Bar Mercado (Inman Park) – Smaller is Better

Pisto Brusels & Burrata_0386This was my first time at Bar Mercado and I really liked the vibe, the energy and the overall setting. I am a big fan of Spanish tapas since they usually offer bright and complex flavors. With four people, this would give us a chance to sample a few of the dishes.

We ordered several of the smaller tapas.

There were two outstanding vegetable options. The ARTICHOKES ($6.5) were crispy artichokes, topped with lemon-garlic aioli. They were lightly salted, perfectly crisped and offered great flavor and textural contrast. I rate this dish a 10.

The second outstanding choice was the SETAS ($9) (oyster mushroom, sherry, herbs). The Spanish have perfected sherry complementing mushrooms and the variety at BM was fantastic. The addition of sprigs of thyme added more complexity to the dish I loved these two choices and give this dish a 10+.

Less to my liking was the PISTO ($11.5) (burrata, brussels, delicata squash, tomato and bell pepper, tomato bread). This is better described as a stew with chunks of a few vegetables in a rich tomato sauce. The sauce completely overwhelmed all the other components to the point, other than the Brussels sprouts, none were distinguishable. I can only give this dish a 4.

We also ordered, but I did not try, the ENSALADA ($8) (local greens, shaved brussels, pear, pomegranate, spiced pecan, manchego, tarragon vinaigrette). The others were enjoying this so much while I was eating the artichokes and mushrooms, I did not have a chance to sample. They all loved it.

We also ordered two of the larger seafood plates.

The LOBSTER PAELLA ($18) (Maine lobster, chicken, chorizo, bomba rice) was very good but contained very little lobster meat; I did notice one claw. The rice was cooked with some offering a little crunch on the outside (it is supposed to) and there was a good rich flavor. I would rate this an 8.

The bad news was the last dish and how the server handled the situation. The GAMBAS AL AJILLO ($11.5) head-on shrimp, garlic, sherry, ciabatta were inedible and the two of us who took a bit of the shrimp both stopped eating them. They were mushy and very fishy, I would venture they were borderline rancid. When the server came over I told her, “the shrimp are bad, they are mushy and fishy and you should tell the chef to check them since I think they may be rancid.” She thanked me.

Overall, we had a great time at Bar Mercado. We will definitely return, choose some of our favorites from this visit and try others. Most of the dishes were excellent, but the shrimp was a real downer.



Consulate (Atlanta) – Some Really Good Options (Zambia)

When another couple asked for a recommendation for new spot to go for dinner, we thought The Consulate would be a great choice. On our other visit we really liked the vibe, the food was delicious, plus sharing tapas would give us lots to choose from. The special country that half the menu would focus on was Zambia. I have never been, so I had no idea about the cuisine and was excited to try. We were a little concerned about the spiciness of the Zambian cuisine, but there was zero to worry about, it was more about flavors than spiciness.

We ordered a few items from the Zambia side of the menu and some from the regular.

The Cucumber Mango Salad ($12) included red onion, cilantro, baby spinach, cherry tomato, cumin, cinnamon, peanuts, clove, sprinkled with lime juice. This refreshing dish boasted both tangy and flavorful components and would have been much better with riper and sweeter mangoes. Given the under-ripeness of the main ingredient I can only rate this a 7.

The Sauteed Chinese Eggplant ($10) was served with red pepper, basil, garlic in a ginger sauce. The eggplant was ultra-soft from the sautée, while the red pepper strips were firm and crisp. I really liked the combination with the ginger sauce. I rate this dish an 8.

The Piri Piri Roasted Cauliflower ($12) was a simple head of cauliflower sprinkled with smoke paprika, rosemary, garlic and oil. You take a knife and cut into sections and enjoy. This was our favorite of the appetizers with the crispiness of the stalks and the pungent toppings. I give this a 9

We moved to the larger plates and we ordered a few. Unfortunately, several were not in the same league as the smaller plates.

