Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Rum Boogie Café (Vacation post)

Rum Boogie Café
182 Beale Street
Memphis, TN

I was still recovering from the stomach flu when friends arrived from England to spend their two-week vacation with us, and one of them would be celebrating a milestone birthday while here. His wish: to be sipping a cold one in a blues bar somewhere in America. Originally we considered just wandering up the road to Mansion Hill Tavern, but when we learned that his companion was a huge Elvis fan it seemed silly not to simply pack up the car and drive to Memphis – Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock & Roll - and kill two birds with one stone.

This was not my first visit to Memphis. My husband and I had been there years ago, doing the touristy stuff like Graceland, Sun Studios and Beale Street, so I already knew what to expect food-wise but remained optimistic that Southern cooking had advanced enough to include the odd vegetarian dish.

Y’all can stop laughing any time.

There’s nothing like a visit to the South to remind oneself just how difficult it remains to find decent vegetarian fare in some parts of the United States. We wandered up and down Beale Street reading the posted menus and moving on. Lest I give the impression that there was absolutely nothing, let me say that we did find one place on the Beale Street strip that listed a vegetarian entrée - The Hard Rock Café offers a veggie burger.

Our criteria, however, was to find an American blues bar, and the HRC is neither American nor blues, having originated in London in the early 1980’s, so we gave it a miss and trudged on.

Finally we settled on the Rum Boogie Café, which listed a couple of vegetarian appetizers on the menu but more importantly boasted a boogie blues band with a pedigree so enticing that we simply could not turn down the chance to see them live. Elmo & The Shades includes former members of Stax and Hi Records house bands (one of which toured with Jimi Hendrix during his Army years and also played with him at Woodstock), amazing drummer Lawrence Harper (he’s behind the kit in the movie The Blues Brothers) and legendary guitarist Skip Pitts, “the master of the wah-wah,” whose signature licks on Isaac Hayes’s “Theme From Shaft” are instantly recognizable. Awwwww yeah.

Musically we were in for a real treat, and my three dining companions couldn’t get enough of the BBQ pulled pork shoulder, BBQ ribs and red beans & rice, so for them the food also got two thumbs up. Me? Not so much.

It wasn’t that my selections tasted bad or that the choices were poor, it was the sad fact that while my friends were able to order a full meal from the menu for under fifteen bucks, I had to cobble together a selection of disparate appetizers that ended up totaling more for substantially less food than any of my friend’s meals.

I ordered the Café House Salad ($6.75), Nacho Momma’s ($8.75 for a handful of tortilla chips slathered in processed cheese and topped with a sprinkling of tomatoes, jalapenos and lettuce) and Fried Green Tomatoes ($7.75). Of the three, the latter selection was the only one I felt was money well spent, even though it ran nearly $8 for a measly six slices of tomato. Oh they were good though! I could have eaten my weight in them, given the chance.

We knew in advance that it wouldn’t be a cheap night out, and I realize that the restaurants and bars along Beale Street can charge a premium based on their tourist mecca status, but as a vegetarian I felt ripped off. On the whole, the sandwiches, dinner entrées and platters were all very reasonably priced at Rum Boogie and the portions were typically Southern and massive. Their appetizers on the other hand were poor value for money, especially so when you need several of them to fill you up.

The logical solution would have been to eat at the Hard Rock Café and then go on to the Rum Boogie for the show, but I didn’t think it was fair for our friends to come all this way to eat at a restaurant they already know like the back of their hand. That’d be like me going to England and eating at Subway. I wanted them to experience Memphis gastronomically as well as musically, so I don’t begrudge letting them choose the venue. They got a taste of excellent Southern cooking, we had a great time enjoying a fantastically tight band that played a boogie-fied version of Happy Birthday to our friend Julian, and after a few pints I didn’t much mind the lack of veggie options anymore.

Thank goodness for beer!
Rum Boogie Café on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 21, 2008

Apologies for the lack of posts. I've been laid low with that vile stomach bug going around.

Hopefully I'll feel like eating again soon.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bagel Stop

Bagel Stop
Various downtown locations

I’ve had enough.

I don’t visit Bagel Stop franchises very often, but after my most recent visit they are officially off of my list. I’m not going to single out a particular location because I’ve had similar bad experiences at more than one of them and I’ve surmised that either their employees are not trained properly or they just don’t care. Who knows, maybe it’s a combination of both. All I know is that they are incredibly careless when they prepare sandwiches and I’m tired of wasting my lunch hour returning food that I can’t eat.

The restaurant lists several vegetarian options on the menu, but chances are strong that whatever is ordered will contain residue from previously prepared sandwiches, and it is totally unacceptable to find tiny bits of turkey, ham or tuna salad mixed into a vegetarian wrap.
C’mon Bagel Stop, how hard can it be to wipe down knives and food prep surfaces between orders? It doesn’t seem to be a problem at other local delis but at Bagel Stop the slacker attitude is apparent.

