Columbia Café

During my time here in Shreveport, I’ve heard a lot about Columbia Café. Perhaps the comment most often heard from friends and acquaintances is that it just isn’t what it used to be.

Obviously, I had to see for myself. My companion and I had been to Columbia once  before, for brunch, long before Savoring Shreveport was even a twinkle in my eye. “Disappointing” is a suitable term. Our server didn’t know a thing about the brunch menu, and consequently, he led us to believe that we had a choice between an omelette with toast or…an omelette with toast. I now realize, in fact, that they have quite an extensive breakfast and brunch menu, so our guy was just ill-informed.

But, that being so long ago, and my experience there being somewhat of a moot point, I was interested in giving it another shot for the sake of the blogosphere. So my companion and I got cleaned up and headed out for a Friday night dinner at Columbia with open minds.

I’m not sure when Columbia is supposed to be crowded, because they were virtually empty at 7:30 on a Friday. This could be both good and bad. Columbia Café blends in with most of the other houses in Highland–and yes, that’s a compliment. Its original layout has been preserved, and the individual dining rooms lend an air of intimacy. Large, sheet-like cuts of cloth hang over recessed lighting, diffusing the light and creating a cozy (if not dimly lit) space.

Our server presented us with the specials and seemed glad to see us. We immediately ordered the stuffed portabella mushroom appetizer. True to its name, a large portabella mushroom cap is stuffed with sautéed spinach, artichoke hearts, tomato, feta cheese, and sweet, intense balsamic vinegar. It’s then draped with a good bit of romesco sauce–which is sort of like pesto, substituting roasted red peppers for the basil. I liked this appetizer option. It’s just enough to tease the palates of two people, and it’s a nice, healthy alternative to fried shrimp cocktail or crab cakes.

In a nautical mood, I chose the evening’s special: grilled amberjack with crab-mango salsa. I chose squash and asparagus as my two included sides (hey, I have a girlish figure to maintain). My companion, who has never been known to turn down a piece of fish, ordered the pecan-crusted trout with garlic-chive beurre rouge.

You don’t see amberjack on many menus, especially around here, so I was eager to sink my teeth into it. The generously-cut fillet was lightly seasoned and grilled. However, amberjack, a relative of the pompano, is an extremely mild fish. I’m afraid that this preparation didn’t allow it shine to its full potential. The crab salsa was a pleasant, vibrantly flavored stopgap, but once that was gone, I didn’t have much interest in the fish on its own. The vegetables were fine, though, especially the squash; it was a seasonally-appropriate mix of zucchini and yellow tossed in a very light garlic butter. My companion’s trout, on the other hand, was dynamite. “Pecan-crusted” might be a little misleading; there was definitely a spiced sweetness there, almost as if the fish had been crusted in candied pecans instead. I’ll admit, I was unschooled on the subject of beurre rouge, but a quick Google search revealed that it’s the red wine cousin of the more popular beurre blanc. It’s made with butter (duh) and the wonderful crust from a deglazed pan. Boy, do I love that crust.

While we were originally intending to stop at post-dinner coffee and tea (the owner of Columbia roasts his own beans on the premises), dessert was on the house that night. (Lest you think I’m abusing my nonexistent “powers,” it was on the house for the rest of the restaurant. I’m not sure what the occasion was, but we didn’t complain.)

Desserts that evening were a chocolate marquis, which is basically a flourless chocolate cake, and a blueberry creme brulee…companion’s favorite. I had the chocolate marquis. There’s just not enough chocolate in my life. It was dense, rich, and unfinishable…like dark, dark chocolate brownies barely cooked through. I enjoyed it a lot, but was dismayed to notice, a few bites in, a faint refrigerator flavor. Obviously, it would be completely unrealistic to expect a restaurant to make each dessert when it’s ordered, but the flavor definitely threw me. Maybe Columbia should invest in a few boxes of Arm and Hammer.