My favorite was the Korean Pulled Duck Confit ($17), which was served a la tartare in a cylindrical shaped mound with a few crostinis. It included slowly cooked pork with chunks of butternut squash, dried cranberries, garlic, scallions, encased in a Korean bbq sauce. The flavors were incredibly rich and I would order again. One person at the table thought the sauce was a little too sweet. I rate this dish a 9.

The dish from Zambia we ordered was Zambezi Chicken Cutlet ($14) served with crushed peanuts and topped with an African Groundnut sauce. This was a basic breaded cutlet with a little sauce on top. I was underwhelmed by the dish but the sauce was interesting for a 6.

The only two dishes were really not to my liking.

The Char Siu BBQ Pork ($12) was oven roasted, with five-spice powder and served with a dark honey glaze. This dish should not have left the kitchen. There was so much fat and sinew in our pieces, it was either a big seller and we received the left-overs or the kitchen did not notice the poor slices. The sauce was delicious though and I will give it a 3 for the sauce.

The other non-recommended dish is the Pan Fried Shrimp Dumplings ($11) stuffed with both Chinese Black Fungus Wood Ear and Shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, carrots, celery, ginger and served with a sauce. The highlight of the dish was the wrappers, which were excellent, but the stuffing was tasteless and was screaming for an identity. I also rate this a 3.

After reading other reviews we expected, found and accepted, and will confirm we experienced many during our visit.  We were 20 minutes late getting seated and the hostess was not transparent in her assessments. The service during the meal was incredibly slow, with long pauses before we started and at several intervals. Our server, though, was very good, she knew the menu inside-out, made recommendations and checked in often, as did the manager. We will definitely return to the Consulate, we loved the vibe and most of the food.

Thrive (Atlanta) – Good Option Pre-State Farm Event

We were heading to a concert at State Farm and this is our normal choice. When we arrived, we were asked if we wanted a “shared” table or one by ourselves. We decided on a solo table, it was a little strange and caught us by surprise but it appears the restaurant has many enjoy a community experience.

We were brought menus and the first thing we noticed were they were not the same. There were a couple of missing items and the one we were finally given had prices $2-3 more than the others. My gut tells me they have more expensive options when there is an event at State Farm.

With all of the recent complaints about slow service, I was a bit nervous about our 615 reservation and catching the beginning of the 8:00 concert at SF. We decided we would order all the dishes to be served simultaneously. Other than an initial miscommunication the server was excellent throughout the meal. Likewise, the food arrived in a reasonable amount of time, so we did not experience the angst others have mentioned.

We started with the “Springer Mtn Chicken Potstickers,” which included six packets of chicken with Ginger, and shiitake mushrooms, served with lemongrass Sambal, and Ponzu sauces. I would describe these as boring and tasteless. Thankfully they topped the dish with some pickled vegetables, which was the other positive. The Ponzu was not to my liking but at least the Sambal had some flavor. I would not recommend this dish.

I also ordered the “Rainbow Roll” with crab, cucumber, avocado, all topped with salmon, tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, and a touch of Teriyaki Sauce, plus a “Pink A Boo Roll” with tuna, salmon, shrimp, crab, avocado, encased in a pink soy wrap, served with spicy plum sauce. This is not a sushi restaurant, but a restaurant that serves sushi, but it is a good light choice before an event at SF. It was OK, nothing special. Would I order again, maybe.

We actually had time for coffee and tea and the espresso was very good.

Overall, it is a reasonable place for a pre-event dinner, not a destination restaurant.

The Grove (Lakewood Ranch) – Not Memorable Cuisine

My wife and I decided to try the Grove in Lakewood Ranch. Overall, the setting was great, the service was friendly and courteous, but my meal could have been much better.

We started with the Tomato Jam Flatbread ( $8). This was a basic flatbread with the tomato jam (replacing marinara) and topped with mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, and basil. It is a good sharing dish, but nothing memorable. The jam overwhelmed to the other ingredients. I would rate this a 3.

My wife ordered the filet and she said it was very good. The side salad she requested was quite large.

