Category Archives: Reviews

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Georgio’s Fine Food & Spirits

With so many new restaurants popping up in Tallahassee, it’s easy to overlook the city’s dining institutions. But there are plenty of venerable, tried-and-true choices still worth their turn in the spotlight. Georgio’s Fine Food & Spirits on Apalachee Parkway is one of them.

Its continued appeal is largely due to the man at the helm — owner  Georgio Koikos, who has been in the restaurant business 50 years. When you’ve been successful this long, you have to be doing something right. And Koikos, 82, has been doing many things right since he left his home in Athens, Greece in 1966 and came to Tallahassee.

If Koikos is in the house, and he usually is, expect him to visit your table during your meal to say hello. You might say that Georgio’s has an “old-school” approach to fine dining, with a focus on quality, exemplary service and attention to detail. The restaurant “stays true to its roots,” said Leni Spears, the general manager and Georgio’s daughter.

The setting
When Koikos got to Tallahassee in the mid-60s, he worked at his brother JImmy’s restaurant. Within a few years, he opened his own place, Spartan Restaurant & Caucus Rooms, at the Duval Hotel. Some might also remember the Brothers Three, owned by Georgio and siblings Jimmy and Pete.

Koikos opened Georgio’s in the Carriage Gate shopping center on Thomasville Road in 1994, but closed it in 2013. In the meantime, Georgio and wife Karen Koikos had opened a second restaurant called Torreya Grill on Apalachee Parkway in 2002. The name was later changed to Georgio’s, too.

On a recent visit to the restaurant, our party of eight was seated in one of the restaurant’s two semi-private rooms, a comfortable space that lent itself to easy conversation. Georgio’s also has two private rooms and a covered veranda. The main dining room is filled with large, intimate booths.

Some might term the decor at the Apalachee location as comfortable, if dated, with flowered upholstery cushions, dark wood interior and black-and-white photos. But you’ll find fans who wouldn’t change a thing.

Dig In
Just about everything at Georgio’s is made in-house, from dressings to desserts. Chef Grant Beane has been preparing steaks, seafood, Mediterranean and Greek classics for more than 20 years. Italian baker Steve Cucinella makes the bread. No shortcuts, Spears said.

The extensive menu covers a lot of territory, much of it melding Gulf seafood with Greek flavors. So many tempting dishes, starting with choices like escargot, stone crab claws (in season) grouper cheeks or Greek-style tenderloin tips.

For a bit of theater, we ordered an appetizer of saganaki from the list of chef’s specials. Kasseri cheese was flambéed at the table with a splash of brandy, sparking the requisite oohs and aahs. A squirt of lemon juice extinguises the flame and adds a bright citrusy flavor. The warm cheese is then easy to slather over the accompanying grilled pita.

We also shared a generous Greek platter with eggplant moussaka, spanakopita (spinach pie) and dolmathes — ground beef, rice and spices wrapped in grape leaves and finished with a lemony sauce. It was all served with a Greek salad, rice and carrots.

Entrees come with soup or a house salad. My traditional Greek avgolemono soup, an egg-based rendition, was rich and creamy with chicken and a bit of lime — homey. You can pay an extra $3 and upgrade to a specialty soup like a seafood bouillabaisse.

We did pay $3 for a salad upgrade. Our refreshing array of greens was topped with roasted pecans, sliced strawberries, cucumber and feta, drizzled with a perky balsamic vinaigrette.

Georgio’s is known for its seafood, like black grouper prepared Greek style with lots of olive oil and lemon, or snapper garnished with jumbo shrimp and a cilantro lime sauce.

Fishermen rave that fried grouper throats are a delicacy, one I’ve never had, so they were a must-try at Georgio’s. You have to work a little to dig out the meat but it was rich and juicy. Snapper throats are also available. The dishes come with golden brown hush puppies, Brussels sprouts, rice and carrots.

Georgio’s also specializes in hand-cut steaks and lamb, both winners at our table. The New York strip was grilled perfectly to medium rare, crusted with cracked peppercorns while the ultra tender garlic-stuffed filet mignon was served atop sweet red onion confit.

If you’re looking for a lighter, less-expensive dish, try a pita topped with beef tips, chicken or, our choice, a generous amount of fried shrimp, light and crisp, festooned with lettuce, tomato, feta and tzatziki sauce.

Desserts include sinfully rich orange chocolate torte (with grand marnier), baklava cheesecake, with layers of the airy puff pastry, lots of pecans and cinnamon and a special of frozen Bavarian chocolate mousse with mascarpone Greek yogurt cream, served in a hard chocolate bowl and with a garnish of strawberry coulis. A sweet ending indeed.

Bar
There’s a lengthy wine and beer list but we decided on cocktails, including a delightful gin blossom and a summery strawberry Sangria, one of the best we’ve had, brimming with fresh mint grown at the restaurant.

Service
Excellent. Commitment is a trait Georgio has passed on to his daughter, Leni .Our server,Torrey, clearly knew his stuff, easily managing our party of eight with efficiency and charm. If he didn’t know something he found out.

