Review #2: a(MUSE.)

29 December 2019

Oh, that was a bit too much last night… A fabulous evening of excellent food and cocktails at Sailor Oyster Bar here in Annapolis, but I was feeling very rough. But I was up relatively early as I had to get to the US Naval Academy at 9am and go to visit the USNA Cemetery — and to pay my respects to John McCain. The long walk from the checkpoint was for the better, as I really did need to walk all that booze off from last night.

I eventually headed east, across the Bay Bridge over to the Delmarva Peninsula. I made a few stops along the way, but eventually got to Rehoboth Beach. In the summer the roads would have been jammed and the place overrun with tourists, but it being the dead of winter it was nice and quiet. I checked into my now-usual hotel and chilled out…and caught a much-needed nap…

I decided to drive out here as a(MUSE.) announced it was closing at the end of the year. I had such a wonderful evening here last time I visited the Delaware coast, remembering the fabulous food and wonderful staff.

I had originally planned to drive out here in January, and I was checking their winter opening times — only to find the sad news. It’s been brave of them to open year-round in a beach town, and they have been successful despite the challenging demographics in the winter. But that news saddened me, so I ended up making the 3-hour trip after making sure I got a spot for the last normal night of service on Sunday night.

I headed there and perched at a nice bar seat and tried to remember faces from my last visit, which was fantastic. I made sure they were running a tasting menu tonight, so I was really looking forward to this farewell dinner. Chef Hari Cameron came out to say hi and gave a little hint to the tasting menu ahead.

The jovial crowd were celebrating, but in a sad way, as many were regulars — either local or from further away — coming to mark the end of the restaurant’s 8-year run. I was just finishing up a cocktail when my excellent barman, a local institution, poured me a California bubbly and my first dish arrived — oyster.

01-oyster

After last night you’d think I’d had enough, but these local oysters I love, so when Chef Cameron offered this one from just down the coast I was pretty happy. Lovely flavours working well with the buttermilk ice. Lovely start, good palate opener. Then with a juicy red poured, the next dish arrives — the beef tartar.

02b-tartar

I loved it the last time they offered it, and this was even better. The beef was so absolutely delicious, the texture perfect — not rendered to death like how so many chefs do it, but bearing just enough texture to make it truly interesting. I’ve had enough tartar from Michelin-starred places to know this is one of my all-time favourite versions. Lovely quality local beef, done in an expert fashion. I’m happy.

And I’m sad, that I didn’t make it out here more now that it’s too late… Another drink in hand and then the scallops dish arrived…

03a-scallops

Now let’s uncover this…

03b-scallops

Last time Chef Cameron did an excellent scallop dish for me too, and this one is even better. Beautiful stuff, grilled just perfect to extract even more sweetness from the quality scallops. I’m loving this dinner so far but again, it’s making me more melancholy. In a year that so many of my re-visits have failed me, it’s clear I took too long to come back to this place, one that would not fail me…

Then with another glass poured by the jovial bartender, who is the master of the court for all the bar customers celebrating, the next dish arrived…

04-mussels belly

An interesting dish to say the least, but you have a wonderful combination of mussels and pork belly on grits. What a lovely dish, each of the components flavourful but in unison a pure delight each time. This is one of the dishes I could have eaten a quadruple portion…so good. Chef Cameron is doing a fantastic final tasting here…

05-short rib

Then with a robust red poured, Chef brought out the last savoury dish — short rib. Quite good. Usually I’m bored to death by slow-cooked short-rib, but this was excellent without it being so dried up requiring all that sauce (if you’re wondering why people always serve their slow-cooked short-ribs in a bath of brown). Good stuff, a little sad that it’s all over…

06-dessert

Well, there’s the dessert, a tasty official close to the tasting menu… Ah, this was a great last tasting menu of the year, sadly one that will not be repeated. They are set for a mixed service the next evening with a big party, and a final New Year’s Eve night for the last night. I am not the party type, so was more than happy to say my goodbyes this final normal night of service…

But not yet. I kept drinking there, enjoying the banter with the staff and fellow customers, so I ended up grabbing some stuff to keep me going…

07-nuts

These spiced nuts are quite delicious, and then some devilled egg spread that’s more delicious than you imagine. That helped fortify me for the rest of the night, drinking until last orders to properly say goodbye to the place.