I decided on the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($25) which was described as blue crab, tomato horseradish coulis, and slaw. When it was delivered to the table I was a little surprised as the normal domed-shape crab cake was more a potato pancake / Smashburger. It was flattened to a pancake shape. It was barely cooked, borderline room temperature and the flavor was not to my liking; it was bitter and overly salted, not allowing any of the carb flavor to shine. The scant amount of coulis was OK and the slaw was nothing special. This was not a well-executed or tasty option. The fries that accompanied the dish were also less than well-executed. Most were stuck together and those that were separate, benefitted greatly from the ketchup. I would rate this dish a 1.

With the patio fully occupied, I will chalk my experience to a bad few minutes in the kitchen and will give it another shot, but I will move to different choices.

Mediterraneo (Sarasota) – Great Pasta, Timing from Kitchen Needs Work

A few couples went to Mediterraneo in Sarasota. It was completely packed on a Saturday night, it was full of hustle and bustle and we really enjoyed the evening.

Once seated, the server immediately brings a plate of Bruschetta, toasts topped with diced tomatoes. It was delicious and was a good preamble to the remainder of the meal.

I ordered the Polpo (Grilled octopus over green peas pesto puree) ($15) and the Linguine Nere (Black linguine/ shrimp/ spicy tomato sauce) ($18.50).

The appetizer arrived in record time, which was a little surprising. It was one long tentacle sitting atop the pea puree. The temperature of the octopus was a little concerning, the thicker part of the tentacle was very hot and the thinner part was served luke warm. It was not possible in the short time between the order and the delivery for this to have been prepared to order. In addition, it was overwhelmed with salt. Overall, I was disappointed with the octopus but the pea puree was delicious.

The squid ink pasta, on the other hand, was excellent. While the pasta was just a tad overcooked (personal preference), the sauce was fantastic. The menu and the server (a nice touch) both mentioned that the sauce was  “spicy,” it offered just a little spice, but nothing to be concerned about. The shrimp were firm and tasty, albeit on the smaller side. Overall, I really enjoyed this dish.

The timing from the kitchen needs a ton of work. When my wife was barely finished with her salad, they ripped the plate from the table and placed the entrées. The was absolutely zero time (if there was a negative time concept, this would be it) between the appetizer and entrée course. This was very bad form on a Saturday night.

We will definitely return to Mediterraneo and ask the server to ensure there is a 15-20 minute gap between appetizer completion and entrée start.

Brasserie Bazati (Inman Park) – Strong Appetizers

Brasserie Bazati opened last October and has outgrown the initial pains that many have described on the internet. With a great location overlooking the Beltline, this will fast become a destination restaurant, once a few of the dishes improve. The room is wonderful, with 30’ ceilings, plenty of room between tables a small nook-bar in one corner and both high and low tables to choose from.

French Onion Soup with cave-aged gruyere cheese, sherry and crouton –  The broth was deep and rich with flavors, but it was a little salty. It was joined in the crock slice of bread and the gruyere cheese. Neither overwhelmed the soup and onions. I really liked this soup. I give it an 8.

Mussels Moules Frites – herbs, shallots, white wine, butter, garlic. Probably the perfect bowl of mussels. The broth was rich and the chef is not shy to add a lot of garlic, which was great. The mussels were cooked to perfection, plump and moist and not a single “closer” was in the bowl. It was served with a great piece of bread to sop up the extra, plus frites which were also excellent. I give this a 10.

Trout Meuniere with sun choke purée, Brussels sprouts, brown butter, lemon, capers, micro-greens –  I ordered this because the manager highly, highly recommended the dish. I should have trusted my gut and ordered a different item. This is not a brook trout dish but a steelhead trout dish, more aligned with a wild salmon. I always wonder where the fat ends of the filets go, since I was served the tail end. The best part of the dish was the sun choke purée, full of flavor. Unfortunately, the fish was a little overcooked, just to the point of beginning to dry. The was little, if any, lemon on my dish and a scant few capers. The Brussels sprouts were very good. I give this dish a 5-6.

Crème Brulée – Served in a traditional low dish, the crème was ultra-creamy and the topping was just the right thickness, not too thick and gave a little crunch and sweetness. I would definitely recommend this as a nice ending to the meal. I give this a 9.

