New Flavors with Nashville Friends: A Food Adventure at The 404 Kitchen

wpid-0329142036.jpgThe 404 Kitchen
Nashville, Tennessee 

The older I become, the more I realize that so much of life is about our experiences. When I auditioned for ABC’s cooking competition reality show “The Taste” last year, I couldn’t have predicted the friendships that would result and never would have imagined I’d be hanging out in the Music City with the co-owner of an award-winning food truck eating chicken liver pate and drinking cocktails with smoked bacon. I’m talking about my friend, Carlos Davis of Riffs Fine Street Food. You may have seen him on the Cooking Channel’s Eat Street or featured in the Nashville Scene. He’s the coolest Caribbean I know, with a local, inside perspective on good eats. On a chilly Saturday night in early spring, Carlos and I reunited for the first time since we’d both hopped on a plane Southbound from Burbank, California in September 2013. Carlos showed me around a Nashville neighborhood known as the Gulch, and introduced me to The 404 Kitchen, led by Chef Matt Bolus.

wpid-0329142033.jpgAs noted on The 404 Kitchen’s website, the restaurant is “Housed in a former shipping container…and offers a modern take on classic European cuisine with an emphasis on local, seasonal fare, including herbs grown on the rooftop garden.”

A semi-finalist in the Best New Restaurant category of the 2014 James Beard Awards, The 404 Kitchen features indoor and outdoor seating to accommodate 56 guests for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday.

We decided to forgo the entrees all together and jump right in with Starters and Cocktails. We took our seats at the bar where Carlos quickly pointed out The Nearest Green, a libation featuring Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Laird’s Rare Apple Brandy, Benton’s Smoky Mountain bacon and citrus infused Tennessee honey. It had every flavor going for it–fruity, smoky and sweet. Who wouldn’t love a cocktail including bacon? I was all in, and it didn’t disappoint. When I had finished sipping the cocktail, I shamelessly ate the bits of bacon in the bottom of my glass with a spoon to which Carlos commented, “You would be weird if you didn’t!”

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The next order of business came in the form of Crudo, an appetizer of Cobia, blood orange, fennel, bee pollen (that’s right, bee pollen), pistachio and vidal ice vinegar. Now, I grew up in Blythe, Georgia and Twiggs County farm country. My folks and I didn’t eat quite like this. I had no idea what the majority of these ingredients were, but I tasted them with gladness and what a refreshing combination! I learned that Cobia is a type of fish. I loved the crunch of the pistachios and fennel. The vinegar and citrus flavors gave every bite a noteworthy kick. As for the bee pollen, I was at a total loss.

wpid-0329141912.jpgStarter number 2 was delivered on a butcher block: Kennedy Farms Chicken Liver Pate, served with whole grain mustard, pickled radish and the Lowcountry’s popular benne wafers. A pate is a mixture of cooked ground meat and fat minced into a spreadable paste. Nothing about that sounds appealing to me, and by the looks of it, you’d think it came directly from a Spam can. Tasting chicken liver pate was another first for me, and the truth is, I really liked it. Reminiscent of humus in texture, its flavor was rich and herbaceous. When the dish came out, I looked directly at Carlos and said, “Alright chef. Teach me how to eat this.” He took a healthy portion of the pate and spread it on the wafer, then topped it with a bit of the spicy ground mustard. I asked, “What about the radish?” to which he informed me it was a palate cleanser. Makes sense! This home cook surely enjoys having chef friends.

wpid-0329141932a.jpgNext up came my pick for the evening, and my favorite of all: 14 Month Aged Benton’s Country Ham served with buttermilk biscuits, Tennessee whiskey jelly and red-eye gravy. In the moment the plate came, Carlos tweeted, “#CountryHamAndBiscuits @The404Kitchen. @SKGFoodBlog just squealed.” It was true. I had church with this appetizer. The biscuits were perfection, the country ham was salty and sliced to the perfect thinness, and the jam? I can’t. I could have turned the red-eye gravy ramekin up and drank it, but civility got the best of me.