The creme brulee was surprisingly pleasant; not only was it topped with blueberries, but the entire dessert was infused with a faint-but-discernible fresh blueberry flavor. The coffee was excellent, and for $50 + tip, it was a nice break from our usual Friday night special of PieWorks or sushi.

Would I call Columbia Café an “institution,” like so many others have? No, probably not. But then again, I haven’t been here for very long, and I haven’t witnessed their apparent evo- or devolution (it depends on who you ask). Still, Columbia Café fits the bill for a modest date night, or any evening that you wish to spend tucked away over a nice piece of fish and some ultra-fresh coffee.

A brief aside: In light of the current city- and statewide political campaigns, restaurants like Columbia must be patronized if we’re serious about Shreveport becoming the city we’re all wishing for. Businesses like this help improve the landscape of our forgotten neighborhoods (like Highland), provide refuge from large, boring chains that are infiltrating the city, and give neighbors something to talk about. They keep us communicating. In a healthy city, people talk, they eat, and they talk about eating–for better or for worse. Let’s reinforce the threads that tie us all together. Let’s get out there and eat.

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An Apple Memo

Ostensibly, fall is upon us here in northwest Louisiana. You wouldn’t know it by going outside, but small changes are everywhere. Maybe your glasses don’t fog up when you leave the house in the morning. Maybe the neighbors have that tasteless inflatable black cat in their yard already (or maybe you’re the tasteless neighbor). Whether we like it or not, the tomatoes in the grocery store are growing wan and pasty, strawberries are losing their luster, and people who didn’t even attend LSU are donning their purple and gold.

At any rate, there’s a special treat that I look forward to each autumn, and I want to share it with you. Honeycrisp apples started popping up nationwide several years ago. They make their seasonal debut sometime in September, and often stick around until January. Spring and summer are long and lonely, as no other apples will do; nor should they. Honeycrisps will completely shift your apple worldview, and, chances are, they’re available in your neighborhood grocer at this very moment.

Honeycrisps hail from Minnesota, like most good things: Post-It Notes, Target, and Bob Dylan, for instance. They were developed at the University of Minnesota by a group of benevolent biologists who sought to make the world a tiny bit better by introducing what is quite possibly the tastiest commercially available fresh-eating apple in the country.


In fact, here's a windblown 20 year-old me during a 2006 pilgrimage to the very hospital where Dylan was born: St. Mary's in Duluth, MN.

Honeycrisp’s family tree is a delicious tangle of Macoun, Golden Delicious, and Honeygold varieties, and the taste is uniquely light, with a muted tartness that swims underneath dazzling sweetness. Its finish is clean and brisk, like an early fall stroll through downtown St. Paul. Unmatched in crispness, a toothy break into Honeycrisp’s yielding flesh is more of a satisfying “crack” than a crunch.

Kroger on Youree Drive (location of last week’s unfortunate red rears incident) carries big, robust Washington-grown Honeycrisps, while the Barksdale AFB commissary offers smaller, smoother New York Honeycrisps.

So, if you’re aching to hear autumn’s bittersweet ballad despite the uncooperative weather, crank the AC down to the 60s, grab a Honeycrisp from the fridge, and hold fall in the palm of your hand.

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Smashburger

Before I begin my long-awaited(?) Smashburger review, allow me to mention a few things about Savoring Shreveport and how it works.

Since I don’t get paid to write this blog, I patronize restaurants with money out of my own pocket. For both financial and dietary reasons, I try to limit my restaurant meals. The caveat with this system is that the blog doesn’t get updated on a regular basis. Sometimes posts are a few days apart, and at other times, the gaps may be longer. However, Savoring Shreveport is still going strong, and will hopefully continue to do so until I run out of restaurants or I move away, whichever comes first. So, if I fall silent for awhile, don’t despair! I’ll usually be back sooner than later.

Alright, Smashburger. I figured it’s about damn time I wrote this thing up; I’ve eaten at Smashburger several times since the initial VIP lunch, and I think I’ve enjoyed enough of their menu to make a fair assessment.