Prices
Starters $8 to $14; salads $12 to $14; entrees $21 to $48; sandwiches $12 to $14; sides $3 to $8; kids’ meals $7 to $12; desserts $6.50-$8.

Bottom Line
Georgio’s is often considered a special-occasion restaurant. It’s not cheap, but it does offer special qualities — and generous portions — if you want a fine meal with excellent service.

Tallahassee Table Rating
Worth a Drive

When you go …
Georgio’s Fine Food & Spirits
2971 Apalachee Pkwy., Tallahassee
850-877-3211

Hours:
4 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

Reservations:
Suggested.

 

 

 

 

It All Adds Up at Table 23

Table 23 has one of the most enviable locations in Tallahassee. It’s set in a historic home in the heart of Midtown, nestled under shady oaks and blessed with a sprawling wraparound porch that exudes Southern charm.

Rustic but gussied up with crystal chandeliers, cherry-red curtains and twinkly white lights, Table 23 can provide the backdrop for a casual evening with friends or that special date night. Bring the family to Sunday brunch or join your coworkers for happy hour.

To add to its many assets, owners Joe and Mandy Lemons have recently added lunch. Expect it to be a beacon for visitors when the legislative session begins in March.

The Setting
Dining outdoors is fun but the porch can get loud and crowded on weekends. For a quieter meal, you may prefer dining indoors. The upstairs dining room can be used for groups (make a reservation) or private events.

The building was built in the 1920s and owned by Fred Carroll, who delivered ice before refrigeration. In later years, it became the restaurant Chez Pierre, followed by the Front Porch, which closed after a fire in the summer of 2015.

Eight months ago, the Lemons opened Table 23, and that “23” isn’t as random as it sounds.

Joe got a job with the Bloomin’ Brands restaurant chain at age 23. He would later marry waitress Mandy when she was 23. Joe worked for the chain for 23 years (most recently as managing partner at Tallahassee’s Bonefish Grill). And Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) is Mandy’s favorite Bible passage. It all fit.

Dig In
The Lemons have a team of four chefs who prepare a straightforward menu with a creative, Southern twist.

Starters include pecan-crusted okra, sweet potato hummus, smoked mullet croquetas and a decadent-sounding “Southern Slate,” with candied bacon, deviled eggs, Pimento cheese and other rich treats.

Oysters are available chargrilled and fried, but we opted for a dozen raw. These delicious orbs were from the Panacea Oyster Co-Op, which is cultivating hand-raised oysters in the region. We could have easily slurped a dozen more.

As for salads, our server recommended a medley of pickled beets, field greens, candied pecans, blue cheese and a crisp garnish of skinny tobacco onions, finished with a dressing of beet juice and vinaigrette. Refreshing.

Entrees are limited to seven or so choices plus specials and more casual items like burgers and sandwiches.

My husband and daughter liked Table 23’s version of shrimp and grits, with lots of shrimp, arugula, mushrooms and a rich bacon-tomato gravy served over smoked Gouda cheese grits. Not exactly a diet plate but mighty fine eating.

One of our favorite dishes was the grouper, a plump six-ounce portion with a generous topping of delectable shrimp and blue crab stuffing, served with a creamy bourbon and thyme-infused corn, so good you’ll want to lick the plate.

We weren’t thrilled with a side of truffled Tater Tots, however. They were the typical fried potato bites with a barely discernible truffle flavor.

On another visit, we decided to share dishes in order to sample more of the menu. The challenge was that two of us wanted the rib-eye (which has a Lucky Goat coffee rub) prepared medium, and two of us wanted it rare. Our congenial server listened to our dilemma and we were pleasantly surprised when she brought us two different portions to share, each half of the steak cooked with our preferred temperatures, plated with an equal amount of asparagus and thinly sliced potatoes. Impressive.

We also shared juicy, pecan-crusted chicken, honey-brined and roasted to golden brown perfection. It’s served with a hash of chopped sweet potatoes, asparagus and Tasso ham.

Dessert choices include a gluten-free brownie, pecan pie or banana pudding, parfait style, with vanilla wafers. For a lighter ending, try the house-made ice cream or sorbet (choices change). The whiskey sour sorbet has the right balance of boozy and tart flavors and our white chocolate raspberry ice cream was scrumptious, Each dessert was served with a chocolate chip cookie. An interesting, and pleasing, new combo for us.

For lunch, Table 23 offers burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads and some main dishes like fried catfish or pork chops.

From the smoked brisket on challah to the hearty gumbo to the Southern “Rueben” with corned beef and collard greens (more Birmingham than Brooklyn), there’s a lot to like.

Bar
Linger over Southern-style cocktails like the popular Mason Punch made with sparkling wine, or a Hibiscus Julep. Proof beers are on tap, along with several other beer and wine choices (with nearly two dozen by the glass).

Service
Servers were top-notch, keeping the meal well-paced yet warm and welcoming, extremely helpful.

Prices
For dinner, starters and small plates are $8 to $18; salads $8; main dishes $18 to $34; “handhelds” (sandwiches and burgers) $10 to $14; sides $3 to $6; desserts $5 to $8.