Service was excellent. Our server knew the menu cold, gave recommendations and was present throughout the meal.

Overall, I really liked the restaurant, the service and most of the food. I would pro

Cibo & Beve (Sandy Springs) – Some Great Burrata & Eggplant Parm

I was not sure what to expect from an Italian restaurant in a strip mall across from Kroger’s, but the couple who recommended the restaurant assured me the food was delicious. When you walk in, you are pleasantly surprised by the surroundings, you leave the strip mall thoughts behind, you are in a nicely decorated restaurant. There are high top tables when you enter, a smattering of regular height tables and a few booths. Our foursome decided on a booth, it was a great choice.

The first indication of the food quality was the bread, which I was told was made in-house. A basket was brought to the table with two bowls of olive oil with a ton of pepper added to the oil. The bread was delicious, just be aware that you could receive a fair amount of pepper on the olive oil dip. A second basket was delivered. I give the bread an 8.

The Burrata appetizer was served with halved cherry tomatoes, arugula, balsamic and extra virgin olive oil ($12) – One of the best Burratas around. The skin was soft and when you cut into the center, the interior oozed, with great flavor and texture. It went well with the arugula and the scant, few halved cherry tomatoes. The only negative was the salting of the arugula was very uneven. The Burrata is a 10 and the salad & tomatoes are a 7.

The Cibo Meatballs ($10) were topped with San Marzano tomato sauce, and a dollop of ricotta. There is little positive I can say about these meatballs, it was a complete failure. They were served room temperature, much too cool, the meat was stringy, there was little, if any flavor, and the texture was too firm. The sauce was the only redeeming feature. I would avoid this altogether. Sorry, but this dish gets a 0.

Eggplant Parmigiana ($12), was a typical recipe, but served in individual casserole dishes. The dish, itself was thinly sliced eggplant layered with mozzarella and parmigiana and san Marzano tomato sauce. This appetizer is easily an entrée portion and was absolutely delicious. It was individually baked to order so let it cool down before you start to eat. This is definitely a 10.

Veal Scaloppini ($28) is thinly pounded and served with sage, prosciutto cotto, fontina cheese, and white wine, atop polenta and spinach. This is also a large portion with several slices of delicious veal, perfectly fried sitting atop the prosciutto, spinach and polenta, a mighty tower. As a head’s up, there is a difference between prosciutto parma (the thin slices that we all enjoy with mozzarella and tomato as an appetizer) and prosciutto cotto, the latter is part of this dish and resembles boiled ham versus the cured prosciutto. I really like the veal, but the prosciutto cotto was not to my liking and I was not overly enamored by the polenta. I give this a 7.

Tiramisu ($8) with espresso and kahlua dipped savoiardi, mascarpone mousse, cocoa powder was a great split for dessert. This was an excellent version, with the cake and custard allowed to shine versus some versions where the liquor is the centerpiece. It is a nice hug at the end of the meal. I give it a 9.

Service was very good.

Overall, I liked Cibo & Beve. The atmosphere was great and the food has potential. With one meal under my belt I have a better feel for the strengths and will order accordingly on the next visit.

Russ & Daughters (NYC) -Keep it Short and Enjoy

Smoked SalmonsWe did it.

We made it there, we found the tickets, we were present when our number was called, we ordered everything we wanted, and when we sat at the table in the apartment…we ate a magnificent breakfast.

We ordered New Zealand salmon, Scottish salmon, herring with cream sauce and onions, chopped herring and cream cheese. We decided to buy the bagels elsewhere.

The New Zealand was very mild with a buttery texture, I never would have guessed either, but the NZ salmon was delicious. Even better was the Scottish, a richer flavor and the best salmon of the weekend. The herring in cream sauce is incomparable, has no competitor, and is perfect in every way.

Gu’s Kitchen (Buford Highway, ATL) Still Serves the Best Dumplings

front windowOne of the great things about Atlanta is Buford Highway. You can wonder in and out of strip malls filled with ethnic foods from around the world. Miles and miles of options.

