

We expect Tallahassee’s dining scene to keep evolving in 2018. Here’s an idea, so far, of what to expect.

  • Debuting downtown: In a much anticipated opening, Sage business partners — chef Terry White and sommelier Craig Richardson — will open a high-end, Italian steakhouse on the ground floor of the six-story building owned by Brian Ballard, CEO of Ballard Partners. The building, under construction at Park Avenue and South Monroe Street, is expected to open late summer or early fall 2018.
  • The Hideaway Cafe: Coffee master Jason Card (Journeyman coffee) will be partnering with Midtown’s Waterworks to create Hideaway in the former Spaceport Lounge (the back part of the bar). “Coffee, food and interesting people” coming our way this month, Card said. 1133 Thomasville Rd.; 850-224-1887.
  • Grove Market Cafe: David and Elizabeth Gwynn, owners of Cypress, will be opening a breakfast and lunch restaurant in the former home of the northeast location of the burger joint, Vertigo, which closed just before Christmas. The flagship Vertigo on Lafayette will remain open. The new cafe, expected to open in early February, will incorporate produce from local farms and “concentrate on comfort foods,” said David Gwynn. The cafe will have sit-down service and a “grab-and-go” section. The menu will offer gluten-free and dairy-free choices. 1440 Market St.
  • McAlister’s Deli: The chain, known for its fat sandwiches and sweet tea, is expected to open a branch near Trader Joe’s in January. 3425 Thomasville Rd.
  • 3 Natives Tallahassee: Founded three years ago in Tequesta, this 3 Natives is expected to open Jan. 6, serving açaí bowls, cold-pressed juices, smoothies, wraps, salads and bagels. This branch will be the chain’s eighth location; the Tallahassee operation is owned by Kerry Nohle (owner of Which Wich and Smashburger franchises in Tallahassee and Destin). Walker Plaza, 3020 W. Pensacola St.

Rochelle Koff writes about food and dining at TallahasseeTable.com, on Facebook@TheTallahasseeTable. Instagram as tallahasseetable and Twitter @tallytable. Reach her at TallahasseeTable@gmail.com

 

Hawthorn: Elegant, Cultured and Welcome

Jesse Edmunds describes his new venue, The Hawthorn, as a “refined dining experience.” And so it is.

Many will know Edmunds and his team from their operation of Liberty Bar & Restaurant and El Cocinero, but The Hawthorn is a way different enterprise.

The elegant new restaurant, in the former home of Joe Mama’s and later, Tifeo, is a white tablecloth establishment, the cuisine inspired by the dishes of the American South and the south of Europe. The Hawthorn is named after Edmunds’ favorite flower, regal but grounded, like the food.

Edmunds and his team make pretty much everything from scratch — the crackers, sourdough bread, pasta, sauces. The list goes on and on. The emphasis is on well-sourced seasonal ingredients, local when possible. Expect the menu to change often.

The Hawthorn has had a soft opening since Oct. 5 but the grand opening is Nov. 10 and 11. Diners will be treated to a round of free champagne and the beer and wine service will expand to a full bar.

For Edmunds, The Hawthorn is a long time coming. He’s been working in the restaurant business since washing dishes at age 13. The ambitious chef graduated from Florida State University’s Dedman School of Hospitality, and at age 21 came up with a business plan for a “refined” restaurant.

It would be 10 years before Edmunds made his plan a reality, but The Hawthorn is very much the restaurant of his dreams.

The Setting

Edmund’s wife, Briana, designed the handsome restaurant, decorated in hues of deep navy and crisp white, with accents of grey, brick and wood. Walls are brightened by vivid abstracts and small planters. The Hawthorn can seat 54 in the main dining room, 20 in the bar area and eight on the outside patio. You might hear a Rolling Stones tune played softly in the background, but the fun soundtrack won’t interfere with your focus on food, friends and drink.

Dig In

For starters, my husband and I, dining with another couple, shared two of the intriguing small plates. The lamb crepe was superb. The dish is a play on pulled pork with cornbread and coleslaw, said Edmunds, but this version features flavorful braised lamb from Border Springs Farm in Virginia that’s shredded and tucked inside soft crepes made from cornmeal from Rich Pouncey’s Bumpy Road Farms in Tallahassee. The crepe is garnished with pickled mustard seeds and cabbage slaw. I want some more, right now.

Instead of avocado toast, Edmunds features butternut squash on a thin slice of wood-fired, fresh-baked sourdough slathered with a shmear of rich mascarpone cheese. The bread is topped with three renditions of the squash: confit, charred and puréed. It’s finished with a few butternut squash seeds, a drizzle of fig vinegar, thinly sliced radishes and radish greens. A taste of autumn.

The Hawthorn displays a chalkboard showing the source of its oysters, but we’ll have to try the mollusks on our next visit. We had to save room for large plates, including a mix of proteins and a vegetarian entree (with root vegetables, greens, potatoes au gratin and farmers cheese).

Pork tends to disappoint at most restaurants but The Hawthorn’s pork tenderloin is excellent, buttery tender and juicy. It’s set atop a creamy sauce of puréed roasted corn spiked with saffron. The house-made hominy is a nice touch, along with sweet potatoes and leeks cooked in a cast-iron pan in the wood fire. No wonder the dish is called Fall Pork.

My friend, who loves duck, ordered the duck confit, wonderfully moist and savory, tossed with plump, house-made gnocchi, crisp pancetta, roasted cipollini onions, romanesco (cousin to the cauliflower) and lots of Parmesan. If you don’t like salty food, keep in mind the dish is naturally a tad salty but certainly delicious.

The crab capellini has the simple goodness of a meal cooked in sunny Italy. Edmunds uses an arugula purée in his house-made pasta so it’s a light green, a pleasant backdrop for the real lump crab. On the side are slices of oranges in a white wine butter sauce. The surprise element is a dollop of Georgia caviar, one luxurious bite that doesn’t overpower the delicate dish. The caviar is made from Russian sturgeon raised in Georgia.

The other fish dish on our visit was a double hunk of fresh rainbow trout cooked skin-on, complimented by a fermented tomato sauce with heirloom carrots scooped into melon balls for a whimsical accent.

For dessert, we devoured the scrumptious red velvet bread pudding from pastry chef Kristen Siegel. It’s more of a deconstructed cake, with chunks of chocolate, a vanilla crème anglaise and a garnish of beet micro greens. We could have licked the plate.

For something different, try the gujar ka halwa cake. It’s like an Indian version of carrot cake with cardamon and other Indian spices. If you’re a fan of cream cheese, you’ll love the thick wedge of rich cream cheese ice cream. It’s accompanied by Seigel’s own almond brittle.

A sweet ending, indeed.

Bar

There’s a small, thoughtful wine list (by the glass and bottle). Beer choices include Proof’s La La Land and Cigar City’s Jai Alai IPAs. The full bar will feature classic cocktails like martinis and Manhattans.

Service

Servers were attentive and came around often to fill water glasses and see if we were enjoying our meal. We were.

Prices

Small plates $10 to $13, large plates $20 to $35, desserts $8 to $9.

Bottom Line

The Hawthorn is a winner. It’s only open about a month but it’s already a creative, and welcome, new dining destination for Tallahassee.

Rating: Worth the Drive

Rochelle Koff writes about food and dining at TallahasseeTable.com, and on Facebook, @TheTallahasseeTable and Twitter @tallytable. Reach her at TallahasseeTable@gmail.com.

When you go …

The Hawthorn
1307 N. Monroe St., Unit 1
850.354.8275
Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday
Reservations suggested.