Bottom line
Open eight months, Table 23 is already a major player in Tallahassee. It has the location, food and service worthy of a prime dining destination.

Tallahassee Table Rating
Worth the Drive

When you go …
Table 23
1215 Thomasville Rd.
850-329-2261

Hours:
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Live music 6:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday nights.

Reservations accepted.

 

 

 

 

Backwoods Crossing

If you’re dining at Backwoods Crossing and the chef suddenly runs out the door, don’t be alarmed.

He may be fleeing the kitchen to fetch fresh Flamingo Pink Swiss chard, dragon carrots or perhaps the Devil’s Ear lettuce grown in the garden surrounding the restaurant. Or there might be a pressing need for purple Midnight Dreams bell peppers, deep orange Turkish eggplants or fresh eggs.

“We want to grow special items, not something you’re going to buy at Publix,” said Backwoods Crossing chef Jesse Rice, who owns the restaurant with his brother, Tyler.

But there’s also plenty of familiar food grown here. Broccoli, brussels sprouts and shiitake mushrooms are among the 30 or so winter vegetables and herbs that could wind up on your plate. In the summer, when the number of varied crops will more than double, there’s even more green goodness.

Some restaurants may embellish their farm-to-table boasts, but diners only have to walk outside to see the crops sprouting at Backwoods Crossing.  But that’s not the only reason to dine here. The food is delicious and creative, a special experience in Tallahassee.

The Setting

Jesse, 31, and Tyler, 29, spent months transforming a building that was once Stinky’s Fish Camp into Backwoods Crossing and opened

– Backwoods Crossing

for business May 30. Jesse also owns Backwoods Bistro on Tennessee Street with his longtime friend, Taylor Harrell.

Backwoods Crossing is very different from its cousin. It has the folksy feel of a farmhouse, with an indoor porch and gleaming pine floors. The brothers turned crepe myrtle branches into lovely accents, displaying garden equipment and colorful pictures of vegetables. When the weather cooperates, diners can also eat outside in the garden.

The brothers grow crops on three of their four acres but they now have a full-time gardener, and aim to keep planting.

Step inside and you’ll see the “growing room” where tiny seedlings take root. These seedlings later move to the greenhouse, then the garden (tomato plants flourished in the greenhouse all winter).

Backwoods Crossing doesn’t have an official organic certification but Jesse said natural methods are used: no pesticides. Their kitty, Athena, helps keep bothersome critters away.

Aside from crops, the Rice brothers have a rooster and 73 chickens, which will produce about 18,000 eggs a year, used in the restaurant or for sale to take home. Soon, Backwoods Crossing will be raising quail for eggs and meat.

Dig in

Backwoods Crossing can’t grow all its own food, so the place also uses ingredients from local and regional farms as well as typical food distributors.

One menu offers a broad selection of dishes, including steak, seafood and duck, from varied sources. A separate sheet called Garden Creations features about nine or 10 starters and entrees that change weekly. Each of these dishes features at least one to three items grown in the Backwoods Crossing garden.

This looks like a fun choice: A $50 sampler of six small plates for sharing. Allow 30 minutes for Jesse and his cooks to create dishes on the fly, using what’s in the garden. It’s on our list to try on  one of our visits here. My husband and I like the  make-your-own salad, checking off choices for lettuce, vegetables, protein, toppings and dressing. A few items (like nuts, cheese and meats, marked with an asterisk), aren’t grown on site. The cost depends the types and number of the ingredients you choose. (A lettuce is $5, vegetables $1 each, for instance).

Our salad included a blend of lettuces grown on site: butter crunch, merlot and Devil’s Ear, which despite its name, has a heavenly, nutty taste. We added yellow and purple dragon carrots, beets and mushrooms, garnished with orange segments. The salad was fresh and refreshing, altogether memorable. We couldn’t resist the rich blue cheese dressing (which we got on the side) — all dressings but the Caesar are house-made.

Another hit: glistening slivers of raw scallops in a carpaccio with a citrusy zing. The mollusks are layered with rings of green bell peppers plus chopped tomatoes and greens — the produce from the garden — topped with a faux caviar. I got the dish by mistake. I had actually ordered a different scallop dish — but it was a fortuitous mix-up.

Also good: the pork slider with slow-cooked collard greens. A friend and I thought the barbecue sauce was a bit sweet but liked the meat. The restaurant gets whole hogs from the Great Southern Forestry in Monticello. I prefer the steak sliders on the regular menu, with two juicy tenderloin patties garnished with crisp wisps of fried onions, arugula and a blueberry-jalapeño reduction, which sounds like an odd combo but it works. The light sauce has a mild fruity taste and a slight kick. Most dishes include a side salad, with greens from outside sources.

The kitchen nails old-time corn fritters, made with corn off the cob. One of my favorite dishes combines the addictive corn fritter with two crab cakes in a stack with sliced avocado, tomatoes and a drizzle of house-made remoulade sauce. It’s downright decadent, — and delicious.

Even more decadent: the desserts. I’ve sampled the bread pudding (with a caramel reduction), sweet potato casserole (it tastes like Thanksgiving) and cinnamon-scented apple crumble (with Bourbon-glazed Granny Smith apples). All house-made. All worth the splurge.