Before Smashburger opened, when the first whisperings of a boutique burger joint were making the rounds, my gears started turning (as well as my salivary glands). I assumed Smashburger would be something akin to Five Guys, which has, quite frankly, some of the best food I’ve ever had. (If you haven’t been lucky enough to experience the majesty that is Five Guys, get thee to one: the closest locations are in Little Rock and Plano.) To my surprise, Smashburger has very little in common with Five Guys; it’s an entirely different (but still delicious) burger-eating experience.

Americans are finally beginning to pay attention to where their food comes from. They’re also branching out culinarily,  thanks in part to the pop cuisine of Food Network celebrities and and once-obscure-now-readily-available ingredients. Enter Smashburger, a great transitory restaurant for people who are ready to try something a little new without going miles outside of their comfort zones.

French fries? How about French fries with a sheen of olive oil and rosemary?

Burgers? How about on a buttered, artisan bun?

Milkshakes? How about one with the sweet, toasty flavors of bread pudding?

Companion and I have run the gamut of Smashburger’s menu items, from several of their burgers to their “smashchicken” to their salads. Smashburger, by the way, isn’t just a catchy name; it refers to the way the beef patties are “smashed” on the grill to create a juicy, evenly cooked burger that comes to you in a fraction of the time.

Popular Smashburgers include the Spicy Baja, which features an extremely generous scoop of guacamole and freshly chopped jalapeno peppers; and the Louisiana Burger, with cheese, bacon, “Cajun grilled onions” and remoulade sauce. That a Smashburger in Shreveport has a “Louisiana Burger” is no coincidence; Smashburger has a different burger for each state that they have a location. (Ohioans, for instance, can choose the “Buckeye Burger,” with fried pepper rings, haystack onions, and American cheese). Honestly, it’s nice to see something that brands itself as “Louisiana-style” without crawfish on or in it. Man, that gets old.

The Smashchickens are also a great choice; get it crispy with buffalo sauce and heaps of blue cheese, or grilled with avocado, bacon, and ranch on a multigrain bun (one of my favorites). I appreciate that the chicken breast is flattened (or “smashed,” I guess). Too often, when ordering a chicken sandwich, there’s a big, thick, dry breast sitting in the middle. (Aaand I feel like that’s the perfect segue into a “your mother has big, thick, dry breasts” joke, but I won’t. Or maybe I just did.)

Both the burgers and the chickens offer a “create-your-own” option; choose your bun and the trimmings. For 99 cents more, you can go really old school and top your burger with a fried egg; it’s said that that’s how hamburgers were served when they were still novelties.

Sides aren’t included with burgers and chicken, which is both good and bad: it costs a little more, but gives the patron the freedom to choose from Smashburger’s welcome assortment. Smashfries with olive oil and rosemary are popular, as are sweet potato fries (also with olive oil and rosemary and garlic; a smart, unexpected variation on the sugared sweet potato fries seen at places all over the country), fried pickle chips, and haystack onions. Possibly the most unique side option, though, are “veggie frites”: flash-fried carrot sticks, asparagus spears, and green beans. Flash-frying gives the vegetables a modestly crisp exterior while preserving their natural flavors and textures. The sweet potato fries remain my personal favorite, although the haystack onions run a very close second; they come in a big knot of crispy, stringy, slightly sweet goodness.

Another thing worth mentioning from Smashburger’s menu is their modest selection of hot dogs. These are real, all-beef dogs served the way mother nature intended: Chicago-style (right down to the poppyseed bun!), “Louisiana-style,” and a classic chili cheese. I have yet to find a place nearby that serves, if not specializes, in hot dogs, and Smashburger comes through for cravings. (Although, if any of you can recommend another great hot dog stand in town, please do not hesitate!)

Wine, beer, Crush sodas, and Haagen-Dazs milkshakes (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and bread pudding, another regional flavor) provide special finishing touches on a truly one-of-a-kind menu.