 

 

 

Jessica McMullen: Cooking With Love

As a farmer’s daughter, Jessica Bright McMullen learned early on that “food is love.” It’s a lesson that has sustained her both during times of struggles and success. And it’s one of the many reasons you’ll want to break bread with this dynamic owner of KitchenAble, a cooking school located in a quaint Lake Ella cottage.

At KitchenAble (short for “kitchen enabler,”) McMullen teaches weekly classes and features monthly chef’s table dinners, private gatherings, corporate events and kids’ cooking camps. She offers catering and consulting, conducts culinary trips, and over the years, she’s been a radio and television personality and contributor to several cookbooks.

On a personal level, McMullen is a mom, artist, volunteer. The list goes on and on but a passion for cooking pervades all that she does.

“For me, food is an expression of love,” said McMullen. “I really do love being able to use food as a way to nurture others. When someone stops by after a meal and tells me it’s an experience they’ve really enjoyed, it humbles me. I feel like I have done what I set out to do.”

During classes and chef’s dinner nights, everyone sits around a communal table to watch McMullen work her magic. Her husband Chris and friend Glenn Berman help with prepping and washing dishes. Her 10-year-old daughter Madeline is a skillful sous chef. At one class on pasta making, Madeline breezily sliced dough into long strands and worked a rolling pin like a pro.

– KitchenAble

Classes and dinners are a BYOB affair, so it’s not long before strangers relax and get to know each other. At one dinner, a guest stood up and recited poetry. The room quickly filled with laughter — and heavenly aromas. No wonder McMullen forms connections with all those she meets.

“Most of my students become my friends,” she said, offering a guest a cup of her fresh-brewed tea blend and shortbread cookies. McMullen is always cooking, always doing something. “I don’t watch TV,” she said, flashing her broad smile. “That helps.”

McMullen came across the cottage setting for KitchenAble nearly four years ago. She peeked in the window and saw herbs in the window boxes and a butcher block table inside. Her heart quickened. Four months later, she moved in.

“So I was able to buy that butcher block table and weed those herbs,” said McMullen, who spruced up the space. Like the charming setting, much of the decor has personal value, such as the antique chocolate molds, the punch bowl from her grandmother’s best friend, Miss Pearl, and the lovely bread bowls.

“The things that you see here were given to me by my students or friends and they have stories behind them,” she said. “Many are family heirloom kitchen pieces and I feel like those things have been infused with love by the people who used them. I’m very honored and privileged to have these things in my possession now.”

Whether in her classes or chef’s table events, McMullen’s repertoire spans the globe, offering dishes from chicken Marsala to Moroccan beef stew.

“Jessica has so much enthusiasm it’s catching,” said Sandy DeLopez, a regular at KitchenAble’s cooking classes with her husband Tom. They went to one class and were hooked.

“Her classes are fabulous,” said DeLopez. “By the time you leave, you’ll know everyone in the class. There’s nothing like it in Tallahassee.”

That’s partly because of McMullen’s steadfast belief in the transformative power of a home-cooked meal.

“I learned very quickly that food makes people happy, and I like to make people happy.”

Her loyalty to locally grown food is rooted in her childhood, growing up on a small farm in Ayden, North Carolina. Her father grew tobacco, wheat, corn, soy beans and cucumbers and raised pigs and cattle.

She was just five years old when she started cooking on her grandfather’s wood-burning stove.

“I’d toast the pecans from the trees in his yard and scramble eggs in the cast-iron skillet,” said McMullen.

When she was seven, “the tobacco market fell out” and her father lost the farm. It was a difficult time for her family. McMullen’s parents divorced and she split her time between her dad in North Carolina and her mom in Jacksonville.

Her father, an avid fisherman, opened a seafood market when she was 13. “I learned how to filet and clean all kinds of seafood.”

McMullen knew she wanted a career related to food. “I wanted to take home economics and my high school guidance counselors laughed me off.”

After high school, McMullen studied hospitality administration at Florida State University and was offered a job at Walt Disney World’s All-Star Music Resort. “They put me in the food court, flipping burgers. I was devastated,” said McMullen. “It was nothing like my fantasies.”

Still, she learned the ins and outs of working in a kitchen and on her breaks she would watch the cooks at Disney’s opulent Victoria & Albert’s “where I could see the preparation of beautiful food.”

McMullen ended up working full-time at Disney, where she met her husband Chris. She began cooking at the well-regarded California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Later moves took the couple to colonial Williamsburg and Lake Tahoe.

The McMullens eventually moved to Jacksonville, where Chris went to law school. The couple have a son Max, 15. They became foster parents and adopted Madeline.

McMullen has worked closely with nonprofit groups including Family Support Services of North Florida and Second Harvest. In 2009, Gov. Charlie Crist presented her with the “Point of Light” Award for her efforts to promote adoption awareness. She received the President’s Call to Service Award from President Barack Obama.

“My mother’s life’s dream was to be a stay-at-home mom and it didn’t work out,” McMullen said. “Maybe she planted that seed in me of wanting to nurture and provide hospitality. I’m fortunate I’ve been able to make that my vocation.”

McMullen’s penchant for hospitality has led to surprising ventures. Her husband’s boss loved her cooking, which led to lessons for his wife and her friends. The lessons led to a job as a spokeswoman for General Electric Appliances, which evolved into a regular TV spot.

Cooking for a church benefit landed her an interview on a Christian radio station called The Promise. McMullen became a regular on the station for eight years, sharing recipes and tips. Through that show, she met Julie Hadden, a Season Four finalist on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and wrote a section of healthy recipes for Hadden’s book, “Fat Chance.”

McMullen also co-wrote “The Shannon Miller Healthy and Balanced Pregnancy Cookbook” with the Olympic gymnast.

In recent years, McMullen has been combining travel and cooking. In 2012, she took cooking lessons at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Then in June, she shared her love of France with nine students. “It was a moveable feast,” said DeLopez.

McMullen also took a group to Panama and plans another teaching trip to Brittany in 2018.

“French cuisine seems very, very complicated and fancy from a distance, but really at the heart of it, the backbone of it, is getting fresh, local ingredients,” she said. “When you cook that way, wherever you are in the world, the challenge isn’t what you do but what you don’t do.

“As long as you don’t screw up a delicious tomato, you’ll have a delicious end result,” said McMullen. “It’s recognizing that, and valuing that ingredient. These are things I learned as a farmer’s daughter and that’s something that has run through my family for many generations.

“It’s not that the French are more advanced or complicated than we are,” she added. “It’s that they haven’t forgotten that.”

McMullen never forgets that cooking for a living “has not only enabled me to do what I love, it’s enabled me to have a much broader and richer collection of friends and people who I consider family. I feel very blessed because of that.”

When you go…
KitchenAble: Lake Ella, 1635 N. Monroe Dr.
Phone: 850-264-2308
Web: kitchenable.net
Upcoming: Oktoberfest chef’s dinner, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27; $55 per person.

Recipe

Caramel Apple Shortbread

– KitchenAble


½ cup brown sugar packed
¼ cup butter cubed
¼ cup half and half
½ tsp vanilla paste*
½ tsp salt
1 cup softened butter (2 sticks)
¾ cup powdered sugar
pinch of salt
2 cups flour
4 large, tart apples (Granny Smith and Pink Lady)

Preheat your oven to 350°F.  Make the caramel by combining the brown sugar and butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk gently and cook for about 3-5 minutes, until it thickens and sugar dissolves.

Slowly add in half-and-half and vanilla paste, while whisking.  Increase temperature to medium-high and bring mixture to a boil and boil for 60 seconds.  Remove from the heat and stir in the salt.