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With each new dish, the bartender switched out our silverware and brought new small plates. Lastly, we tried the Burrata featuring celeriac, grapefruit, black truffle, pine nuts, leeks and calabrian peppers. Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. Smooth like butter, I’d never known a cheese could be elevated to such heights. Other Starters on the menu that night featured Lamb Sugo, Winter Squash Soup and a 3 Cheese Plate. Entrees included Rabbit, Cioppino, Swordfish, Pork Ragu and other mind-boggling dishes. Dining in a place like The 404 Kitchen reminds me of just how much I have to learn about the world of gastronomy.

We wound the evening down with dessert. The grand finale was brioche bread with bittersweet chocolate, and a banana nut loaf alongside cold ice cream. With a daily changing menu, this is a place I could return again and again.

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With clean plates and full hearts, we left The 404 Kitchen satisfied, anticipating the next great food adventure. From the service to the atmosphere, topped only by the food, The 404 Kitchen was Some Kinda Good, and the perfect spot to catch up with my culinary pal. After all, good food and good company is what it’s all about.

The 404 Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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Brunch in Buckhead: Watershed, a Southern Jewel

wpid-20130714_135352.jpgWatershed on Peachtree
Atlanta, Georgia

Mornings and I have been butting heads since 1983–the year I was born. That’s why brunch is quite possibly the best concept ever. I love everything about it. The idea that sleeping in is perfectly acceptable, the ease of drinking coffee near afternoon, the pleasure of indulging in breakfast and lunch foods simultaneously…it all feels a bit devious, but oh-so-good. When I roll to the big city of Atlanta, discovering new brunch spots is my tolerate-six-lane-traffic and fast-paced-people salvation. Upon my last visit, fate introduced me to Watershed on Peachtree. As if the complimentary valet parking wasn’t enough, the country ham biscuits served with peach marmalade, local honey and whipped butter almost sent me over the edge. It’s a Southern jewel with big presence, in a location where the competition is ravenous. 

wpid-20130714_124235.jpgRecently named one of the Best New Restaurants in the American South by Conde Nast Traveler, the highfalutin’ eatery is an upscale farm-to-table experience I believe everyone in the free world should try at least once. I ordered the Bay Bloody Mary above, when I learned it was seasoned with Old Bay. Garnished with pickled green beans, pimento-stuffed olives and a juicy lime wedge, the souped-up cocktail and salted rim had me at hello.

THE FOOD:

wpid-20130714_124854.jpgCountry ham is a rarity in restaurants anymore. To see it featured on the menu in its rightful place between two flaky, fall-apart-in-your-mouth buttermilk biscuits…what is life? Other Starters on the brunch menu include Pimento Cheese Toast, Wild Mushroom Toast, Sausage Gravy & Biscuit served with bacon jam and fine herbs, and Smoked Ham Wrapped Gulf Shrimp a la plancha (grilled).

I’m attracted to all things coastal, even more so when I feel landlocked. Naturally, I ordered the Coconut Pancakes served with coconut syrup and a side of bacon. The bacon was cooked to perfection without an ounce of fat…lean and crispy, the perfect crunch to the meal. At just $10, the pancake stack was sweet and satisfying, keeping me full late into the day.

We also tried the Huevos Rancheros and Chilaquiles featuring eggs any style, Heywood’s andouille sausage and salsa ranchero. My boyfriend ordered a side of fries because the table’s order next to us looked so appetizing. Potatoes rock. Offering a variety of sophisticated, yet recognizable dishes like Chicken Fried Poached Eggs, Seafood Melange and a Crabby Shrimp Burger, the brunch menu also boasts classics like the Southern Cobb and Wild Georgia Shrimp Salads. Prices range from $6.50 for Starters to $18.50 for Steak & Eggs.

THE ATMOSPHERE:

Watershed on Peachtree has a beautiful, raw setting that’s bright and open with modern lighting. From the moment you set foot in the elegant entryway, the cheerful and clean atmosphere invites you to stay.