Foodwise, I really haven’t hit any snags with Smashburger. Their food delivers exactly what it claims it will. Unfortunately, Smashburger is nearly always crowded, with a line stretching to the door at peak times. Watch the staff, though…they’re hauling ass. Sometimes a long wait is the product of good food and word-of-mouth, not of lazy, lackadaisical waitstaff. Smashburger doesn’t bill itself as fast food, but they do strive to get your meal out in ten minutes or less, with relative success. I’d say it’s worth the wait.

Smashburger

7503 Youree Drive

318-797-1988

www.smashburger.com

(Coming soon to Bossier City!)

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Another Broken Egg Cafe

A couple of weeks ago, I took a solo jaunt down to Florida to surprise my family and spend my 4th of July holiday on the beach with friends. Sandwiching my week of subtropical cavorting were two loooong drives, two days apiece. Needless to say, by the time I got back to Shreveport, I had had my fill of Cheez-Its and drive-thru coffee. Cheez-Its, while delicious, get very old somewhere around the Mississippi/Alabama border.

The Sunday morning after my arrival home, my companion and I decided to try the maudlinly named Another Broken Egg. I was in dire need of a good breakfast. Some pre-dining research revealed that Another Broken Egg is actually a chain operating out of Destin, Florida, smack-dab in the middle of the beautiful Redneck Riviera Emerald Coast. While I’m normally not too keen on chains, Another Broken Egg only operates in three Gulf Coast states, plus one rogue location in Dallas.

We usually like to time our breakfast visits to synch up with when we imagine everyone else is in church. Shreveport is a city deserted during these hours, and we tell ourselves that we’re saving some of the waitstaff the chore of standing around and twiddling their thumbs. At around 10 a.m., Another Broken Egg was predictably empty; we walked in and were seated within 30 seconds. Things seemed to be going smoothly. We were quickly greeted by Spencer, our sheepish server (and I hope he likes alliteration, because that’s what he’s getting). It was Spencer’s first day on the job and he was nervous, but he passed. Don’t be so sheepish, Spencer!

The first thing that jumped out on the menu were the “delectable starters,” also known as breakfast appetizers. I know, weird, right? But when it comes to appetizers, Another Broken Egg seems to take a “why not?” approach. I can get behind that. Their appetizers range from the fancy (Baked Brie) to the innovative (Biscuit Beignets) to the slightly bizarre (Blackberry Grits). We didn’t have any appetizers on this visit, but I was lucky enough to watch a steaming plate of the Biscuit Beignets float by–a vision in powdered sugar accompanied by honey-marmalade dipping sauce.

Breakfast people: this is your menu. Nearly every conceivable combination of eggs, home fries (ABE calls them “country potatoes,” but you know what I’m talking about), bacon, sausage, and pancakes can be (and often already is, creatively) conjured up. Another Broken Egg gives special treatment to their Eggs Benedict(s), which includes the classic ham/Hollandaise number alongside interesting, albeit heart-stopping options like Benedict Oscar, which includes an entire sirloin atop an English muffin, finished with eggs, crabmeat, asparagus and Bearnaise sauce.

Anyway, I ended up on the “safe side” with a smoked salmon omelet: filled with cream cheese and finished with smoked salmon, diced red onions, capers, and tomatoes. Inside the warm confines of the omelet, the cream cheese had melted down to something a little less solid and a lot more delicious. My only complaint with this omelet was that the smoked salmon was presented in two neat piles on top. I was hoping for some salmon bits mixed in with the eggs themselves. It felt clumsy to divvy up and slice, so I ended up eating the omelet first, then the salmon by itself. The omelet was served with the aforementioned country potatoes and an English muffin which was assigned an inadequate dab of butter. More butter!

The sheer variety of omelets, though, is enough to keep me coming back. Another Broken Egg shows off its geographical know-how with choices like The Floridian (cream cheese, garlic butter-sauteed crabmeat, melted jack and a “touch” of scallions) and The Mardi Gras (smoked andouille, red peppers, crawfish, and scallions topped with tomato-Hollandaise sauce). Other picks range from the luxurious (Lobster et Fromage) to the standard (Garden Delight).