08a-devilled egg spread

I’m so happy to have made it before they closed, as I would have been extremely disappointed to have not had this final chance to enjoy Chef Cameron’s cooking. It’s the last tasting menu of the year, a successful one. It’s the last re-visit of a previously excellent restaurant of the year, and a rare successful one in this year of re-visit fails (ie Juniper in Tulsa, Matthew’s in Jacksonville, Yono’s in Albany, Cured in San Antonio, etc…). The good ones always go away…

But a much needed and much appreciated final food celebration for a very messy 2019. I’m gonna miss this come 2020…

a(MUSE.)
44 Baltimore Avenue
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Review: Sailor Oyster Bar

28 December 2019

I had a bit of an excessive Christmas… I was bored, running solo, so had to improvise something. Worked out well enough, but also perhaps overdid it. However, also as I was reading stuff online that a restaurant I really liked was unexpectedly closing at the end of the year, I had to make an emergency trip east. And I ended up planning a 2-day little trip east to mark the last trip of the year, and to perhaps celebrate its end as I generally do not celebrate New Year’s Eve, so…

I drove out to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. There, that’s the 50th state capital I’ve visited — and ironically it’s the closest to me. I’ve spent time in all 49 others, but I’ve only dropped into Annapolis for a few minutes at a time, so that doesn’t really count. So I’ve not only visited all 50 states, but all 50 state capitals.

Trip began a bit annoying as my hotel on the outskirts of town somehow had no coverage (good job, AT&T…). But I knew I wanted to try a place called Sailor Oyster Bar in downtown, so I headed there early on this end-of-year Saturday night. It was hopping already at 6pm, and I had to wait a little for a counter spot. I had a nice cocktail in hand already, so when some seats came open I pounced.

I put in an order of oysters and chilled and enjoyed. When Rush came on the PA, I knew I was gonna like this place… The crew was extremely friendly and skilled, and then the oysters arrived…

1-oysters

Oh, I love local oysters, especially when you’re on the coast. There’s a nice selection here, I missed the names, but they run the gamut of briny to complex. Lovely stuff. And the cocktails have been quite good also. By now my excellent barman was giving me recommendations, and I told him from this point on to use his imagination and feel free to make whatever he wants. Yep, it’s gonna be that kind of a night…

But I need more food since I haven’t eaten all day, and planned on boozing until I crashed this evening, I ordered another item. To mix it up I got some duck yakitori…

2-duck

Mmmm, nicely smoked skewers here, though a little small but enough to whet the appetite even more. So with more booze flowing, I decided on yet another dozen local oysters…

3-oysters

Delicious as the first set, I really enjoy the mix from briny to complex. Local oysters never get the national attention they deserve, but that’s good — we get to keep this to the local area for our own enjoyment. The music was still good, the crowd still happy, the crew behind the bar still working hard to create drinks, so I kept going…

4-sea bass

Next up some miso-glazed sea bass. Absolutely delicious, the flavours working so well here with good quality fish. Enjoyed that. At this point the drinking got into the excessive point. May as well, I’ve pretty much made these 2 nights my end-of-year celebration, so…

If you ever go to Annapolis, this is a heck of a winner here. Lovely food, delicious fresh local oysters, fabulous drinks, awesome staff. You just gotta love it. It’s almost worth going to Annapolis just to enjoy a night out here.

Sailor Oyster Bar
196 West Street
Annapolis, Maryland

A Rare Local Review: The Warehouse

18 November 2019

I was in Old Town Alexandria after some local government issue I was involved with. The meeting was tedious, and when I finally headed out it was steadily raining. I figured I’d just find somewhere nearby for dinner. A quick look at the map on my phone I see a place called The Warehouse is less than a block away, so I went with it.

My very capable barman, Carlos, made a nice sazerac to start the evening as I went through the menu. I ordered and relaxed with the drink. A quiet evening, so it was easy to strike up a conversation with the still-busy barman. Good guy, good drinkmaker. I finished and ordered a second as my starter arrived. First up, some gator bites.