Bar
There’s a full bar with creative cocktails and a range of beers and wines. Happy diners can “Hydrate the Kitchen,” which means buying a round of suds for the cooks. They’ll hoot and holler their thanks.

Service
On one packed Saturday night, service was slow and disorganized. On two other visits, the staff was attentive, efficient and welcoming. The young servers were helpful in explaining ingredients and making suggestions.

Prices
Starters $8 to $12; soups and salads $6 to $13; sandwiches $9 to $12; entrees $17 to $27; desserts $5 to $8.

Bottom line
This place is truly down-to-earth. We love its fresh fare, creativity, homey atmosphere and farm concept.  Jesse Rice says “the sky’s the limit” for the restaurant. We agree.

Tallahassee Table Rating
Worth the Drive

When you go …
Backwoods Crossing
6725 Mahan Dr., Tallahassee
850-765-3753
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Live music 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday nights. Happy hour 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays.
Reservations: For six or more.

 

 

Benvenuti to Centrale

Students looking for a trendy, more upscale restaurant in College Town will like the new Centrale Italian Parlour. Here’s the twist: So will you.

Sure, there’s pizza on the menu, but diners will also find less typical items such as a charcuterie board, a porchetta (pork) plate, orichette pasta and blackberry-olive oil cake.

Centrale has crafted a fun setting to please its young patrons while making it classy enough to draw other generations. The space, which formally opened Oct. 7, is a sibling to the adjacent Madison Social and both are run by the group For the Table Hospitality, which has centralebar1the entertainment market cornered on the street. It also operates the Social Catering service, The Gathering private event space above Madison Social and the upcoming Township German pub opening across the street in a few weeks.

Centrale serves lunch and dinner and you can grab a pie until closing. Order pizza from the counter window on Friday and Saturday until 3 a.m.

The Setting

On our Saturday night visit, about a dozen well-dressed young women were celebrating a birthday at the restaurant’s wine bar or  “Somm,” short for sommelier. The restaurant’s general manager, Jeremy Fowler, who is a certified sommelier, was smoothly moving
from one end of the narrow bar to the other, ensuring the wine was flowing as breezily as the girls’ giggles. This bar subs as a community table when it’s not reserved and the place is packed. There’s a larger, second bar at the front.

The restaurant has an open, retro look with black-and-white decor centraleinterior2and old-school tile floors. It can get a little loud, but remember, you’re in Millennial territory. Garage doors open to the outdoors. Centrale has patio seating with accents of flowy white curtains.

Dig In

Centrale doesn’t have a large menu but it’s interesting and affordable, even on a student budget. The most expensive items are two $21 large pizzas, each big enough to share.

Your dinner starts with a small, complimentary bite. On our visit it centraleappetizer2was four slices of focaccia with ricotta, both the bread and cheese house-made, finished with a swirl of basil oil. Nice.

Our table shared a delicious starter of arancini, seven golf ball-size balls of risotto, breaded and fried. Even better: Dip into the homey marinara centralerisottoballscentralechickpeafriessauce.

Well-seasoned chickpea fries are good and crunchy, served with a savory pumpkin ketchup dipping sauce with a hint of cinnamon. Flavorful, and my husband scarfed them up, though I confess to craving good old-fashioned French-fried potatoes.

Centrale’s chopped salad comes in two sizes ($9 and $12). We opted for the larger version for two to share, and it was terrific, a refreshing medley of radicchio, soppressata, provolone, avocado and caramelized onions drizzled with a rich buttermilk-herb dressing that adds a subtle tang.

Another favorite: the panko-crusted chicken Parmesan, which features tender white-meat cutlets stuffed with a thin layer of mozzarella, and lightly fried to a golden brown and finished with marinara. The chicken was a hit, but a bit lonely on the plate. We ordered a bowl of spaghetti for $5 extra but Centrale should centralechickenparm1consider adding it as part of the dish. Other a la carte sides include charred broccoli and crispy marbled potatoes.

Pasta dishes are generous portions, including our serving of orecchiette. The pasta, which gets its name for its ear shape, was tossed with perfectly cooked shrimp, the whole affair in a garlicky basil pesto centraleshrimpsauce spiked with a bit of serrano peppers to give the dish a slight kick.

Cacio and pepe, meaning cheese and pepper, is a traditional, minimalist dish from Rome. This is indeed a simple serving of pasta with Parmesan Romano and fresh pepper, centralecasioypepeserved in a bowl made of Parmesan cheese. The pasta was quite good but the bowl could have been crisper. You can ask to sub gluten-free pasta.

Centrale serves four brick-oven pizzas at small (12 by 12 inches) and large (12 by 18) sizes. We were in the mood for the basic Old School Square pie with pork sausage ($4 extra). The crust was crisp on the outside, soft and chewy inside, centralepizzanicely browned. But there are other more intriguing options. You can get toppings of pork and cracklins, a pie with Calabrian chile peppers and Italian meats or the NY Salad Pie, with a topping of romaine and arugula, red onions, cherry tomatoes, Parmesan and mozzarella.