Always seeking to out-flapjack himself, my companion ordered Another Broken Egg’s pancakes. “Good,” he said, “not Southfield.” I tried them myself, and while they were indeed passable, they weren’t outrageous. The bacon they came with, however, was top-notch.

I didn’t want to mention it, but a glaring grammatical error on their professionally-printed menus ate away at me for some time after our visit. Apparently, Another Broken Egg can turn any waffle, pancake, or French toast slice into “Banana’s Foster.” Listen, folks. THIS IS NOT CORRECT. As Louisianans, you should be able to see through this, but I know a lot of people have problem’s with their apostrophe’s, and as someone who supports the English language, I have problems with their problems. Just to be sure, a quick Google search of “bananas foster” yielded the original Brennan’s Restaurant recipe, as well as the Wikipedia page, all without the apostrophe. Quick lesson for those of you who have been asleep since third grade: an apostrophe denotes a possessive. “Banana’s Foster” indicates that the Foster belongs to the Banana. This is not so. In fact, Bananas Foster is named after Richard Foster, a member of the New Orleans Cuisine Commission (whatever that is, I want to be a part of it) at the time of the dessert’s inception in the 50s. The “Bananas” in Bananas Foster is, in fact, plural, indicating more than one banana. To make something plural, you generally only have to add an “s” to it. PLURALS NEVER HAVE APOSTROPHES. And yes, I am planning on writing a letter. I’m sure Another Broken Egg spent a pretty penny to have those menus printed and delivered for use in four states. And yes, I can take as much time as I want talking about apostrophes, because this is my blog, and as long as we want people to speak English in the United States, we as Americans should make sure we know how to use it properly. Rant dismissed.

The food at Another Broken Egg? Great. When they promise a memorable brunch experience, they deliver it in a family-friendly, easygoing atmosphere. My only real issue was with price. A lot of people (myself included), generally think of breakfast as the cheapest meal of the day. In general I understand Another Broken Egg’s slightly elevated prices (between $9 and $12 for most egg-based dishes). Ingredients like crab, lobster, and steak aren’t cheap. But there’s something about a $4.29 cup of cafe au lait that I just can’t support. Still, for a moderately-sized Southern city, Shreveport is surprisingly lacking in the brunch department. The contenders we do have are strong ones, to be sure, but I think Another Broken Egg will have no trouble at all drumming up business.

Another Broken Egg Cafe

885 Pierremont Road, Suite 132

(in the same shopping center as Superior’s Steakhouse)

318-865-1124

www.anotherbrokenegg.com

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Smashburger Sneak-Peek

Shreveport, what am I going to do with you?

Some months ago, the Shreveport Times ran their annual “Best Of…” feature, wherein readers vote for their favorite businesses. Categories range from dry cleaners to dentists to donuts. 2010, I’m afraid, was a bad year for Shreveport’s “Best Of…” I read, with a mixture of shock, horror, and disbelief, that Burger King came out on top in the “best burger” category. Not best fast-food burger. Not best questionable-ingredient burger. Best burger. Period. Beating out Papa & Co., Gumbo to Geaux, the turkey burger at Bistro Byronz and even the filet mignon buger on Bella Fresca’s lunch menu.

Well Shreveport, it’s time to start demanding more from your food, and Smashburger is here to help.

Opening tomorrow, July 14th, I was lucky enough to be invited to their pre-opening taste test. I won’t do a full review until I return as a paying customer (I am, after all, the voice of the common eater. Right?), but suffice it to say Smashburger, located on (where else?) Youree Drive, is a breath of fresh air for Shreveport. Check out the menu on their website (see that Louisiana burger? They’ve come up with a different recipe for each state) and gear up for an experience that’s several steps ahead of your beloved Burger King.

Also, bread pudding milkshake: three words strung together in a potentially life-changing fashion. That’s all I’m saying.

Alex

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Taqueria La Michoacana

If your definition of a taco goes something like, “served in a curved, crunchy shell, comes from a drive-through or a box,” then this review is not for you. Why are you even reading this blog, anyway? Go hang out at Buffalo Wild Wings with your bros.