Using your mixer, cream butter, salt, and powdered sugar together.  Gradually add the flour to form dough.  Place the dough in a 9 x 13 baking pan lined with parchment paper.  Press the dough into an even layer on the bottom of the pan.  Bake at 350°F for 15-20 minutes, until it looks dry on the surface, then remove from oven.  Cut apples into thin slices and arrange – overlapping– in a layer on the shortbread.  Pour caramel over the sliced apples.  If desired garnish with toasted pecans.

* Vanilla paste is a thick syrupy paste made from vanilla beans with the small flecks of the beans visible.  If you don’t have that available you could substitute the same amount of vanilla extract.

— Jessica Bright McMullen

Greek Dining in Tallahassee

Fall has arrived, and we all know what that means: Hellenic heaven.

The annual Tallahassee Greek Festival takes place this weekend, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Oct. 6 and 7. Here’s your chance to enjoy traditional dances, crafts and a lavish array of authentic cuisine.

Feast on delectable dishes including gyros, souvlaki, spanakopita and moussaka plus dozens of Greece’s famed pastries. You’ll find sweet baklava, but also rice pudding, koulourakia (traditional Easter cookies), loukoumi (Greek candy) and lots more.

Once the festival’s over, there’s no need to pout. There are plenty of spots where you can get a taste of the Mediterranean year-round.

Georgio’s is the place for Greek and Mediterranean fine dining , but there are also several casual and modest counter-serve choices where you can load up on stuffed grape leaves, kebabs, hummus, spinach pies, baklava and gyros — meats cooked on a vertical spit and stuffed into pita, topped with creamy yogurt tzatziki sauce and chopped tomatoes.

Here’s a look at some Tallahassee choices to help you launch your own Greek food odyssey.

– Captain Pete’s House of Gyros

Captain Pete’s House of Gyros: Captain Pete’s, owned by Laura Hussey, is naturally known for its gyros and other Greek specialties offered lunchtime Monday through Saturday. Captain Pete’s, open since 1985, serves falafels, salads, sandwiches — including a Cuban-style sandwich on pita — and heartier meals like meat pastitsio (pasta and ground beef topped with béchamel sauce), stuffed grape leaves and candy-coated almonds for dessert. 1184 Capital Circle NE; 850-877-8012.

Crazy 4 Hummus: The counter-serve eatery, one of several Greek/Mediterranean venues on Tennessee Street, has reopened after a summer hiatus. Despite its name, the restaurant offers only one type of hummus (with many slices of pita), but the place also serves an ambitious menu of stuffed grape leaves, falafels, gyros, chicken and ground lamb kebabs, lentil soup and tabbouleh. 1414 Tennessee St.; 850-329-2312.

Georgio’s Fine Food & Spirit: Georgio Koikos, originally of Athens, Greece, has been in the restaurant business for 50 years, offering diners a taste of his homeland. Georgio’s extensive menu also presents specials from the Mediterranean as well as the Gulf. On the stellar lineup: Greek-style tenderloin tips, crab-stuffed grouper and rack of lamb plus traditional dishes like saganaki (flaming cheese), egg-based avgolemono soup and a combo with eggplant moussaka, spinach pie and grape leaves. End with rich desserts and creative cocktails. 2971 Apalachee Pkwy.; 850-877-3211.

Little Athens Gyro: Zorba the Greek was playing in the background while a friend and I were devouring flavorful lamb-and-beef gyros in this easy-to-miss Greek restaurant on a Tennessee strip (facing McDonald’s). The generous gyro was topped with a well-seasoned mix of tomatoes, feta, lettuce and tzatziki sauce. Owner Janette Ragheb, originally from Cairo, has been cooking Greek and Mediterranean food in Tallahassee for 30 years . The restaurant also serves salads, lentil soup, hummus, stuffed grape leaves and meat pastitsio, with homemade baklava for dessert. 666 W. Tennessee St.; 850-222-2231.

Pappas Diner: This two-month-old Greek-American diner serves dishes ranging from pastrami to pastitsio in the former home of Village Inn. This family business from Spiro Pappas, who previously ran diners in South Florida, offers Greek chicken (flavored with oregano and a garlic-lemon sauce), hummus and a Greek combo with spinach pie, moussaka, pastitsio and Greek salad. The large dessert case features cakes, pies and (naturally) baklava. 2531 Apalachee Pkwy.; 850-391-9585.

Pitaria/Pitaria Express: This laid-back Greek restaurant has been a favorite with college students for decades. The place is known for its gyros, souvlaki, baklava and Greek fries. But Pitaria Express now also offers quick, easy access to its Greek cuisine in its drive-thru location. Pitaria, 631 W. Tennessee St., 850-412-7482; Pitaria Express, 3001 Apalachee Pkwy., 850-765-1124.

Pita Pit: The quick-serve eatery and late-night choice was founded as a healthier alternative to fast food in Canada in 1995. Students are here all hours for a variety of pita wraps: meat (chicken souvlaki, Philly cheese steak, tuna), veggie (falafel, hummus, spicy black bean) and breakfast pitas (eggs and ham, bacon or choice of meats). 1935 W Tennessee St.; 850-222-7482.

Sahara Greek & Lebanese Cafe: Fans have followed popular Sahara Greek & Lebanese Cafe from the Tallahassee Mall to Lafayette Street to new quarters on Apalachee Parkway. Owner Sophia Al-Siroa has been cooking Greek, Lebanese and vegetarian dishes in Tallahassee for 17 years. Specialty plates include chicken shawarma (pressed meat on a spit), stuffed grape leaves, kebabs, pita wraps, Greek Fries and homemade Lebanese dishes. Al-Siroa is also known for serving some of the best baklava around. 1135 Apalachee Pkwy, Tallahassee, FL 32301. (850) 656-1800

Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe: The Birmingham-based chain, which celebrated its year anniversary Oct. 4, offers a good selection of casual Greek fare. Counter-serve Taziki’s boasts “no fryers or freezers or microwaves” are used to prepare its salads, hummus, gyros, vegetable plates and “feasts” including roast pork loin and juicy grilled lamb. It may not be Greek but Taziki’s does a pretty good pimento cheese sandwich. 216 S. Magnolia Dr.; 850-329-6056

Under Wraps: Sonny Pourfardaneh, originally of Iran, and wife Gina Bonyani, who is of Greek heritage, serve a large selection of Mediterranean fare at this cheery counter-serve spot. The menu covers a lot of territory with gyros, hummus and falafels along with a Philly cheesesteak, sweet-and-spicy Thai chicken and Southwestern turkey. Stop by Fridays and Saturdays when Under Wraps offers Persian kebab koobideh with ground beef and basmati rice and a Greek-style chicken kebab. The couple’s daughter, Pegah, makes the delicious baklava. 1703 Apalachee Pkwy.; 850-727-7012.

If you go …
What: Tallahassee Greek Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Oct. 6 and 7
Where: Holy Mother of God Greek Orthodox Church, 1645 Phillips Rd., Tallahassee
More info: www.hmog.org/festival

Global Fare With the Vu Brothers

You may not know Viet and Nam Vu, but you’ve probably eaten at their restaurants.

They’re the guys behind the MoBi food truck, known for its international street fare, and Midtown’s popular Taco Republik, which has been serving a variety of tacos, quesadillas, burritos and other Tex-Mex-style food for more than four years.

A Trust Me Special, with spicy tuna, cucumber, asparagus, avocado, with eel and ponzu sauce at Izzy Pub & Sushi. Joe Rondone, Tallahassee Democrat

In February, Viet, 37, began luring sushi fans to the urban Japanese gastropub, Izzy Pub & Sushi, an endeavor with chef Xinzheng “Alex” Fang.