1-gator bites

I’m always a fan of alligator, it’s delicious meat. These are chopped smaller than I’m used to, but they did its job. I like the peppery bite, though the mustardy dip was a bit misguided and I wish there was something that fits gator a little better than mustard. But not a bad start, and at this point I switched to a boulevardier upon my barman’s rec. Then my main arrived…

2-smotheered catfish

Mmmm, this loooks good, fried catfish smothered in a crawfish and shrimp étouffée. The catfish was fried perfectly, and the breading just thick enough to keep it from getting soggy but thin enough to not interfere with the delicious fish underneath. Surpisingly good execution here, something you sometimes don’t see on quiet Monday evenings in any restaurant. And it was a hefty portion, with some garlic rice under all of that goodness. Excellent stuff, I’m impressed.

As it was getting late, they came asking for last orders for the kitchen. Alas, I was full and I didn’t want to keep the staff here on a rainy night just for me, so I just had a liquid dessert and continued my chat with the excellent barman before I headed out into the rainy night.

I’m surprised by this evening, as over the decades I’ve had so many shoddy nights of dining in Alexandria’s Old Town (ones I never reviewed), this was a shining light. If this is an indication of how much this area has improved, I’ll be dining out more frequently. Very much recommended!

The Warehouse
214 King Street
Alexandria, Virginia

A “WTF Happened to This Place” Roadtrip Part 3 – Review: Ludivine

1 October 2019

I woke up just before sunrise like every day of this roadtrip and was ready to go. Today’s the last of the driving as I head back to Oklahoma City. I headed north-east and made a few necessary stops before I got back to OKC and returned my car. Goodness, I somehow put on 3037 miles (4860km) in the last 9 days…

After all that, I luckily had a relaxing afternoon in OKC just lounging around my hotel room, relaxing with my guilty pleasure — an ultimate cheeseburger from Jack In The Box… Really, I’d rather have one of those than a Michelin-starred meal — the true definition of a guilty pleasure.

But I was also looking forward to dinner tonight at Ludivine. Last time I ate there I had a very nice dinner, albeit interrupted by a tornado warning and evacuation to the shelter (which was why I chose not to write a review at the time). I’m hoping for as good of a dinner tonight, but with less weather-related drama!

I took a Lyft to Ludivine and it was rather quiet this Tuesday evening. I relaxed at the counter and looked over the menu over a drink. I decided to go with the tasting menu as it was all off-menu stuff, and I like places that make an effort for their tasting menus. I had a good tasting menu last time, so I have some confidence it’ll be solid. However, I noticed that the number of courses had dropped (from 5 to 4) and the price has gone up (especially the wine). Well, it can’t be easy to run a fine-dining place in OKC I guess…

After a little bit, things started. I guess no amuse tonight, as the first dish arrived…

1-salmon

Salmon tartar, lightly cured, not bad. A solid start. I was a little surprised that my server, when pouring my wine (which was paired), did not know where my wine was from and had to go look. But overall it worked, a good start. Then the second dish appeared, and it all started to go downhill…

2-rabbit

This rabbit dish was a mess, sadly. The mushroom risotto was a mush, cooked rather unevenly. Some of it was way overcooked, some of it was hard. And the rabbit loin? It was cold. I asked if it was supposed to be cold, and they admitted no. Oops. And that was paired with a very skimpy pour of garnacha…

I noticed that as they got busier, my server seems to be running back and forth from the other room for the wines. The host, who should have been doubling as a runner (since he’s doing nothing), seems to be purposely ignoring the customers. I tried to get his attention a few times but he just kept staring out the door. Even when the kitchen was asking for dishes to be served, he only moved when he was cajoled to do so. And you can tell he knows how to do it, as he managed to give the dish description — including my third dish, the venison.

3-venison

I have to say the venison was decently good, I’m sure the kitchen took far more care on the temperature after my previous issue. But the problem was no wine, and that came later. Another very skimpy pour. If you are gonna charge as much as full-pours of wines-by-the-glass for 4 dishes, why then scam people with this pairing when the server don’t even know what wine it is? This is just piss-poor FoH stuff, borderline scammy. What’s with Oklahoma places and FoH scams? Is it the casino culture? Sigh…

By this point I didn’t even enjoy that venison as much as I should have. Oh well. And we’re done. This isn’t really even a tasting menu, more like a set menu with an inflated price. Should have done everything ala carte — especially the drinks. They were okay about substituting the pairing for a scotch for the dessert, so that’s good of them.