Okay, serious eaters. I’ve had tortas and roasted corn from taco trucks in Albuquerque. I’ve had tacos and horchata from beach huts in south Florida. I’ve stumbled through my limited (but usable) Spanish vocabulary in search of great food. Taqueria La Michoacana is the real deal.

When my companion alerted me to a taco truck located only about a mile or so from our house, I was delighted. Sure, Tex-Mex has its place, but I’ll be damned if all that food isn’t exactly the same. Cheese, meat, lettuce, guac, served in a deep fried tortilla/deep fried chile/deep fried styrofoam dish, then covered in some kind of mysterious sauce. Come on. How far can you really go with that?

Taqueria La Michoacana consists of a truck outside, store inside. Hard to find but worth the quest, the establishment is located on the “other side” of Youree Drive in what apparently used to be a sub-par pizza restaurant. I say this because the sign for the pizza restaurant is still up.

Go inside and talk to the lady at the counter. If you say “hola,” she’ll respond with an entire paragraph of words you don’t understand. Smile and nod, gringo. Menu? There is no menu. Order yourself three el pastor tacos. Order your companion a carne asada torta. Ask for a Pepsi if you want it (many of their sodas are imported from Central America, which means they’re sweetened with sugar instead of corn syrup). It’ll be a little while, so watch some Latin American soap operas. Poke around the adjoining store, where you can find a cornucopia of prepared foods, beverages, and candy. This is a fun place, but if I may be frank, Mexican candy really isn’t that good, unless you like dried fruit rolled in chili powder and possibly salt. But don’t judge a culture on its candy! Have a seat in the taqueria instead. I think your food is coming.

Depending on how much you’ve ordered, one or two attractive young girls will come in from the truck outside wielding styrofoam take-out boxes. The beauty of the el pastor tacos rivals that of a newborn baby or the first flowers of spring. Crack its steaming box (yes, I am aware of just how filthy that sounded, but I’m leaving it) and find three corn (not flour! This is essential!) tortillas piled high with marinated pork (el pastor), cilantro, queso fresco, and crushed pineapple. Yes, pineapple! They also provide a lime wedge for your squeezing pleasure.

One word that I hear constantly being used to describe Mexican food is “bright.” We’re talking sparkly, light flavors: citrus, herbs, fruit. This is perhaps the best illustration of the disparity between authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex. The latter can seldom be called “bright”; instead, it’s defined by heavy, warm cream and cheese sauces, thick, rich beans, and “darker” spices like cumin. Again, let me remind you: I am in no way bashing Tex-Mex. But it’s a special peeve of mine to hear people refer to things like taco salads and taquitos as “Mexican.”

Now, onto the torta. If you followed my suggestion, you ordered a carne asada torta. Now, for whatever reason, carne asada is billed in the U.S. as some kind of premium beef. It’s not. Carne asada is just marinated or rubbed grilled steak (usually thin slices of flank or skirt). I’m aware that using the word “just” makes it sound like it’s routine and boring…and it definitely isn’t. I just wanted to make sure we’re all clear on this. Clear?

A torta is basically a big Mexican sandwich. Do not let my vanilla description deter you. Usually served on soft, round white bread (called telera or bolillo), Taqueria La Michoacana’s tortas are garnished with sliced avocado, mayonnaise, jalapenos, the ubiquitous lettuce and tomato, and maybe a few crumbles of queso fresco for good measure. I have two gripes with Taqueria’s tortas: very often, I am disappointed at the ratio of meat to the rest of the sandwich. I like meat. Taqueria’s meat is delicious. I want more. I am also not thrilled with the amount of mayonnaise they use. Fortunately, I think that’s more of a personal preference than a hard-and-fast rule, but I have a pretty high tolerance for mayonnaise.

Meat and mayonnaise issues aside, the tortas fill you up and ensure that you have fun getting there. These are ideal hangover foods, by the way: lots of absorbent bread, a moderate amount of heat, and just a touch of grease soothes an unhappy stomach and a clogged head. Taqueria La Michoacana offers several meats, including barbacoa and lengua (slow-cooked beef and beef tongue, respectively), but the el pastor and carne asada are my favorites.