Also unacceptable: discovering that the employee who prepared the sandwich failed to remove the paper separators from the slices of cheese - that first bite was a real doozy - and pulling an entire square of waxy paper from the middle of the sandwich is just plain gross. Needless to say, the sandwich was returned, which leads me to part three: the manager was incredibly blasé and acted as though it was a regular occurrence. He even said to one of the other employees, "Hey, the paper’s sticking to the cheese again." If it is a known issue there are several things that they could do, the easiest of which is to be more vigilant! I realize it is probably out of the manager's realm of control to change suppliers, but double checking the slices before putting them in a sandwich can’t be that difficult, can it?

What IS difficult is trying to find a way to contact the franchisee regarding these issues; there doesn’t seem to be a web site, the restaurant didn't have business cards and the menu doesn’t list a customer service number or an address or phone number for their headquarters. Could it be that they don’t want to hear what their customers might have to say?

I’m done worrying about it. I won’t be going back. They may tout themselves as being vegetarian friendly, but they most certainly are NOT.
Bagel Stop on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 9, 2008


1211 Vine St.

Because I either walk or ride the bus to my job in downtown, lunchtime treks are limited to places within walking distance of the office. Ideally I should be able to get there, eat and get back to the office in about an hour, and as such hadn’t yet had the opportunity to try Jean-Robert de Cavel’s newest venture, Lavomatic, due to the distance between the two. So when a friend rang up to say he would be driving into downtown for business and asked if I had lunch plans, I could hardly contain my glee.

Wheels + lunch = the perfect opportunity for a quick trip to Over-the-Rhine. Neither of us knew how busy the restaurant would be at lunch and given the chef’s excellent reputation we figured we would be taking a gamble on finding a table, but decided to risk it. I also carved an extra half hour out of my schedule so that we would have ample time to dine without feeling rushed. If we couldn’t get into Lavomatic, our back-up plan would be Tucker’s.

We lucked out, arriving in time to grab a table for two along the wall. The restaurant is quite narrow, with a full-service bar made of sustainable cork running along one side and small bamboo tables lining the other, but the pale green walls and blond wood lighten the space considerably, making it feel larger than it is. Space is tight though, and as the restaurant filled up and diners grabbed seats at the bar, it felt mildly claustrophobic. It also took more effort than necessary to maneuver from the front of the restaurant to the back, where the unisex restroom and stairs to the rooftop terrace are located. I can only imagine how difficult it must be on crowded evenings.

As one might expect with a name like Lavomatic, the restaurant's inspiration comes from the social aspects of the laundromat as neighborhood gathering place. The color scheme mimics the pale green, old-fashioned washer sitting just inside the front door, and variously sized, brightly colored clothespins add a whimsical touch. Tables are nestled closely together, making it impossible not to eavesdrop on nearby conversations, but also lending itself to a more sociable atmosphere. My friend and I happened to be seated next to Mr. Cincinnati, Jim Tarbell, and spent a most enjoyable lunch chatting with him and his dining companions.

Service at the restaurant was slow. I’m unsure if that is because they hadn’t planned on such a large turnout for lunch or if they were just shorthanded, but we waited nearly ten minutes for glasses of water to arrive, and once they arrived were never refilled. We also had to ask for menus.

Lavomatic offers quite a few vegetarian options on their lunch menu and everything sounded so good that it was difficult to choose. I was tempted by the ubiquitous grilled cheese sandwich – which de Cavel tarts up using a French baguette – but instead decided upon a trio of vegetarian salads, and since it was a chilly day I also requested a cup of cauliflower soup. Although the better value is to order a tureen of the soup – it’s a mere two dollars difference between a cup and a pot that could easily feed four – my dining companion wasn’t in a soup mood and missed out on the rich, creamy delight.

The menu didn’t indicate what the trio of salads would be, but it wasn’t a concern because Jean-Robert very rarely disappoints me with his creations, and this time was no different. The trio - cucumber dill with shallots, smoky beluga lentils with roasted cherry tomatoes, and a peppery white lentil salad with sultanas - arrived in small bowls on a long, curved platter. I am a collector of oddly shaped dishes, stemware and barware, so the presentation was aesthetically pleasing and I'm kicking myself for not finding out the manufacturer. The bread and butter plates were Denby, but a quick look at their web site doesn't show anything similar to the groovy salad platter. No worries - I'll check next time.

Whilst the appealing presentation adds to the overall experience at Lavomatic, the real showstopper is the food, which is exquisite. The cucumber salad reminded me of the agurkesalat my Danish mother-in-law used to prepare for koldtbord (similar to the well-known Swedish smörgåsbord). Kirby cucumbers sliced paper-thin and delicately flavored with white vinegar, sugar and dill, Lavomatic's version would be right at home in a Scandinavian kitchen.