The blackberry-olive oil cake was tempting for dessert but we couldn’t resist the roasted hazelnut and banana tiramisu with lady fingers, a big square that’s rich and creamy and oh so Italian.

Service

Friendly, attentive youthful staff. A pitcher of water is set on the table but the servers still checked to ensure our glasses were full.

The bar

Centrale serves cocktails and beer, but specializes in wine, with 35 selections by draft, the glass or bottle. Varietals on tap include a centraleexterior1
pinot noir, malbec, rose and sauvignon blanc. The restaurant’s version of Happy Hour is called “Benvenuti” (meaning Welcome) with discounts and pizzas served each hour. Drink discounts are also offered during a late-night happy hour.

When you go…
Centrale Italian Parlour
815 W. Madison St.
850-765-6799

Cost
Starters and salads $5 to $10; pizza $12 to $14 small, $18 to $21 large; pasta and main dishes $12 to $16; sides $3 to $6; desserts $6 to $8.

Hours
Monday to Friday: lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner 4 to 10 p.m., happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., pizza from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday: brunch 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., dinner 4 to 11 p.m., pizza 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Bottom line

Centrale Italian Parlour is a fun venue that works for all generations. It will likely be a place students will want to bring a date, or even their parents, for a good Italian meal without driving across town.

Tallahassee Table Rating

Worth the Drive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blu Halo: A Heavenly Addition

By now, you’ve probably heard the hype about the swanky new Blu Halo in the Bannerman Crossings Shopping Center.

After three visits, we can tell you that, yes, they do serve a $200 bluhalotableflower
martini made with a rare gin. Yes, there’s a $98 steak (for two). And yes, this place is superb, a boon to the dining scene in Tallahassee.

Blu Halo is the dream of owner Keith Paniucki, a Tallahassee native who envisioned the $1.5 million project as a game changer, with food, service and surroundings most often found in bigger cities.

It’s certainly easy to fork over a small fortune for dinner here, but you don’t have to empty your wallet. Six of the 11 entrees on the menu are under $25. And there are dishes hearty enough to feed two. Or even more.

So far, we’re impressed. The food is terrific, the decor sophisticated and the service excellent.

The Setting
Tallahassee designer Catherine D. Baker has created a fetching space with upmarket features, from the fine cutlery to chic blutable1furnishings. Walls showcase abstract pieces by local artist Liz Frisbie, with cabinets made by her husband, Ken. The place is open and cheerful, decorated in hues of shimmery blue, black, slate and white — highly contemporary but hardly sterile.

The venue can seat 210 at tables encircling the round bar, the restaurant’s centerpiece. Overhead, there’s a neon ring or halo, though no one’s expecting angelic behavior.

Blu Halo also features a private room with space for 20, and patio seating for 40.

The place is packed on weekends, drawing a cross-generational crowd. It’s clearly a siren to discerning residents in nearby and upscale subdivisions.

The restaurant reflects Paniucki’s lofty goals, realized with the help of his business partners  Lisa and Jimmy Graganella and Rick Kearney,

Dig In

Blu Halo showcases the creativity of chef Tyler McMahan, who bluhalochefelevates even traditional fare without over-saucing or piling on ingredients.

Starting next week, servers will bring a basket of warm bread to your table, but don’t fill up. There are too many dishes you’ll want to try, starting with an appetizer of ahi tuna poke.

McMahan’s rendition of the popular Hawaiian dish is addictive. Raw tuna, cut into small cubes, is tossed in a flavorful ponzu sauce with a splash of lime, fragrant of ginger and sesame oil, garnished with capers and sesame seeds. The glistening fish is layered atop lush guacamole and finished bluhalotuna3with tiny edible flowers and a tuft of micro fiesta greens, propped up with fried tortilla strips. Scoop it up with house-made, crisp wonton chips. We savored every bite.

Starters of fried oysters, chicken lollipops and pork belly sliders are tempting but we couldn’t resist the crab and corn bisque. The concoction featured charred sweet corn, lump crabmeat, cream and a dose of sherry, unusually well balanced, each flavor distinctive, none outshining the bluhalocrabcornbisque1others. The soup was garnished with miniature corn shoots, nice on the eye and tasting like spring. (The shoots are grown at The Best Little Greens in Havana.)

A sherry truffle vinaigrette dressing perked up the spinach salad, already bright with blueberries, sliced strawberries, and anchored with bits of Applewood bacon, red onions, spiced pecans, heirloom grape tomatoes and a scattering of goat cheese. On the side, a sliced hard-boiled egg pickled in beet juice sports a pretty pink ring.

Steak dominates the menu, with choices ranging from a $19, eight-to-10-ounce wet-aged top sirloin, to the $98, 40-ounce, dry-aged, bone-in rib eye for two. We passed up optional toppings like bleu cheese, lump crab meat or lobster tail ($4 to $15).

We figured a place that offers a steak called “Boss” for just shy of $100 might also manage to make a $19 sirloin worthy as well. We bluhaloboss2were right. Medium-rare, topped with garlic herb butter and a sprig of rosemary is a very good place to start. We added a side of earthy braised mushrooms.