Even if you’ve had your fill, order a slice of their homemade tres leches cake to go; light, creamy, and cold, the cake is the perfect way to punctuate your spicy, porky dinner.

An open mind and a couple bucks are all that’s really necessary to have a good experience at Taqueria La Michoacana. You’d be surprised how well good intentions and an empty stomach can translate.

Taqueria La Michoacana

2905 Youree Drive

(318) 869-4249

Check out my friend Chicken Fried Gourmet’s enticing taco pictures here.

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Ronin’s Broadmoor Kitchen and Tavern

Edit: Ronin’s Broadmoor Kitchen and Taven is now closed. But feel free to enjoy this review, anyway!

Oh, my darling bud of June! I’ve been the worst blog owner ever.  It’s been almost a month since you’ve heard from me, and yet…my daily hits are at an all-time high! I’m up to 32 fans on Facebook. When did that happen?

In the spirit of…camaraderie? Knowledge? Can you leave a comment here with how you found me? I’m actually really curious as to what chain of internet events led you to my humble corner.

Anyway, realizing that I am woefully behind, companion and I set out to try somewhere new last night. The result? Ronin’s Broadmoor Kitchen and Tavern, on (where else?) Youree Drive. Now, if you’re just now hearing of Ronin’s, you’re not too far out of the loop. The restaurant itself has changed hands several times in the last few months, and it seemed like every time we drove past, it had a new, vaguely familiar name.

Ronin’s has very mixed reviews on the popular restaurant review site Urbanspoon. As recently as May 6, people were complaining of a “God-Awful Smell,” the prices, and the quality of the food. Luckily, I didn’t read the reviews until after I came home. As I’ve learned in the past  (Madison Square Garden, I’m looking at you), restaurants have highs and lows, and experiences can differ greatly depending on a number of variables.

We ate at Ronin’s early in the evening. So early, in fact, that we were the only ones there. Our waitress was a bubbly, girl-next-door type. Not always completely knowledgable about the menu, she pulled off her ignorance with charm. Had it been a pricer, fancier restaurant, it would have bothered me. But I was sitting there in jeans and sneakers; I didn’t mind a bit.

After spending a few solid minutes perusing the enticing but…um…intercontinental menu, the decision was made. To start: Korean BBQ Beef Skewers. When these arrived, there were no skewers to be found. Instead, they were something like “steak fingers” (which, regrettably, sounds like a nickname that a group of high school girls applies to a creepy man who hangs out at the Cumberland Farms around the block). The Korean BBQ flavor was definitely there, however. Sweet and smoky, with a delightful “not-quite-American” exotic tinge, they were exactly what they said they’d be; except, you know, for the skewers part. The “fingers” were served with a generous scoop of “Asian slaw.” The slaw was a refreshing, vinegar-based melange of Napa cabbage and black sesame seeds.

Our dinners came out shortly thereafter: sweet potato gnocchi with Rosa Maria Sauce for the gentleman, and blackened tilapia with sides of purple hull peas and twice-baked mashed potatoes for me.

Okay, first, I’ll let the concept of sweet potato gnocchi sink in. For those uninitiated, gnocchi are little grub worm-shaped pasta made of potato instead of wheat flour. They have a texture that’s somewhere between regular pasta and compressed mashed potatoes, and a modest bowlful leaves you with that full, comforted feeling that only complex carbohydrates can offer. The only thing that can improve gnocchi? Making them with sweet potatoes, naturally. These particular gnocchi were generously portioned and just the slightest bit gummy (confession: I like them that way).  The gnocchi came with a choice of two sauces: San Marzano, a tomato-based sauce, and Rosa Maria, a cream-based sauce (which he ended up choosing). The Rosa Maria sauce was pleasant and worked really well with the gnocchi;  the tomato-based sauce, I think, would have competed with the sweet potato flavor in an extremely unpleasant fashion. The Rosa Maria sauce was mellow, and just thin enough — similar to an Alfredo sauce without the assertive kick of Parmesan. Overall, a solid dish — and definitely enough for three people.