I’ve been reading a lot about Gu’s Kitchen new location on Buford Highway and with the weather not the best for any outdoor activities, I decided to give it a try. When I arrived, there was a dragon festival commemorating the beginning of the Lunar New Year and it set the stage for the festive culinary events to follow.

descriptive signTo the left of the entrance are two coolers filled with water, one plain and the other, “lemon,” with lots of glasses stacked neatly to one side. I did not understand their purpose when I arrived, but would 15 minutes later, after a few bites of noodles. To the right of the entrance is your first stop, the combination ordering station and cashier. You receive a menu and an obligatory, “Is this your first time here?” questions. When I smiled, the cashier was great about making recommendations, I wanted to order a lot, but we agreed to keep it small, an order of six dumplings and the handmade, thick noodles. You then pay, go to your table and wait. The food arrived in about 5 minutes.

DumplingsThe dumplings are a must. You can choose from three fillings, pork, chicken or vegetables and pair it with one of the two sauces, I chose pork filling with the Zhong style, Gu’s award-winning famous sweet & spicy sauce.

They were perfect in every way. Words cannot describe the silkiness of the wrappers, soft, succulent and added just a touch of flavor. The pork filling was delicious, not too much, not too little, and added great flavor, not fighting with the other ingredients. The sauce/oil was a variety of spicy, ranging from a 4 to a 6 on my scale, depending on each bite. Overall, these were probably the best dumplings I have ever eaten.

Thisck NoodlesThe noodles are described on the menu as “Handmade thick chewy noodles with homemade sweet sauce and chili oil; sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. One of the most famous street foods in Chengdu.”

The noodles were thick and mounded in a bowl covered with a very similar spicy oil to the dumplings. I was a little concerned that they would be gummy, but I could not have been more wrong, they were soft and delicate throughout (I disagree with the “chewy” description). The sauce added the same level of spiciness as the dumplings, again, depending on the individual bite, it could range from moderate to noticeable kick of spiciness. In addition, the spiciness stays on the lips and mouth for a few minutes afterwards.

Overall, Gu’s kitchen should be a “must go to” on everyone’s list. I hate saying this since I need to also get back to try some of the other dishes.

Heirloom BBQ (Sandy Springs) – A Little Disappointing

Two Meats + SidesI tried to buy some Q from Heirloom a few weeks ago but when I arrived, the parking lot was empty, I knew the bad news…sold out. The paper bag on the front door confirmed my fear. Today was different since I arrived mid-afternoon, there were both cars and motorcycles in the lot and a few people were gathered in front of the door.

You enter the market, grab a menu and work your way to the order/register. I ordered a 2-meat platter with two sides and chose the brisket and pulled pork for the meats, baked beans and Brunswick stew for the sides, and an order of the Korean sauce. All was placed in a Styrofoam clamshell along with some sliced pickles and a buttered and grilled bun.

Pulled Pork – This was the best of the order. They give a good mound of meat. I loved the texture, almost soft and delicate with great smokiness. When you added some of the special Korean sauce it was an international explosion of flavor on the palate.

Brisket – There were probably 4 nice slices in the order. I really wanted to love the brisket but it fell flat. While the meat absorbed a good deal of smokiness, the rub disappeared in the cooking process, I could see it, but it was almost non-present on first bite. The meat was greatly enhanced by the sauce, but without the sauce, it was not to my liking.

Make your own sandwich – I halved the roll and tried with the pork/sauce/pickle on one half and substituted the brisket on the other. The combination was really good with the spiciness of the sauce and the tanginess that the pickle complemented the other participants.

Brunswick Stew – I was skeptical when I ordered it, but it was excellent. Full of great flavors and chunks of meat.

Baked beans – A little too sweet for my taste, plus with a ton of meat scraps all over the kitchen, I would have preferred some chopped meats in the beans.

Overall, I was expecting a lot more from this acclaimed BBQ joint. While the pulled pork was outstanding and even better with the Korean sauce, the others fell a little flat. Given the proximity to B’s Cracklin, the stakes are higher for this part of Atlanta.