4-chocolate

The chocolate torchon was pretty good, and I enjoyed this close. But as I was planning to get some coffee and another after-dinner drink (the scotch pour was, as expected, skimpy), my server was nowhere to be found and the host had reverted into his zombie mood and ignoring my calls and waves for his attention. He was 5 steps away, I was sitting at the edge of the counter closest to the host stand.

At this point I just gave up. No reason to waste any more money at a place that doesn’t appreciate the custom. The kitchen was already mediocre, but tonight’s fail was very much a FoH one that made it just unpleasant. One of those textbook nights where dinner could have been passably good, but pushed down into disappointing by a poor FoH.

It’s sad when the 2 best things I had in Oklahoma is BBQ in Durant and a Jack In the Box cheeseburger instead of these pricey upscale restaurants that don’t understand some FoH basics. I guess when there’s a dearth of choices it’s easier to not improve. But again, what’s happened to this place compared to a few years ago…sigh…

I head home tomorrow on a morning flight in total disappointment…

Ludivine
320 NW 10th Street
Oklahoma City, Oklahooma

Things That Never Fail — Good Southern BBQ

24-30 September 2019

One of the biggest joys of travelling in the South is that you get fantastic BBQ. Not BS, flavour-of-the-month I-took-third-place-at-a-regional-event stuff, but properly done as it has for generations. And on this trip, I managed to sample 2 of my all-time favourites that I’ve been dying to enjoy again, and found a surprisingly good third in a rather unexpected location.

As mentioned in earlier reviews, I had the pleasure of stopping at Sims Bar-B-Que when I was in Little Rock. Since I first visited in 2015, I have been dreaming of the rib tips from this venerable business. When you’ve been making BBQ for as long as this place, you definitely know what to do. And even the sketchy location didn’t deter me, as this time I was ready for the somewhat off-putting security measures (understandable) here.

I arrived mid/late afternoon on a weekday, so obviously no crowd. I took my stuff to go, as I was done for the day and my hotel wasn’t far away. I thanked the friendly staff as I quickly went back to my rental car to get to my hotel. I’ve not had lunch so I was hungry. And I was soon rewarded with some beauties…

1-rib tips

I had a set of rib tips and a set of ordinary pork ribs here. They both have their appeal. I’m usually not a sauce person, but Sims has one of the best BBQ sauce in the world, and I made a rare exception to have it drenched in sauce. Fabulous stuff. The ribs had a proper smoke to it, but the flesh was moist and tender, about as tender as it can be without falling off the bone (which isn’t good in a saucy BBQ). Perfect. The tips too, similar, but has its own appeal. I’ve waited over 4 years to enjoy these babies again, and it was worth the wait. Far better than the previous night’s rubbish at Juniper in Tulsa… So good…

A few days later, after my surprisingly good Japanese dinner at Sonobana in a suburban Nashville strip-mall, I headed back westward. A bit of a snake-y route but I had a busy early afternoon in Memphis, not helped by how crazy busy the city was with multiple events this Saturday; luckily I was somewhere completely deserted (I’m sure my readers can guess). But after 2 hours of hiking in the blazing sun and near-record heat (that’s saying a lot for Memphis), I was done, and I made a stop at another of my all-time favourite BBQ places — A&R Bar-B-Que.

Memphis is sketchy once you get south of Beale Street, and it’s so heartbreaking to see some of it en route to A&R. Parts of it look far worse than even the bad parts of Lima or Quito… But A&R is always an oasis for those who love BBQ, and I stopped off this mid-afternoon for my day’s food. Again I had skipped lunch, so I carried enough for a day’s feasting — plus perhaps breakfast tomorrow. I headed to my dodgy hotel near Memphis airport and opened up my bounty…

2-

One of A&R’s specialties, something I’ve been dying to eat again since my last trip 4 years ago, is their smoked turkey leg, and this is fantastic. Tastes far, far better than it looks. The skin at this point is not to everyone’s liking, but the flavour of the meat inside is just amazing… No need for sauce, though the A&R spicy is another one of the sauces that I would make a rare exception and use…