The most expensive choices are dry-aged. (Wet-aged steaks are cured in vacuum-sealed plastic; dry-aged steaks are hung in open air at a temperature just above freezing and aged for 60 days, a process that makes the meat very tender even if a lot has to be trimmed away.)

My husband and I don’t eat much red meat, but on another visit, we had to try the Boss. We put aside our carnivore guilt and dug into this gigantic hunk of a ribeye, with a long bone protruding bladelike from the meat. It was indeed marvelous, charred on the outside, a bluhalotogorosy pink inside, well-marbled, buttery tender with that rich beefy taste that works as well with a martini (Plymouth, on the rocks with olives) as it does a glass of red wine (a medium-bodied Spanish Tempranillo).

The $98 price tag for the Boss is a big splurge for those of us who aren’t on an expense account, but easier to swallow when you consider it comes with two sides (each, $7 to $16) while the “Chief,” a 22-ounce, bone-in rib eye for $49, does not.

For our sides, we picked a Southern-style serving of grilled cream corn, shaved from the cob, rich and sweet and savory all at once, and the vegetable of the day, a fall-fresh mix of chili-roasted butternut squash and pumpkin.

My husband and I took about half the steak home, gave our
overjoyed dog the bone and enjoyed the rest of the ribeye the next evening.

You can skip steak and savor a generous, and terrific, half chicken bluhalochickeninstead. It’s brined in sweet tea for 24 hours, roasted with rosemary and then sautéed in a port wine and cream demi-glace with baby zucchini, pattypan squash and a mix of button and shiitake mushrooms. Pea shoots add a colorful accent. Nicely done!

The menu is still evolving with McMahan, an avid fisherman, offering more intriguing seafood and fish specials to supplement menu standards like Chilean sea bass and crab cakes.

McMahan, most recently executive chef at Jackacuda’s Seafood & Sushi in Destin, plans to use a Gulf fish tracking system that will enable customers to scan with their cellphone where the fish was caught and by which boat. Talk about knowing where your food comes from.

A seafood tower, offered only on Friday and Saturday, is an over-the-top affair suited for big groups or hungry high rollers. It features two eight-ounce lobster tails, a pound of shrimp, King crab and occasionally oysters. Stone crabs will be added when in season. We ditched that option when we heard the market price — $120. We’re hoping that Blu Halo offers a second, smaller version at a lower cost.

For dessert, the nitro ice cream was a sweet surprise. On our visit, the choice was Key lime, with bits of still-crisp graham crackers, bluhalonitrokeylime2served in a folksy canning jar. Sounds gimmicky but the nitrogen’s chilling temperature leaves the confection velvety and rich.

We’d also recommend the brunch, with benedicts, omelets and shrimp and grits (from local Bumpy Road Farm) with red-eye gravy made with actual and local Red Eye coffee. They also do a fine Bloody Mary (with shrimp!) and watermelon fresca made with champagne.

Service

Service is exemplary, with practically an army of attentive young staff who make you feel welcome without hovering. Paniucki, who bluhaloshrimpgrits1 also owns the local audio visual company Signal House, sets the tone for vigilance.  He lends a hand washing glasses at the bar, busing tables, helping in the kitchen.

The Bar

Of all the gins in the world, this joint picked Nolet’s Reserve to sit in a place of honor at the center of the bar. The bartender called the gin bluhalonoletstrio“fruit forward,” with bouquets of saffron and verbena. Blu Halo has one of only 10 bottles in the state. A martini made with the gin is $200, a shot is $89. It’s from the same folks who do Ketel Vodka.

My husband wanted to try the gin but didn’t want to spring for $89, much less a martini for $200. The bartender, Terry Logue,  offered a taste, about a spoonful, for $12. My husband waxed on about astringency and floral scents and mouthfeel, but in the end said he preferred the much-less-expensive Plymouth, a not-too-shabby gin that’s been around for hundreds of years.

Other drinks include craft beer, alcohol ice cream treats and smoky bluwinenitrogen martinis. Happy hour offers food and drink discounts.

The wine list is extensive, categorized by countries, with plenty of choices by the glass. You can rent a wine locker for $300, which will get you a 15 percent discount on your wine purchases. Call ahead and your bottle will be ready at bluhalojimbolockeryour table. Very VIP.

Bottom line

Blu Halo is only open a few weeks, but it already has the polish and cuisine to be a first-class destination in Tallahassee. Make your reservations now.

When you go…
Blue Halo
3431 Bannerman Road, #2
Tallahassee, 32312
850.792.7884

Cost

Starters, soups and salads $8-$18, entrees $18-$98, sides $7-$16, dessert $6-$8, brunch $8-$16.

Hours

4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4-midnight Friday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. brunch Saturday-Sunday. Happy Hour 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Reservations

Strongly recommended on weekends

Tallahassee Table Rating

One of the best

 

CHRISTOFF’S BISTRO & WINE

Two of our favorite foods are pork chops and crab cakes.