Growing up in Florida, tilapia was basically the default dinner on at least one night of the week. It was on every menu in the state, quickly gaining popularity over the once-ubiquitous (but decidedly eco-unfriendly) grouper. My mom, in fact, went on a tilapia kick sometime during my high school years. I’m pretty sure it was Shake-and-Bake. Or even Oven Fry, the poor man’s Shake-and-Bake. Mom, I love you, but I’m glad the tilapia stage is over.

Anyway, I actually surprised myself when I ordered the tilapia. I really wasn’t that hungry, but I wanted to try Ronin’s sides without committing to something outrageous like a chicken pot pie or meatloaf. I was even more surprised to find that the fish itself was cooked perfectly. A hearty (but not overwhelming) dose of what I believe to be creole seasoning and a few cursory capers (more for decoration than anything else) made it a pretty exceptional piece of fish. But I could be a little rusty. I haven’t really had seafood (I’m talking seafood here, not riverfood or mudfood…both good, but not seafood) since I moved here, 13 months ago. The side dishes were homey, without being sloppy. Served in tin cups (similar to the ones, I imagine, old-timey prisoners would grate against their cell bars), I appreciated that they weren’t crammed onto the plate like an unhappy family flying coach. The twice-baked potatoes were just that; garlicky and creamy, skins-on, with that nostalgic twice-baked flavor. Remember the frozen twice-baked potatoes that came in a box? Yeah…

The purple hull peas were similarly good. A little undercooked, only by some people’s standards, each pea was its own individual. Visible bits of bacon made the cup of beans a little less like, well…a cup of beans.

Dessert-time rolled around, and my gnocchi-stuffed (yet mysteriously thin) companion wanted a crème brulee. His favorite. Our waitress looked at him, the twinkle suddenly gone from her eyes. “Are you sure? They’re like this big.” She positioned her hands to make a circle, sized somewhere between a silver dollar and the circumference of a child’s sippy cup.

Well, damn. He reconsidered and chose the bread pudding instead. This seemed to please the waitress. She assured him he’d love it and bounded back to the kitchen. She returned minutes later with piping-hot bread pudding, overflowing out of a novelty margarita glass (you know, the ones with the cactus base?). Yeah, we’re not really sure how it made its way in there, either.

At any rate, the bread pudding was absolutely divine; gooey and rustic, it left an alcoholic kiss of rum on our lips in the sexiest way possible. The glass? Not so much. But we were willing to overlook that.

The dessert ended up being on the house. Apparently it was their last pudding of the batch and would have just ended up being eaten by the waitstaff anyway. (As an aside, I don’t ever get free food when I go out; I’m not nearly that well-known, and if I do decide to mention the blog, I always do so after I’ve ordered, eaten, and paid.)

With a 20% tip, our bill came out to somewhere around $42. Not too bad, and right on target for a restaurant of Ronin’s caliber. Someone on the aforementioned Urbanspoon complained that it was “overpriced,” but I really beg to differ; this ain’t Chili’s. Ronin’s offers live music on Thursday and Friday nights, plus trivia challenges during the week. Events like these keep the wood-paneled restaurant from seeming too full of itself. Classic, hummable tunes on the radio help, too. (Throughout our dinner, we heard the likes of Bobbie Gentry, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan.)

Urbanspoon users would advise you to stay away from Ronin’s, but we had a genuinely good experience. It seems that people often approach restaurants like Ronin’s with expectations that are either too high or too low; both result in disappointment. Ronin’s is a good, middle-of-the-road neighborhood tavern; an extensive wine list, big portions, and unique, uncategorizable menu make it a quirky, crowd-pleasing pick for dinner. But their nightly events, cozy atmosphere, and unpretentious staff make it a fun place to relax with friends, too.

Ronin’s Broadmoor Kitchen and Tavern

4460 Youree Drive

318-550-0582

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