THE STAFF:
wpid-20130714_134323.jpgOur server, John had been waiting tables at the restaurant for just four months, but was very informative and most helpful. He told us all about the famous fried chicken served only on Wednesdays. In Southern Living magazine this month, Watershed on Peachtree is considered an upscale place to get The South’s Best Fried Chicken, noting it’s “always sold out by 8 p.m.” He also shared that Executive Chef Joe Truex, native Louisianian, couldn’t wait to begin serving up gumbo on Thursday nights.

wpid-20130714_134800.jpgWatershed on Peachtree has a commitment to seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Many of the cocktails are even organic! With an ever-changing menu, the restaurant’s cocktail napkins read, “creative and delicious Southern food enjoyed in comfort and community.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Watershed on Peachtree on Urbanspoon

Crack This: Farm Eggs vs. Store-Bought

I’ve eaten eggs from the grocery store my entire life. I’m sure at some point in my childhood I’ve tasted an egg fresh from the chicken coop because my Grandpa raised chickens, but that was before my palate was experienced enough to appreciate the difference. It’s true that when you’ve never experienced better, you don’t know what you’re missing.

wpid-IMG_20130510_185756.jpgSo, when my good lookin’ boyfriend showed up at my door last week with one dozen, light brown and cream-colored farm eggs in one hand and a beautiful bouquet of flowers in the other (I know…keeper), I set my sights on cooking the eggs just the way a farmer recommended: in a little bacon grease with salt and pepper. I’ve never tasted anything like these eggs…it was pure eggstacy (had to do it!). Seriously, the flavor is out of this world, and sure to make you crack a smile (okay, okay). During cooking I found them to be more fluffy than a store-bought egg. Produced by free-range chickens, farm eggs are more nutritious because the chickens are able to roam freely and eat a natural diet. They contain no added hormones or fillers and are not processed. 

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wpid-20130520_195545.jpgOne meal that exemplifies comfort food for me and really lets the farm egg shine, is the tried and true bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. A fancy meal has its time and place, but it’s not always the five-star, fine dining plates that trip my trigger. Sometimes, a good ol’ familiar meal is the only thing I need to feel centered, satisfied and one with my kitchen again. Served with a side of cheese grits, breakfast for dinner has never been better.

Here’s how I make the classic McDonald’s biscuit-turned-sandwich at home:

  • Thick cut, hickory smoked bacon
  • Nature’s Own Honey Wheat Bread
  • 2 Farm Fresh Chicken Eggs
  • Blackberry Jelly (I used homemade jelly from the Amish country that I got from a quaint market, but Smucker’s works great if you don’t have that).
  • Kraft’s Sharp Cheddar Cheese, sliced

Cook three strips of bacon in a skillet on medium heat until just crispy (I like mine slightly underdone). Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Pour off some of the grease, reserving enough to cook the eggs, about 1-2 tablespoons. Whisk the eggs together in a small bowl, season with salt & pepper. Pour the eggs into the pan and let set. Cook for about 2 -3 minutes on each side, flipping once for even browning. Meanwhile, slice or grate the cheddar cheese and toast two slices of bread. Spread toasted bread with blackberry jelly, then build the sandwich. Serve with a side of cheese grits for optimum enjoyment!

wpid-20130520_194926.jpgAnd remember, when building the sandwich, it’s all about good architecture! Somehow, the sandwich tastes better when cut into a triangle shape too. At least, that’s the way mama always sent me to school, with a neatly packed cut-in-half sandwich in my brown paper sack.

Have you ever tasted a farm egg? If so, how would you describe the difference?

Simply Satisfied with Mallery Street Cafe

Mallery Street Cafe
St. Simons Island, Georgia

A rainy morning on the last day of vacation led us to Mallery Street Cafe, a quaint place that boasts familiar, great tasting food in a causal setting. While the rain fell outside, we enjoyed a cozy table inside and awaited breakfast.

The menu is short and sweet with recognizable breakfast food like french toast, fruit, eggs, pancakes, grits and toast. You won’t break the bank here, because the items are a la carte. What is it about a coffee mug on a saucer surrounded by cream and a little spoon for stirring that elicits such a good feeling? A welcomed sight indeed in the early morning.