My husband and I have become wary of ordering them, though, because too often, we’re disappointed with pig that’s uninspired and tough, with crustacean bland and watery.

Not so at Christoff’s Bistro & Wine Bar, open since May 27 on Market Street. The bistro scored wins on both counts, and more.

My husband is always in search of that divine, crusted chop bursting
with homey flavor, a reminder of his Southern roots. This one at christoffwinesignChristoff’s may have lacked crust, but that became insignificant to the beautiful grill marks, the buttery glaze, and a chef who clearly respected this hefty hunk of meat, serving it up just south of pink and almost fork tender. The mashed potatoes that formed a base for the chop were the perfect complement.

And these crab cakes, two of them, topped with a tart fried green tomato, had seasonings aplenty and remoulade on the side, but christoffcrabcakesnothing that overwhelmed the taste of the sweet seafood, served in generous portion. It came just-browned for that perfect combo of crunch and soft.

There’s lots more to impress at Christoff’s. Outside, it appears just a storefront in a strip mall but inside is a different story.

The dining room, which seats about 50, is gussied up with christofflight2chandeliers and inventive lighting, vintage windows, faux brick, lots of reclaimed wood and a fantastic antique oak bar. There’s a comfy back room with couches that works well for small groups or an overflow crowd on a busy night.

Christoff’s is a cousin to Midtown’s Wine Loft. Both are owned by christoffowner2Jamie Christoff, but each has its own distinct vibe. While the Loft has a clubby urban edge, Christoff’s has a vintage charm and a more chill bar scene. It’s casual with more than a touch of class.

The chef is Christopher Ellis, an experienced cook who had been second in command in the kitchen. The Tallahassee native took over the top spot after original chef C.J. Reilly left about a month ago.

Christoff’s culinary concept is “Southern-influenced regional christoffchefscuisine.” The menu is limited, with some specials, but we’re OK with that. We’d rather see a kitchen turn out a dozen quality items than a book-size menu of disappointing dishes.

This menu changes every four to six weeks to reflect what’s in season. Christoff’s uses local ingredients when possible, procuring fruits and vegetables from local farmers’ markets and cheeses from Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville.

Those delectable crab cakes, with jumbo lump crab, were among a christoffprokskewerhandful of small plates on the menu, which also featured fried grouper fingers, spinach and artichoke dip, smoked pork sliders and pork skewers, our choice on a second visit. Did I mention my husband likes pork?

We got three mini kebabs with big chunks of grilled, juicy pork tenderloin, skewered with grilled apples, onions and thick-cut bacon, a sweet, salty and smoky sample of good eating.

We added a spinach salad with grilled peaches caramelized to sweet christoffsaladperfection, sprinkled with candied pecans and a vaporously light dressing, mitigating our red-meat and fried-food guilt. It’s nearly a meal unto itself.

We could easily come here just to graze on small plates, but we also shared an entrée of grouper, available blackened, grilled, pecan-crusted (our pick) or stuffed with crab (an extra $2).

When we told our server we were sharing, the kitchen kindly divided our fish and side of spinach onto two plates. The grouper christoffgrouper1was moist and flaky with a light panko crust, though the pecans were barely discernable. We slurped up the garlic cream sauce treatment with the spinach.

Other entrees available, in addition to our pork chop, included an eight-ounce filet mignon and Southern-brined chicken breast. We regretted not ordering a special of shrimp and grit cake, which looked mighty tempting when it arrived at another table.

Dessert

Do leave room. Pastry chef Jennifer Williams is a gem. We loved her christoffdonutsbeignets (labeled doughnuts on the menu), fried to order. These two light puffs of sweetness were filled with dollops of vanilla pastry cream and strawberry coulis. They’re coated with sugar, plated with whipped cream and sliced strawberries. Williams nails it.

We also liked the peach cobbler, warm and cinnamony, the fruit christoffpeachcobbler1nestled in a flour and butter crumble with toasty oats and served with vanilla ice cream. Yum. We’ll try the Key lime pie our next visit.

The bar

The dry but fruity Ned Pinot Rosé I ordered played extremely well with the crab; the sturdy Snake Charmer Shiraz my husband chose to accent his chop christoffshirazrosehit the marks. Christoff’s offers an extensive international wine list, with 30 by the glass and another 50 choices by the bottle, ranging from $30 to $140. There’s also a good selection of craft beer.

As for that commanding bar, Chief Operating Officer Bob Arbuthnot said they originally traveled to Bainbridge, Ga., to pick up the brass
christoffbar4 glasses rail above the bar — and wound up buying the whole bar. There’s oak, maybe some mahogany, milk glass, and lots of history in this beast.

When installing it, Arbuthnot told us during a sneak peek months ago, he discovered he wasn’t the first to modify the bar; the wood just above the brass foot rail was made from cabinets by a woodworker maybe a century ago.

“It’s a great piece,” he said. Must be; we’ve not been there yet when there weren’t folks gathered around it.

Service

Our servers were very good at their jobs, friendly, attentive and spot-on with recommendations.

The bottom line

Christoff’s is a new bright light in our dining scene, a special bonus for diners in the Northeast. It’s a good date-night spot or a laid-back hangout for friends at that awesome bar.