A choclo, top, an arepa filled with cheese and sweet corn with sides of plantains and yuca fries (top) and a steak and rice bowl (bottom.)

Then Nam, 36, launched casual Arepana Latin Grill (formerly Merv’s Melts) on Capital Circle in April, offering arepas and rice bowls with a variety of fillings.

As if all these ventures aren’t enough to keep them busy, the Vus recently revived MoBi, which had been relegated to limited use, as a regular pop-up on weekends at Proof brewery in Railroad Square, offering items like Garnet & Gold tacos, sweet corn arepas stuffed with cheese and pub fries garnished with chopped bratwurst and 850 beer cheese, with more creative items to come. MoBi, which means Mobile Bistro, will also be handling all of Proof’s catering and food operations.

The Vus initially started the food truck in 2011, after more than a decade of working for others in restaurants around town. In just six years, they’ve quietly impacted Tallahassee’s evolving dining scene, and they’ve done it with lots of sweat equity.

The Vu brothers were willing to start small, but they’ve always had big dreams. Talk to them briefly and their enthusiasm is catching. They’re brimming with ideas, tempering their passion with  pragmatism.

“It all springs from our background,” said Viet. “We got into this because we learned a love of food from our parents.”

Children of Vietnamese immigrants who came to America “with next to nothing,” the Vu brothers grew up in Tallahassee at a time when there were few other families who shared their culture.

“Probably less than five percent of the kids in school were Asian,” said Nam. “The majority were Korean and Chinese.”

The brothers learned early on to handle questions about their names, Viet and Nam. “Our parents were jokesters,” Nam quipped, adding their dad explained “it was a way to always remember our heritage.”

Viet and Nam  were raised in a multicultural world, dining at the homes of American friends, and inviting those friends to join their family for traditional Vietnamese dishes.

“Food brings people together,” said Viet.

Their mother made banh xeo or Vietnamese crepes, dumplings and summer rolls. Their father, who worked with the state Department of Transportation, proudly made his homeland’s famed phò beef noodle soup as well as the spaghetti and meatball recipe he learned from his American co-workers.

“Our version of a bolgona sandwich in school was actually French bread, pâté, camembert and chả lụa,” a type of sausage used in Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches, Nam said. “That was our sack lunch.”

When the guys attended Leon High, they also ate at Whataburger a couple times a week, never expecting they’d be Midtown merchants themselves. Or maybe they did.

Between them, Viet and Nam have worked in just about every job in the restaurant business, starting at the bottom and working their way up.

Viet got his first job at Papa Johns in ’96, flipping pizzas and taking orders for $4.25 an hour and free pizza. “Great job for a swimmer with an appetite for pizza and cooking,” said Viet.

When Nam was in high school, he worked summers as a prep/pantry cook and bussed tables. at PF Chang’s in North Carolina.

“PF Chang’s was the hot new restaurant at the time, and we were inspired by both the menu and design,” said Viet. “We were like, ‘wow, Chinese restaurants don’t have to look like the typical mom and pop take-out joints.’ ”

After graduating from Leon in 1998 and 1999, the brothers went to Florida State University with a medical or science career in mind. “We were originally the stereotypical pre-med that Asian parents want for their children,” said Nam. He ended up gravitating to international affairs. Viet’s majors were biology and chemistry.

A three-taco combo with one of each carnitas, pollo and steak at Taco Republik, one of several local restaurants owned by brothers Viet and Nam Vu. – Joe Rondone, Tallahassee Democrat

Both brothers worked in restaurants while at FSU. Viet worked a a bar manager at Mori and Harry’s during and after college. Nam worked at Bonefish Grill  during college, and after graduation, he managed 101 restaurant (“I was the unofficial creator of buffalo chicken pizzas). He later went on to management at Hotel Duval and Shulas

“He’s a really hard worker,” said Joe Lemons, Nam’s former boss at Bonefish Grill.

As an aside, he mentions that Nam would “do magic tricks when he was a server and the guests loved it.”

When Lemons opened Table 23, across the street from Taco Republik, Nam offered to help with staff training, calling it “a way of giving back for the many lessons I learned while at BFG.”

When he was learning the business, Nam said he liked to work at newly opened places to observe how things were done.

“We had good bosses and bad bosses and we learned from their strengths and weaknesses,” said Nam. “We learned what works and what not to do.”

“We’re like sponges,” said Viet. “We learned from all our families we spent time with – Vietnamese, American and work. Over the years, I believe we’ve been absorbing it all. We try to apply every little experience that we’ve learned and shake it up.”

Nam said he and his brother played a game when they were dreaming up restaurant concepts. “Any time we’d see an empty space, we’d say “What would you put there?’ It kept us thinking.”

Eventually the brothers would go out on their own – after some soul searching. When Viet was nearly 30, he decided to leave his job as a bar manager. He traveled the country, visiting his foodie sister, Phi Do-Lui, in Albany, California. Viet was “in love with” the dining scene in the San Francisco Bay area, visiting his sister’s favorite eateries, which included casual places and imaginative food trucks.

“For me, great food doesn’t have to be fancy,” said Do-Lui.“

Her brothers agree.

“The food truck idea was a very cool concept to me,” said Viet.

After a year of research and a loan from their mom, MoBi was born.

Brat dog and pub fries with 850 cheese sauce from the MoBi food truck.

“I utilized my bar and hospitality networks to find places to set up late night outside bars and lunches downtown,” said Viet. “We created a Carolina-style barbecue pork taco with Chipotle mac-n-cheese and it jump started our business.”

Natasha Nunley, a managing partner at the new Tin Lizzy’s, was running her own food truck, the Nole Patrol, one of Tallahassee’s first food trucks, when Viet was traveling around the city with MoBi.

“Viet takes his craft seriously,” said Nunley. “That’s what sets him apart.”

MoBi allowed the brothers to experiment with global flavors – Korean (with kimchi from Korean BBQ), Indian and Thai, introducing customers to Vietnam’s famed bánh mì sandwiches, with a smear of liver pâté and thin slices of cold cuts on a French baguette.

“We never had a set menu,” said Viet. “People knew we always had the barbecue tacos and some new Asian stuff and they always loved it.”

One of those fans was Florida State University graduate student Cameron Salley, who headed to Proof on a recent steamy Sunday with senior Lily Henkel to devour barbecue pork tacos.

“I used to go to MoBi when I was in high school,” said Salley. “We saw a post from Viet today on Instagram and came on over.”

Viet was operating MoBi, and Nam still working in the corporate world (Hotel Duval, Front Porch), when businessman Anuj Patel approached them about starting a new venture, which became Taco Republik.

“He wanted us to build a taco shop, develop the menu and staff it,” said Viet. “It was the opportunity to open our first restaurant, our way, with minimal investment. Once we accomplished that, it gave us the confidence to do even more concepts.”

Viet and Nam formed the parent company, RendezVu, but it would be more than four years until they found the right opportunities for more businesses.

That changed when Viet entered into a partnership with chef Fang of Midtown’s Saki Sushi to help revitalize the restaurant with a new concept. Fang is a talented chef, said Viet, but Saki Sushi “was missing the ambiance and the vibe necessary to succeed in the rising Midtown scene and we knew we could help bring that.”

The Godzilla roll with soft shell crab, coconut shrimp, spicy tuna, bbq eel, scallion, avocado, cream cheese and spicy mayo at Izzy’s Pub & Sushi. – Joe Rondone, Tallahassee Democrat

They created Izzy, short for Izakaya (a casual venue for drinks and simple pub food), a hipper space which has already made a difference for Tallahassee’s adventurous raw fish fans, even new ones.