It was nice having the option to specify how many pancakes you wanted. So often at restaurants, a set number proves too many and are left uneaten. Two hit the spot.

Anytime there’s a packed house, that’s always a good sign. Just give me friendly service and tasty food in a coastal environment and I’m good to go. Located just across the street from the popular St. Simons Island Village, the cafe is a short walk from the Pier.

Open for breakfast and lunch, the cafe serves homemade soups, desserts and features daily specials. Make this place a stop on your next visit to the Golden Isles–you’ll leave simply satisfied.

Mallery Street Café on Urbanspoon

Best Breakfast Buffet in Town

Sandcastle Cafe & Grill 
St. Simons Island, Georgia 

It was a sunny Saturday morning and 81 degrees when I strolled over to Sandcastle Cafe & Grill for breakfast in the St. Simons Island Village. By 9 a.m., many islanders and tourists had beat me there, already seated reading The Brunswick News, sipping on piping hot cups of coffee.  I made my way through the crowd and happily opted for indoor seating in the A.C.

The cafe opened in 1989 and has since fed many a hungry tourist and locals alike. With exposed brick throughout and an eclectic mix of decorations, the atmosphere is casual and the food comforting.

For just $8.50, you’ll get the “Glorious Breakfast Buffet” including just about any breakfast food you can conjure up. You’ll also receive unlimited pancakes, french toast and waffles. Or, feel free to order from the menu, where you can test your ticker with their signature Eggs Aorta–biscuits topped with gravy, scrambled eggs, sausage and cheddar cheese. Saving room for lunch? Try the lighter fare–the Fruit Plate with fresh seasonal fruit and homemade muffins. Check out the menu.

I got the breakfast buffet so I could pick and choose a few of my favorites–hash browns, fresh fruit, grits and sausage. The coffee mug was just the right size.

Guests help themselves to the wide array of buffet options. Sandcastle Cafe & Grill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t know of any other place on the island where you’ll get more for your money.

The fresh, cold fruit and orange juice are a welcomed relief from the summer sun.

Black and white images fill the long brick wall. Framed by the owner herself some 20 years ago,  the pictures depict St. Simons Island in the 1950’s and local families whose descendants still eat at Sandcastle Cafe & Grill today.

Located at the end of the strip mall in the St. Simons Island Village, the cafe faces the recently renovated Neptune Park and is just steps away from my favorite island feature…the pier.

After breakfast, or any meal for that matter, we always take a walk on the pier to see what the fishermen are catching, watch the shrimp boats or see if we can spot some dolphins swimming out in the ocean.

These are only some of the beautiful sights you might see on a visit to St. Simons. Pleasantly full from breakfast and feeling the sunshine on your skin, what a peaceful view.

Have you been to Sandcastle Cafe & Grill?

Sandcastle Cafe & Grill on Urbanspoon

Heart Healthy Hotcakes Big on Flavor

With a drizzle of Aunt Jemimah's Lite Syrup, breakfast is served!

I’m always looking for ways to lighten recipes and boost nutritional value, so over the weekend I decided to make whole wheat flapjacks. I used stone ground whole wheat flour and brown sugar and flavored them with pure vanilla extract. Baking with whole wheat flour is an easy way to increase the amount of whole grains in your diet, potentially reducing your risk for heart disease. It’s full of fiber-rich bran and contains antioxidant vitamins and minerals that all work together to help maintain good health.

Topped with Aunt Jemimah’s Lite Syrup and paired with a side of bacon, this healthy breakfast will start any day off right.

Here’s how I did it with the help of Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, 14th Edition:

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons cooking oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, combine egg, milk, oil and vanilla. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients.

2. I used a 1/4 cup measuring cup to scoop and pour my pancakes on the griddle. This will ensure that all your pancakes are the same size and cook evenly.

3. Top with syrup and enjoy!

How do you make your pancakes more healthy?