Rating: Worth a Drive

When you go…
Christoff’s Bistro & Wine Bar
1460 Market St.
850.894.4066
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Costs: Small plates $12-$14, salads $7-$12, entrees $18-$33, desserts $7.
Web: christoffsbistro.com

 

 

 

 

El Viroleño: Moving Up

For six years, Candy Hernandez and her daughter, Luvy Carballo, offered traditional dishes from their native El Salvador in a small storefront restaurant called El Viroleño.

It was an unlikely oasis of ethnic home cooking, next to the homeless El Viroleno exteriorshelter on Tennessee Street, but a haven for foodies, college students and downtown workers who could enjoy a delicious meal there for under $10.

In June, Hernandez and Carballo moved out and up to the burbs, relocating to the Northeast at Northampton Shopping Center on Kerry Forest Parkway.

Hernandez, from the city of Zacatecoluca in southern El Salvador, is still cooking in the kitchen (though a much bigger one) and Carballo still works the front with warmth and charm. The music is festive, El Viroleno owner Luvy 2the artwork colorful and folksy, the aromas heavenly. You’ll feel like you’ve left Tallahassee behind.

The Setting

The new El Viroleño is open, bright and roomy enough for at least 60 diners, and there’s plenty of parking space. The restaurant’s decor pays tribute to the cobalt blue and white hues of the Salvadoran flag.

It’s an upgrade, with metal wainscoting and blue tablecloths, but this is still a casual place where kids are welcome — those tablecloths are covered with plastic. One Saturday evening, families conversing in Spanish were gathered around the TV, watching soccer, always a good sign. Homey.

Service isn’t always brisk, at least during peak dinner hours. El Viroleño has been a two-person operation till now, but the mom-and-daughter team has been adding some help. So relax; this a family-like dining experience you’ll want to enjoy at length.

Dig In

The outdoor sign for El Viroleño notes it’s both a tacqueria and a pupuseria. You can probably guess the taco part. Pupusas are the classic Salvadoran street snack.

Hernandez makes at least 50 of these round, hearty corn cakes by hand each day, filling them with all kinds of goodies like refried El Viroleno pupusas1beans, loroco (a vine flower bud native to Central America), cheese and squash and revueltas (a combination of beans, cheese and pork).

In all, Hernandez offers 11 choices. Pick three for $6, or pay $7 for a trio of the “especials,” which are cheese with chicken, spinach or shrimp. The latter was my favorite, the shellfish cooked not a second too long, nestled in the warm, slightly charred corn cake.

My husband also raves about the shredded pork filling, but you can’t go wrong with any of these perfect, portable pupusas. Pile on curtido, a vinegary cabbage slaw, and a semi-spicy tomato salsa and it’s a complete meal.

We could gorge on pupusas alone, but there’s much more to discover on the extensive menu. Among the familiar appetizers you’ll find nachos with guacamole, Mexican tostadas and empanadas. My husband and I shared a tamale, shredded chicken in a warm corn dough, wrapped in banana leaves. Central American comfort food.

El Viroleño also has soups, salads and sandwiches, and both Salvadoran and Mexican combos — quesadillas, tacos, burritos, fajitas, and chiles relleno, all accompanied by rice, refried beans (dark and smoky) and a salad. On weekends, go exotic with menudo, a soup with tripe, and sopa de gallina, or hen soup.

One of our favorites is a generous plate of grilled steak and slices of chicken breast garnished with shrimp and slices of red and green El Viroleno #30 reduxbell peppers, plus those sides. The meats are juicy from the grill, the shrimp succulent. The salad was a highlight, with fresh chopped greens, tomatoes, onions and avocado.

For a lighter meal, we chose the ceviche, presented in a glass dish showcasing a bright array of chopped tilapia and shrimp “cooked” in citrus juices and El Viroleno mary ellen dishtossed with tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables, topped with slices of avocado. Refreshing.

On one visit, we were disappointed with an overdone grilled steak, a rare misstep easily forgiven when we learned Hernandez was training a new cook. We tried the lean steak again on a return visit El Viroleno flan1and, ahhh… well seasoned, tender and satisfying.

For dessert, your choice is easy. The ultra creamy flan, soft and
caramel-y, is a sweet sendoff.

Drinks

No beer or wine yet, but while a license is in the works sample a scrumptious fruit shake made with mango, papaya, strawberry or El Viroleno drinksbanana – or a combination of tropical flavors. Or imbibe a light, cinnamon-y horchata, made from rice and milk.

Cost

Appetizers run from $2 to $11; three pupusas are $6 or $7; soups, salads and sandwiches $6.50-$11; entrees $7.50-$15; kids’ menu $2.50 to $4.50; dessert $2.50.

Bottom line

The pupusas alone are reason enough to try El Viroleño, but Hernandez and Carballo are serving up the dining culture of their homeland. Enjoy the journey.

Our rating

Worth the Drive

 If you go

El Viroleño
Northhampton Shopping Center
2910 Kerry Forest Parkway, Suite B-1
850.906.0123
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

El Viroleno mural1