2-ribs

And their ribs are fabulous also. Perfect, with just enough smoke for the juicy and tender meat. I almost wish I had more than half a rack, but with that turkey leg I was set. I saved the second turkey leg for breakfast/lunch the next morning before I headed out the door, but dessert…

2-cake

Oh my this was crazy rich…what a great little treat! I was stuffed…until I got up at 5am, and that second turkey leg was waiting for me…

2-turkey leg - 02

Yeah, right? Nice way to fuel oneself. Geez, these 2 BBQ places didn’t fail me like so many places with cooked foods. Even the service at these places were better. Efficent, no BS. Not quite like Parlor Market in Jackson, which still stung. I finished the last of the turkey leg just before sunrise and headed out west, glad to not have to deal with the rising sun during my morning drives.

A long day snaking south-west through Arkansas, I eventually ended the day in the Shreveport area. I didn’t intend on stopping in Louisiana on this trip, but it was here or Texarkana — and all of the places I wanted to eat at in Texarkana were closed on a Sunday. So I went with Louisiana. A surprisingly good take-away dinner from Lucky Palace, I didn’t expect this quality of authentic Chinese food here. This restaurant also boasts a top wine programme apparently and is a James Beard wine nominee. Sadly, the service was so chaotic this day I chose to not eat in, and just had some wine as I waited for the take-away.

The final full day of driving I headed out north-west, through north-east Texas, making several stops. Eventually I rolled into Durant, Oklahoma. Why, you ask. I’m not sure. I timed my drive and with some of the stops I needed to make in Oklahoma I couldn’t do it in time to push all the way back to OKC. And Durant looked passable compared to a few other towns nearby at the Oklahoma-Texas border area. I wasn’t too keen on all the casino activity, so hopefully my motel is quiet enough…

It was barely passable, not helped by the long-term stay people (mostly construction crew) who treated the property like their home, setting up lawn furniture on motel balconies blocking people from moving around, and smoking endless amount of pot that kept coming into my room…oh joy. But at least I had this to get me by…

3-box 1

I found Main Street Barbecue by accident, and didn’t think much of it. I was hungry as I had not eaten all day (again) so I had 2 mixed plates to go. And to my surprise every item was good! It looked dry, but the beef brisket was excellent, as was the ham and turkey. The ribs were also good, as were the sides. But the stars here were the assortment of smoked sausages. They were absolutely delicious. A heck of a surprise here, and it’s telling that every item was good.

Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter. The big restaurants constantly fail me, because the margin for error are far smaller there. But these reliable BBQ places? They hit the spot every time, because they are consistently good. All three are totally recommended if you are in the area — and some of them worth a major detour!

Sims Bar-B-Que
2415 Broadway
Little Rock, Arkansas

A&R Bar-B-Que
1802 Elvis Presley Boulevard
Memphis, Tennessee

Main Street Barbecue
42 West Main Street
Durant, Oklahoma

A Music City Surprise (Review: Sonobana)

27 September 2019

I headed out of Oxford a little sad, as I’ve finally had a nice meal; dinner at City Grocery last night was a pleasure. But now it’s time to head north-east, snaking through the last bits of Mississippi until I reached Corinth and eventually onto the Natchez Trace Parkway for a relaxing drive towards Nashville.

A quick stop at Meriweather Lewis’s grave en route, I rolled into Nashville mid-afternoon. The point of visiting a city I don’t quite enjoy was for one thing — to attend the King Crimson concert at the historic Ryman Auditorium. Seeing Bob Fripp play in the home of the Grand Ole Opry was something I couldn’t pass up.

But that all turned into a mess. Downtown Nashville is nutty enough on a given day, but a Friday evening with a Carrie Underwood concert at the arena next door? It’s just sheer chaos. And unfortunately I chose to leave the concert at the intermission, the primary reason being the extremely thick cloud of pot smoke in my section. With the Ryman’s balcony so low, the floor seating ceiling traps the fumes — which all came from DAMN VAPERS. They think it’s okay to do this indoors because it’s vaping and not lighting up a bud…but it’s far, far worse fume-wise. I nearly passed out at one point…

I’m too old for this shit (despite all the vaping tokers older than me)…

I headed out and grabbed a Lyft, thanking the fates that the Carrie Underwood show had not finished yet. I decided at that point to get some food instead of heading back to my hotel, and I had 3 possibilities on my list. I chose the one that took me furthest away from downtown, and generally in the direction of my hotel — Sonobana.