The lowly lentil is rightly elevated to star status here as well. A lot of people shun the quick-cooking legume, possibly because they've experienced them as a mushy mess - the result of overcooking - but lentils are packed with nutrients and are a perfect low-calorie, low-fat and cholesterol-free food. At Lavomatic, they are cooked flawlessly; no burst skins, no unpleasant squidiness. The beluga (black) lentils resembled caviar; glistening little black orbs absolutely bursting with earthy flavor. The white lentil salad teased the tongue, coaxing an exotic array of spicy flavors with each bite. My dining companion, who had ordered a beautifully presented curried chicken salad, eyed my selections jealously as I failed to hide the delight I got with each bite. In the end I was forced to share, and was pleased to see the look of utter rapture on his face after that first nibble. Yes, it really is THAT good.

The total for our meal was just over $20 - an unbelievable bargain for food this tasty. There is an expanded menu in the evenings and a stronger emphasis on the wine bar, so another visit is in order to garner the whole Lavomatic experience. The name may conjur up visions of dirty laundry, but the dining experience is akin to sliding between freshly washed bedlinens: pure bliss.
Lavomatic on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 1, 2008

bd's Mongolian Grill

bd's Mongolian Grill
8655 Mason Montgomery Road
Deerfield Township

Let me state right off the bat that I really like bd's Mongolian Grill. My husband and I were introduced to the concept six years ago in Denver, and since then we have visited a number of other franchise locations, always going away happy and satisfied. I blogged about our visit to the Dayton, Ohio location a few months ago, but had thus far resisted reviewing the new location in Deerfield Township. Mostly this is because up until this weekend my only visit was for one of their "mock services" prior to their official opening, and I didn't think it would be fair to rate the restaurant while the staff was still learning the ropes. I decided to give them a little while to get into the grilling groove.

After today's visit I'm wondering if maybe I should have given them a little more time.

BD's Mongolian Grill

We made a point to visit during a non-peak dining time so that it wouldn't be crazy busy and we'd get seated quickly, which we did. The first thing I noticed when walking into the dining room was the amount of food, straws and used napkins littering the floor. Since we were seated near families with toddlers I attributed the messiness to them, but the children could certainly not be blamed for the rice that my husband had to brush from his chair before he could sit down. I can't be sure, but it seemed to us that whomever had wiped down the table had been a little careless.

The bd's concept is brilliantly simple: diners grab a bowl and load it up from a variety of meats, seafood, tofu, fresh veggies, sauces and spices on offer at the food stations, then take the creation to a grill master for a quick stir-fry on the 600 degree, massive Mongolian grill.

Since everyone's food is cooked on the same surface and stir-fried with the same tongs, vegetarians need to alert the grill master beforehand so that an area of the grill can be cordoned off and cleared of debris, and a clean pair of tongs ensures that non-veggie foods won't co-mingle. This is one of the main reasons I like bd's so much; they seem to truely understand vegetarianism and have taken steps to make sure they get it right.

The grilling station

That is, until now. I'm gutted to give this restaurant anything less than a glowing review, but for the first time since first discovering bd's, I've been let down. It started when I took my bowl of veggies and tofu up to the grilling station. When I told the grill master that I was vegetarian he set up the stainless steel railings to cordon off the area, and half-heartedly wiped the tongs he'd been using on someone's prawn stir-fry, but didn't bother to douse the area with water nor scrape down the grill before squirting on the oil. When he came for my bowl I said to him, "You mean you're not going to clean off the grill first?" and he shook his head and gestured for me to go to the "allergy" station to get my dish cooked.

This is the first time I've ever been sent away from the grill, and to be perfectly honest I was a little stunned. It wasn't as if there were queues of people waiting either - I was one of only four people at the grilling counter.

I went over to the "allergy" area and the friendly guy manning the wok seemed as surprised as me to learn that I was sent over for being vegetarian, rather than for having an allergy to something like shellfish or peanuts. We chatted as he prepared my dish and admitted that he suspected the grill master was "just being lazy." He relayed my experience to a manager, who took it to another manager, who apologized and said that he would have a word with the grilling team.

It wasn't my intention to get anyone in trouble, but all three team members assured me that they need to know when an employee isn't following company policy so that it can be dealt with. I feel fortunate that I am familiar with the restaurant's rules, because had that been my first ever visit - as a vegetarian - it would have also been my last. It's a simple rule of thumb - you do not cook vegetarian foodstuffs on the same surface as non-vegetarian foodstuffs unless that surface has been properly cleaned.

Although my stir-fry was good, a wok is a far cry from a scorching hot grill, so the tofu was somewhat underdone. Certainly not the fault of the wok-meister; more a case of knowing what tofu flash-fried on the Mongolian grill tastes like.

Tofu and stirfried veggies

The errors didn't stop there. The price for a vegetarian bowl costs less than a regular bowl, and we made a point of letting our server know that mine was vegetarian, but she forgot somewhere between our table and the cash register. We had to send back the bill a second time to get it sorted. Had that been the only issue it would have been no big deal, but when coupled with the unkempt surroundings and the slackers manning the grill, it equaled a less-than-stellar experience.

I'll chalk it up to growing pains and will give them a shot at redeeming themselves at a later date. Let's hope they can rise to the challenge.
Bd's Mongolian Grill on Urbanspoon