“My kids discovered sushi at Izzy,” said Table 23’s Lemons. “Viet even ordered them kid chopsticks.”

The pub, which shares a deck with indie bookstore Midtown Reader, has become a gathering spot for diners chowing down on an array of sushi, sashimi and small plates, sipping high-quality sake — including the first kegged sake in Tallahassee — and local craft brews from Proof, Deep and Grasslands.

Izzy has offered at least one high-end omasake dinner – the term means “I’ll leave it up to you” – sourcing rare, unique fish from the famed Japanese markets. On a smaller scale, you can sample the chef’s creativity with a “Trust Me Roll” devised by Fang.

Across town, Nam’s Arepana Latin Grill on Apalachee Parkway is wooing customers with flavorful and inexpensive meals that bring a taste of Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Visit the restaurant at any hour and you’ll see Nam behind the counter, cooking or serving customers arepas or rice bowls with roast pork, carne asada (steak), chicken or vegetables.

 

Phi Do-Lui said her brothers Viet and Nam each bring their own talents to the restaurant business “but they both want people to enjoy their experience as much as the food.”

Do-Lui said she knew they would make it as restaurateurs. “The surprise was, ‘Why not Vietnamese?”

The short answer is that the market hasn’t been right yet, said the Vu brothers.

But their goal is to open a Vietnamese deli, bakery and café within two years, specializing in creative and classic takes on bánh mì sandwiches, among other items.

“We want to have the resources to do it the right way,” said Viet, noting he would like to make a mark on Tallahassee.

Whether it’s a Latin, Japanese or Vietnamese restaurant, added Nam, “I would like to see any business we build stand the test of time.”

Here’s where to find the Vu brothers’ businesses:

Arepana Latin Grill: Serving arepas, rice bowls and sides like yucca fries and plantains. 1176 Capital Circle SE; 850- 597-9931.

MoBi: The truck is now parked at Proof, serving tacos, arepas, brats and more elaborate sandwiches on Thursday through Sunday. Railroad Square Art Park, 644 McDonnell Dr.

Izzy Pub & Sushi: Casual, Japanese-style gastro pub serving sushi, sake, local beer and small plates. 1123-3 Thomasville Rd.; 850-222-5000

Taco Republik: Fun taqueria, with shrimp, fish, pork and beef tacos and quesadillas plus yucca fries and tostones. 1122-8 Thomasville Rd.; 850-765-3314

Mural at Taco Republik.

 

 

 

 

 

Chuan Cafe Spices up College Town

The sign outside the door of College Town’s new Chuan Cafe reads “Never Spicy Enough,” a statement some prospective diners may interpret as a challenge and others as a cue to order with caution.

Both are right — and wrong.

Chuan Cafe serves Sichuan cuisine, which is known for the heat of its chiles and numbing Sichuan peppers. The menu has a category for Super Spicy food and also indicates heat with the number of peppers but you can express your preference for more or less spice at the counter. You’ll want to ensure you’re on the same spice scale as the kitchen. If you have a timid palate, try the sesame chicken, vegetable dishes, fried rice or dim sum.

Chuan Cafe is an offshoot of the restaurant, Chuan Guo Wei, located in Chendu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwestern China. Tallahassee was picked for the restaurant’s first venture into the United States, partly because of family connections here, said manager Michelle Lin.

 

The Setting

The cafe is a natural for College Town. The place is contemporary, with a laid-back vibe, decorated with wood, exposed brick and industrial accents.

You order at the counter and are notified via buzzer when your food is ready. There’s no rush to leave. Seating includes a few communal tables with upholstered chairs and banquettes, perfect for study groups, and smaller tables around the perimeter of the room. On our visits, most of the diners were Asian, generally considered a sign the food is pretty authentic.

There’s free WiFi, and Lin notes that diners are welcome to graze, study or just read a book.

Dig In

When I stopped by the restaurant earlier this week, my third visit, I chatted with José Mendoza, an engineering professor at Florida State University, who’s already become a fan of Chuan Cafe. He was enjoying a meal of white fish with hot chile sauce, included on the list of Super Spicy dishes. “I’d eat here everyday if I could,” Mendoza said. “My wife is Chinese and she really loves it.”

I particularly liked his description of the tongue-tingling taste of Sichuan peppers. “They have an after-flavor that’s numbing,” he said, comparing it to the lingering flavor of a good cup of espresso. “It’s very pleasant.”

Incidentally, the Sichuan pepper is not a peppercorn but the dried rind of the berry-like fruit of the ash tree. You’ve likely tried it before because it’s one of the ingredients in Chinese five-spice powder (along with star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon and fennel seeds).

Along with its spiciness, Sichuan dishes are also sweet, sour, salty and smoky. There’s a Sichuan saying for this complexity, which translates to: “Each dish has its own style, a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavors.”

Chuan Cafe doesn’t have a hundred dishes but there are sure plenty of choices.

One of the best deals is a combo meal for $8.99. It’s served, Bento-style, with segments for a stir-fry or steamed dish, soup and dim sum. I had the “Giant Meatball,” a large orb of tender, ground pork that has a slight kick, served in a sweet-and-sour sauce. My sides were a flavorful cup of wonton soup, though similar to what you’d find at most Chinese restaurants, and plump pan-fried dumplings. Other dishes available as a combo include Kung Pao chicken, shredded pork with garlic sauce and spare ribs with sticky rice.

On another visit, my son, who loves spicy food, was happy with his aromatic bowl of Ma Po Tofu, a classic loaded with chunks of tofu and a sprinkling of ground pork and scallions. It had plenty of heat but it’s not a scorcher for those who prefer to fire up their taste buds.

– Chuan Cafe

House-made dandan noodles were also delicious, coated with a peanut and pepper sauce, topped with chopped pork and scallions.

The sesame chicken strips are a fun, shareable snack boosted by an orange sweet-sour sauce. For a light dish, try the Chinese crepe, made with egg and flour, filled with savory pork and scallions.

Sadly, the dim sum menu has already been scaled back but you’ll still find pan-fried and steamed dumplings plus binge-worthy pan-fried pork buns, soft on the inside with a slightly crisp doughy shell.

For dessert, try the “brown sugar rice crispy,” which brings strips of sticky rice pan-fried with a crisp coating, dipped into a brown sugar sauce for a sweet ending.

Chuan Cafe doesn’t yet have its beer and wine license but it’s not exactly hard to find a watering hole in College Town.

Prices

Soups $5.95 to $8.95; combo meals $8.99; noodles $6.95 to $8.95, entrees $6.95 to $11.95; vegetable dishes $8.95 to $10.95; dim sum $6.95 to $7.95; desserts $4.95 to $5.95.

Bottom line

Discover the bold flavors of Sichuan cooking at Chuan Cafe. Servings are generous, flavorful and the place has a casual, breezy atmosphere that will make diners of any age feel welcome. With dishes priced under $12, it also pays to be adventurous.

Tallahassee Table Rating
(Neighborhood Fare, Worth the Drive, or One of the Best)

Worth the Drive

Rochelle Koff writes about food and dining at TallahasseeTable.com, and on Facebook, @TheTallahasseeTable and Twitter @tallytable. Reach her at TallahasseeTable@gmail.com.

When you go …

Chuan Cafe
619 Woodward Ave., Tallahassee
850-727-0228
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

 

 

 

New TLH Restaurants


Barbecue. Bundt cakes. Super berries. Tallahassee has a new spate of restaurants — including chains, dessert spots, a sub shop, ethnic restaurants and a food truck — that have opened in the past two months and a few more will be opening by summer’s end.