Now why would Mel eat Japanese food in suburban Nashville of all places? Why risk it? I can’t explain, but I had a good feeling about this place for some reason after reading about it. When I arrived at the non-descript strip-mall location I was led to the sushi counter. I relaxed over a sake, still nursing a headache from the damn pot fumes. I started to perk up when I saw the specials board listing one of my favourite snacks — shishamo. So I ordered an initial set of food and hoped for the best…

1-sushi set

Well, I think this sushi selection soothed any questions I could have had of this place. They were fresh and delicious, especially the saba, hamachi and hokigai. As good as the far pricier 15 East in NYC. And my shishamo arrived!

2

Oh these are good, almost as good as ones I get in Japan — lovely, plump, full of roe. So I ordered another one!

3-shishamo

So good…and in the meantime a few more items arrived. First off some ankimo

4-ankimo

I still can’t really believe I’m eating ankimo in suburban Nashville…then some lovely grilled gindara (sablefish)…

5

Oh this is so good…lovely and rich, the miso working perfectly. I’m really enjoying this dinner! And more food!

6-sanma

The grilled sanma (saury) is quite good, though makes me miss Japan so much…

7-shishamo

I miss it less tho with a third order of shishamo! You see how much I love these things! I was getting pretty full, and they were about to close up, so I ordered my version of a dessert from my excellent sushi chef…

8-toro

Lovely quality toro here, and some anago

9-anago

Fantastic end. I still can’t believe I’m eating this in suburban Nashville. I guess leaving the concert early turned out well after all. I finished my sake and thanked the staff for taking such good care of me.

This was a find that’s for sure. There’s a connected Japanese market too, so these folks are serious. I know if I ever end up in Nashville again I’ll make sure to stop at a certain suburban strip-mall for some excellent food!

Highly recommended!

Sonobana
40 White Bridge Road
Nashville, Tennessee

Finally, a Good Place Stayed Good! (Review #2: City Grocery)

26 September 2019

I headed out of Jackson still saddened by that disappointing night at Parlor Market, for a long time one of my destination restaurants that has not failed. I spent a long day snaking through the eastern part of the state, making several stops — including the Food Giant in Columbus, which is extremely famous for its fried chicken. Oh, the chicken are indeed good

The day eventually ended in the university town of Oxford, where the excellent City Grocery is located. It’s another of the restaurants I’ve enjoyed over the years, and I’m just hoping not to have a similar experience to last night and to Juniper in Tulsa

I was seated at a cosy table and I relaxed with a cocktail and ordered. Soon my snack arrived…

1-devilled eggs

I love devilled eggs, and these were a tasty start. Then next up was the corn soup…

2-corn soup_edited

Oh my goodness this was fabulous. The smoke was deep and penetrating into the corn, which added a wonderful level of complexity into a tasty dish. So nice and thick, with a few fried oysters to help it along. Fabulous, one of the best soups of the year!

But at this point for some reason they dimmed the already low lights here and I literally could not even see my drink anymore…so I asked to move to the bar, which was bright. With another drink in hand, I awaited my main — which I did not choose. I gave my server a few options and left it up to him, but when he told the bartender which wine to pour, I suspect it was the beef cheeks…

3-beef cheeks

And I was right. Oh my these are tender and excellent. Lovely flavours, working well with the grit “risotto” beneath. I’m not just enjoying these dishes, but also relieved that finally one of my standing favourite places to eat has not failed me — tho it’s sad that it’s come to this. Excellent night.

I enjoyed more drinks and chatting with the friendly staff, and decided on a dessert…

4-apple tart_edited

A nice apple tart, going well with the local tipple the bartender suggested. After one final drink, I thanked the staff and headed out to catch a Lyft back to my hotel. A much-needed and much-appreciated good evening out. City Grocery has done itself proud once again, excellent food and service.

I’ve always enjoyed Oxford, and I know I’ll definitely be back to enjoy this place again in the future. So relieved…

City Grocery
152 Courthouse Square
Oxford, Mississippi