Most of these are smaller, casual places, not of the ilk of a Blue Halo or Table 23, which opened last summer. Still, these are new places to discover and Tallahassee loves to try new restaurants.

Keep in mind that all that love can overwhelm a new spot. Places used to be able to open quietly but that’s unlikely these days. One bad batch of beans can doom a restaurant. So the idea is, give a new location a chance.

Here are the spaces we’ve come across.We’ve likely missed some new gems or promising places to come. If so, please drop us a note at TallahasseeTable@gmail.com.

Chuan Cafe:   This College Town newcomer boasts authentic Chinese cuisine with the slogan “Never Spicy Enough.” But if you’re spice-averse, don’t cross this place off your must-try list. The super hot dishes are marked and there are plenty of other choices, especially the dim sum. The Szechuan category includes roast duck, beef tendon with chili sauce, and bean jelly with Szechuan-style sauce.  Another bonus: Chuan Cafe, with a sleek contemporary decor, is open for lunch and dinner daily. 619 S. Woodward Ave.; 850-727-0228.

– Joan-Manuel Pouparina

The Goodberry: This cozy nook, which opened June 17, specializes in popular açaí bowls. The South American berry, touted for its health benefits and its tart-sweet flavor, is the star attraction in sorbet, garnished with granola and a choice of other toppings, including fresh fruits, chia seeds, dates, bee pollen, Nutella and a Brazilian nut topping called pacoca. Owners Joan-Manuel Pouparina and Ariel Sonnino, both recent Florida State University grads, also serve smoothies and avocado toast with garlic, red peppers, feta, cherry tomatoes and a balsamic glaze. Sweet indeed! 1325 Thomasville Rd.; 850-778-5167.

Lemongrass: The pan-Asian restaurant, from the same folks who owned the former Far East Cuisine in the Carriage Gate, have moved to the Centre of Tallahassee. The new, classier digs offer lovely art work, a sophisticated soundtrack and relaxed lights. Vietnamese and Thai dishes and sushi dominate the large menu. Specialties include Vietnamese beef stew, a bánh mì for lunch, curries and rolls. Finish with a cold — or hot — glass of sake. 2415 N Monroe St.; 850-765-0672.

LOL Nachos:  This place is a nacho bar that also serves other Mexican fare like tacos and burritos, but why the LOL? The restaurant is also a comedy club with shows Tuesday and Saturday nights.    2401 West Pensacola St., Unit D;  850-597-8372.

Nothing Bundt Cakes: If the term “bundt cake” makes you feel warm and fuzzy, you’ll be happy to discover this new shop devoted to the nostalgic dessert. These rich cakes are drizzled with a cream cheese-based icing and come in varied sizes: an eight or 10-inch cake ($21 and $31, additional charge for decorations), $3.99 bundtlets and bite-sized bundtinis (available only by the dozen). Ten flavors are available, including a gluten-free version and flavor of the month. Marty Newman, who opened the Tallahassee branch of the franchise on June 1, said there are 40 design options for special occasions. Despite its name, the shop sells some travel mugs, cake plates and gifts. 346 S Magnolia Dr.; 850-765-5188.

OG Subs: The sub shop originally opened in the fall, closed briefly and reopened June 23, so we’re including it in this roundup. OG is quickly getting a reputation for having the best subs in the city. No argument here. If you’re from South Florida, you’ll be excited to hear that one of their owners and several employees used to work at the venerable LaSpada’s Original Hoagies in SFla. You’ll find the same quality meats here (and meat tossing — trust us, it’s fun). 444 W College Ave.; 850-553-1352.

Thai Kitchen: Amy and Alex Soonthonthom spent many years helping a relative open Thai restaurants around the country. On June 1, they opened their own establishment, a modest 32-seat storefront providing a range of traditional dishes like coconut soup, Pad Thai and assorted curries. Shoppers in the plaza will find lunch is a bargain, including an entree and cup of soup or salad (dine-in only) for $8, $10 if you pick shrimp. The couple, natives of Thailand, will eventually offer sushi as well. 1400 Village Square Blvd.; 850-999-8960.

Wild Cajun Seafood & Oyster Bar: Childhood friends and Louisiana natives Derreck He and Tim Tran opened the seafood restaurant July 5 in the former home of Zin. Wild Cajun specializes in low-country boils — “Dirty Buckets” with shrimp, snow crab, black mussels, sausage, crawfish, red potatoes and corn.  You’ll also find po boys, seafood by the pound, baskets and crawfish étouffée. 1225 N Monroe St.; 850-567-2992

– Rankin Tacos

Rankin Crunchy & Confused Tacos: On May 28, Roger Rankin left his seven-year job working in the state’s radiological emergency program, which is charged with planning the response to a nuclear power plant crisis. A month later, he was planning something entirely different: menus. Fulfilling a longtime dream, Rankin, with his wife, Bridgette, opened this food truck, featuring a beloved fried taco recipe created by his grandmother in West Texas. Rankin Crunchy & Confused Tacos prepares the dish the way his grandmother did, cooking the meat and shell together. The truck offers five or six signature tacos, including Southern fried chicken, chorizo, lamb or beef or you can build your own. Tacos are served with a side of Texas-style beans and flat tater tots. You can catch Rankin’s food truck Saturday at Deep Brewing or check his Facebook page.

Willie Jewell’s Old-School BBQ: Tallahassee’s newest barbecue spot, which opened July 19, is a spinoff of the historic Bono’s barbecue chain, born in Jacksonville in 1949, created by Joe Adeeb and Josh Martino. As for the intriguing name, Willie Jewell Daniels was a homeless girl who came to live with the Adeeb family and proved to be a fine cook. The Tallahassee branch, owned by Chip and Amanda Evans, features pork and brisket smoked for 12 or more hours over live oak. “All the meat arrives raw and we smoke it,” said Amanda Evans. Also featured: St. Louis-style ribs, turkey, sausage and chicken plus classic sides like mac ‘n cheese, Brunswick stews, fried pickles, fried corn, fried okra and baked beans. 5442 Thomasville Rd.; 850-629-4299.

 

Pappas Diner: If you love an old-fashioned Greek-American diner, with dishes like pancakes, pastrami and spinach pies, you’ll be eager to try this new eatery from Sprio Pappas, who previously ran diners in South Florida. Pappas is open in the former home of the Village Inn. We could use a Greek diner in Tallahassee so fingers crossed. 2531Apalachee Pkwy.; 850-391-9585.

Opening Soon

– SoDough

SoDough: Midtown is getting a new bakery specializing in quiche, donuts, cupcakes, muffins and other pastries (but no bread; not yet, at least) in the old Lenny’s Subs sites. The bakery is a project from For the Table Hospitality, the group that owns Madison Social, Township and Centrale in CollegeTown, specifically Matt Thompson, managing partner at Madison Social, and Lauren and Mike Poulos. We’re excited about their plans for specialty donuts. It’s expected to open in early August. 1306 Thomasville Rd.

– Tin Lizzy’s

 

Tin Lizzy’s Cantina: OK, it’s another taco joint but it sounds like a fun fit for College Town. Owners/founders Chris Hadermann, John Piemonte and Mike Evertsen all met while students at FSU and later opened their first taco restaurant in Atlanta’s Buckhead area in 2005. The Tallahassee branch will be the 14th in the chain, with other links in Atlanta and South Carolina. Don’t expect Tex-Mex or Mexican-style tacos. Tin Lizzy’s “FlexMex” style stars items like a low country boil taco with shrimp, chorizo, corn, tater tots; one with Korean barbecue; and skillets including the Cowboy with fried chicken, bacon and baked beans. Other items include quesadillas, entrees and salads. It’s expected to open near Township by the end of August. 619 S. Woodward Ave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Stuff: Desserts in TLH

How sweet.  Summer has officially begun. What  a perfect time to indulge in fruity sorbets, luscious shortcake and over-the-top ice cream sundaes.

In Tallahassee, you can find all these treats, and lots more, whether you’re craving a gooey banana split with hot butter caramel, a pot of chocolate fondue or a refreshing chai crème brûlée. And you don’t have to miss out if you’re vegan or eat a gluten-free diet.

Our search for desserts led to ice cream and candy shops, bakeries, restaurants and even late-night delivery services. Friends and readers contributed their ideas as well, but if we’ve missed your favorite spot, let us know.

Here’s the scoop…

COOL TREATS

Big Easy Snowballs: It’s always snowball season at these two dessert shops, which create frozen treats using New Orleans-style machines. You have a choice of more than 90 flavors including the popular blue raspberry or tiger’s blood (three berries with a hint of coconut). The specialty is a “stuffed” snowball – any flavor with French vanilla soft serve ice cream in the middle. 1621 N Monroe St. (Lake Ella), 850-329-6010; 2819 Mahan Dr., 850- 999-1502.

Bruster’s Real Ice Cream: Wedding Cake ice cream, made with almond cake batter, and Tuxedo Strawberry, with white chocolate swirls, are the special June flavors at these two counter-serve spots, where you’ll find waffle cones, freezes, milkshakes, sundaes, ice cream and pies. Bring your own banana to Bruster’s on Thursdays and you get a banana split for half price ($3 instead of $6). 2475 Apalachee Pkwy., 850-309-0712; 1709 W. Tharpe St., 850-383-9782.

Cold Stone Creamery: Pick your favorite ice cream flavor, choice of mix-ins and it’s all melded together using two spades on a frozen granite stone, for a made-to-order confection. Centre of Tallahassee, 2415 N Monroe St., 850-553-4560; 1444 W Tennessee St., 850-425-1150.

Dairy Queen: There are three Dairy Queen shops in Tallahassee plus a spot in the Governor’s Square Mall, offering chocolate and vanilla soft-serve in a cup or cone plus varied Blizzard treats.

Fiocco at Urban Food Market: Rudy Sacchet’s family has been making gelato for more than three generations in the Dolomites in northeastern Italy, and now he’s sharing his experience at Fiocco Gelato Cafe in the sprawling Urban Food Market. Fiocco offers more than 20 flavors plus coffee drinks and bakery items, including cheesecake from Chef Alessandro Di Maggio of +39. Centre of Tallahassee, 2415 N Monroe St.; 850-765-9842.

Isabella Pizza: Along with Neapolitan pies and salads, Isabella’s offers six flavors of house-made gelato and Nutella pizza, which is stuffed with the hazelnut spread and topped with fruit. 799 W Gaines St.; 850-558-6379.

Lofty Pursuits: The venerable local ice cream shop, from owner Gregory Cohen, is a place where customers like to hang out. Watch Victorian-style candy made in-house on equipment from the late 1800s and check out retro toys and games. The ice cream menu itself is huge, offering floats, freezes, egg creams, ice cream sodas, nearly three dozen sundaes (not counting banana confections and treats like the kitchen sink, with 26 scoops in a stainless steel sink) and vegan ice cream options. Lofty Pursuits makes more than 30 syrups. Want dessert for breakfast? Order a pancake with candy, sprinkles and ice cream (regular breakfast items available as well). 1355 Market St.; 850-521-0091.

Mr. Cool: The Thai-style ice cream shop serves ice cream in six tight rolls instead of scoops. Servers mash mix-ins and a liquid ice cream base (including a basic version, vanilla, coffee, green tea or chocolate) on a pan chilled to a temperature of minus 14 degrees, then scrape the mixture into rolls, which taste a little lighter than a scoop. Pick one of the restaurant’s combos, like the Monkey Business (with bananas and Nutella) or create your own. Once the ice cream is rolled, pick three toppings. There’s one price: $5.99. 633 W Tennessee St.; 850-999-8476.

Nuberri Frozen Yogurt: The shop, with three locations, is primarily known for self-serve frozen yogurt (with no fat and low fat alternatives) but it also serves custard, gelato, sorbet and Italian ices. Dozens of toppings are available.

Peterbrooke Chocolatier: Satisfy your craving for chocolate or gelato (or both) at Peterbroke, which offers a cup, cone or pint of gelato, with 16 rotating flavors. 1817 Thomasville Rd. 850-577-3111.

Yogurt Mountain:   The yogurt shop serves more than 16 choices with nonfat, lowfat and gluten-free picks available, plus custard, dairy-free choices and tropical ice. 1801 W Tennessee St.; 850-765-0229.

CUPCAKES/PASTRIES

Au Peche Mignon: Feel like you’re in France (we can all pretend) while gobbling macarons, croissants and other pastries at the cafe, open more than 25 years. You can also get imported cheeses, salami and lunch. 1415 Timberlane Rd.; 850-668-5533.

Lucy & Leo’s Cupcakery: The local cupcake shop from owners Jean Bates and Paula Lucas, offers about a dozen cupcake varieties daily, plus macarons, cookies and cake balls (mini cupcakes available by special order). Gluten-free and vegan options are available. During the summer, cupcakes are $2 on Tuesdays. 1000 Thomasville Rd.; 850-765-0374.

Smallcakes Cupcakery and Creamery: The colorful cupcake shop serves more than a dozen flavors daily. You can special order medium or mini cupcakes and get cupcakes for dogs on Saturdays. 1480 Apalachee Pkwy., 850-765-2785; 3479 Thomasville Rd., 850-999-1943.

Tasty Pastry: The family-run bakery, which originated in 1963, is still run by siblings and certified master bakers Debbie and Mark Cross. It’s the source for breads, cakes, pies, cookies, bagels, pastries and take-home casseroles. 1355 Market St.; 850-893-3752.

The Cake Shop: The bakery is brimming with breads, pastries presents pies, cheesecakes, cookies, brownies, baklava, quiche and specialty baked goods.. Open for breakfast. 1908 Capital Circle NE; 850-386-2253.

Treva’s Pastries and Fine Foods: In her small shop and cafe, Treva Pasquarelli offers soups, salads, sandwiches, entrees (to go) and pastries. Her specialties include Key lime mousse pie and blueberry almond croissants. She also makes ice cream for sale by the cup or pint. 2766 Capital Circle NE; 850-765-0811.

RESTAURANTS

Blu Halo: Popular desserts at the upmarket restaurant include flavored nitrogen ice creams. The chilling temperature of nitrogen renders ice cream velvety and rich. Other signature treats are blueberry cheesecake with Kahlúa chocolate sauce and Nutella soufflé or splurge or a dessert cocktail. 3431 Bannerman Rd.; 850-999-1696.

Cypress Restaurant: Pastry chef Maria Mosca and executive chef/owner David Gwynn create a changing menu of gourmet desserts. Highlights include a decadent flourless chocolate cake with chocolate ganache; a bread pudding made of cornbread infused with maple syrup and topped with bourbon ice cream; and chai crème brûlée. The menu also features house-made ice creams and sorbets (including vegan and gluten-free). 320 E. Tennessee St.; 850-513-1100.

Food Glorious Food: Fans rave about the three-layer, sinfully rich “Perfect Chocolate Cake” but other favorite desserts at Food Glorious Food include Key lime pound cake and baklava cheesecake. 1950 Thomasville Rd.; 850-224-9974.

Habana’s Boardwalk: Savor Cuban desserts like flan (caramelized vanilla custard), tres leches (vanilla cake soaked with three milks), churros con helado (fried dough and ice cream topped with cinnamon sugar) and guava and cream cheese empanada at this homey restaurant. 2819 Mahan Dr.; 850-391-9111.

– Kool Beanz

Kool Beanz: Pastry chef Sylvia Gould is known for her imaginative desserts on a constantly changing menu. Her specialties include toasted coconut cream meringue cake, blueberry fig crostata and Thai basil panna cotta. 921 Thomasville Rd.; 850-224-2466.

The Melting Pot: Fondue lovers head to The Melting Pot for this chocolate treat (with several liqueur options for added decadence), served with numerous toppings including fruit and more chocolate. 2727 N Monroe St.; 850-386-7440.

Miccosukee Root Cellar: Owner Ruben Fields presents a menu of locally-sourced foods, much of it organic, and that includes dessert. Summer favorites feature a chocolate terrine with Thai basil ice cream, bay leaf pound cake with a strawberry lavender compote, and a pecan pie made with nuts from KBH Farms. Try house-made ice cream flavors like strawberry balsamic, Turkey Hill Farm sugar cane syrup ice cream and buttermilk crème fraîche. 1311 Miccosukee Rd.; 850-597-7419.

– 319 Wine & Cheese Shoppe

319 Wine & Cheese: This local cafe, owned by Bill and Lynne Edwards, features house-made cannoli, triple layer chocolate merlot cake, blueberry tarts, apple caramel bread pudding with ice cream and lots more. 6265 Old Water Oak Rd.; 850-765-7053.

DELIVERIES

Dipped:  If you’re craving chocolate-covered strawberries (and who doesn’t?), this place delivers. Cheesecake and other gourmet treats, including S’more truffles, Belgian waffles and bacon, delivered until 3 a.m. (call to check their delivery area). 2401 Pensacola St.; 850-296-7489.

Insomnia Cookies: Insomnia delivers cookies, ice cream and milk to fans anywhere within three miles of its Tennessee Street location to 3 a.m. 1525 W. Tennessee St.; 877-632-6654.

Z Baked: Find cookies and muffins as well as some comfort food, which you can pick up or get delivered (if you’re in their coverage area). Order online at zbaked.com. 2401 W. Pensacola St., 850-391-2206.

 

The Path to Dao

Dao, in the Chinese culture, means “way” or “path.” The path to the new Dao Restaurant in the Bannerman Crossings Shopping Center has its own special significance in Tallahassee, beginning decades ago, with local icon and entrepreneur Lucy Ho.

A pioneer of Chinese restaurants in Tallahassee, she opened her first venue, Lucy Ho’s Bamboo Garden, in 1970 and later launched Masa and Azu. Ho has retired, but her vision continues with Masa Nagashima, general manager of her restaurants for nearly 40 years, and Kenny Fan, the nephew of her late husband, who was a kitchen manager at Azu.

Nagashima, who is of Japanese heritage, and Fan, who is Taiwanese, are now both co-owners of Azu, on Apalachee Parkway, and Dao, which opened April 13 in the upscale Bannerman Crossings center.

If you’re a fan of Azu, you’ll be happy to have this outpost of the pan-Asian restaurant in the Northeast. The menu is the same as Azu’s except that some dishes are $1 or $2 more.


The setting
The setting is contemporary, desirable for a date night yet casual enough to bring the family. It’s spacious, with room for 209, but there’s warmth here, with lots of wood and subtle hues. Seating mixes tables and comfortable booths and there’s outdoor dining. Of special interest are the elegant displays of teapots from Taiwan. Dao has a room for private parties seating up to 24.


Dig In
Like many Asian restaurants, Dao has a huge menu so after two visits we’ve still only sampled a small portion of the choices available here. The restaurant offers plenty of appetizers, soups and salads if you just want to graze plus hot entrees and sushi, aiming to do justice to three cuisines — Chinese, Thai and Japanese.

As for starters, our four pan-seared pork dumplings (you can also order them steamed) were delicious, pan-fried to a golden brown, totally binge-worthy. We also liked the plate-size scallion pancake, crisp on the outside, chewy inside, pan-fired, and served with a dipping sauce of rich coconut curry. The fried oysters were coated with a light panko crust, and while not the best we’ve had, were tasty.

One of our favorite dishes at Dao was the coconut chicken curry, my husband’s go-to choice at most Thai restaurants. He was happy with Dao’s rendition, brimming with pieces of white chicken, green and red bell peppers and bamboo shoots in a lush sauce with a slight kick. All dishes come with steamed or fried rice.

Our friend raved about her Peking duck (she chose a half order), a generous serving of succulent, thinly sliced meat served alongside pieces of mouthwatering, crisp skin. You can slice open the accompanying doughy lotus pancakes and make a sandwich with the duck, skin and green onions.

The grouper filet was outstanding, a large piece of fish lightly breaded and fried, topped with bits of mapo tofu, a mix of ground pork and tofu in a perky sauce. On the side was perfectly cooked broccoli.

If you like beef, the shiitake steak was an eight-ounce rib-eye, which we ordered medium rare. The meat was tender, served with lots of shiitake and white button mushrooms in a soy-based sauce, and broccoli. It was much better than the beef tenderloin we ordered on our second visit to Dao. That tenderloin was overcooked and chewy — the saving grace was an array of just-firm sweet bell peppers, zucchini and mangoes.

Azu fans will also be happy to find Chinese classics like the salt-and-pepper soft shell crab, soy ginger cod, General Tso’s chicken, stir-fried eggplant, and Taiwanese-style rice noodles at Dao.

The menu offers six Japanese dinners, including teriyaki, tempura and panko-fried cutlets, which come with soup and salad. A friend ordered grilled chicken teriyaki, with green beans and some greenery (so you essentially get two salads). The chicken was moist and tender but it could have used a little more punch.

Dao has an extensive selection of sushi and sashimi, including dinners and a la carte choices, nigiri (leel, quail eggs with smelt roe, flying fish or squid), hand rolls (seaweed outside) and a list of more than three dozen rolls, including veggie rolls and picks such as the Philadelphia with smoked salmon, cream cheese and scallions, and the Dragon Fly, with eel, cream cheese, avocado, tuna, with eel and kimchi sauces.

We skipped the more elaborate combos and opted for the simple spicy tuna roll and the shrimp tempura, with a piece of the fried shellfish poking out of a roll with mayo and a spring mix, both standards done very well here.

We didn’t have dessert but Dao offers several choices, including ice cream, sesame balls, crème brûlée, fried cheesecake, and “Peanut Butter Explosion.”

Service
Servers are young, friendly and helpful. When we took home leftovers, we were given a new carton of rice, a nice touch.

The bar
Dao has a full bar, plus bottled and draft beer (including Japanese beers Sapporo and Kirin), a small but varied wine list and hot and cold sake.

Bottom line
We found mostly hits and a few misses at Dao, but overall it’s a pleasant dining experience with reasonable prices and a welcoming atmosphere.


When you go …
Dao
3425 Bannerman Rd., Unit A102, Tallahassee.
850-999-1482

Cost
Starters $2.50 to $15, entrees $9 to $22 ($40 for a whole Peking duck), rolls $4 to $16, sushi and sashimi dinners $18 to $28, dessert $4 to $7.50.

Hours
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday to Thursday.

Reservations
Accepted.

Tallahassee Table Rating
Worth a Drive

Rochelle Koff writes about food and dining at TallahasseeTable.com, and on Facebook, @TheTallahasseeTable and Twitter @tallytable. Reach her at TallahasseeTable@gmail.com.