Friday, September 16, 2016

Outpost Neighborhood Kitchen: Above average with good service

Outpost has been in College Park for over a year and a half now. Somehow, I just managed to get there this week. Why haven't I been to this place sooner? 

The layout of the dining room is small but cozy. There are rustic details throughout the space which teeters on shabby chic and vintage. Either way, it wasn't over the top and the small tchotchkes here and there weren't overt distractions from the feel and vibe of the place.

I ordered the Vanderbilt Salad ($13) and a Moscow Mule ($11) and both were pretty good. The salad was very lightly tossed in dressing so I asked for more and the server was happy to oblige. Kale, spinach, pineapple, BBQ chicken, and avocado... topped with a cilantro vinaigrette. Mm, so good. And the portion size was not on the skimpy side. I took some leftovers to-go.

My only suggestion is that if you visit, try to beat any large parties ahead of you. Due to real estate prices skyrocketing in this neighborhood of Orlando, I can see why the loin's share of the space was designed for the customer- only to have a smaller kitchen pressured to churn out consistent, quality food to parties of 6 or more that need to be fed at the same time. 

The service was very good and a few of the servers came over and apologized for the delay in food while they served the 13-top in the center of the room. I appreciated that and I wanted to validate their efforts as it made my patience for my meal increase as well. 

Outpost has an amazing and creative menu ranging from burgers, salads, real southern-style sides, and imaginative apps. Plus a full bar. It's a charming spot and I do recommend this restaurant when you aren't in a rush to get fed and head out. 

IN A NUTSHELL: Go during the off-peak hours. Good ambiance with good service and a killer Moscow Mule await you. I can see a wide variety of clientele liking this spot- from the gluten-intolerant to the paleo-heads that just want to inhale a burger or two. Outpost says that they make everything from scratch. Though, I suspect there is a canned tomato component to their ketchup, I'll give them credit for aspiring to be a restaurant that prides on personal recipes without premade shortcuts.

Outpost Neighborhood Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, February 26, 2016

Cotillion Southern Cafe- Southern shabby chic with overpriced entrées

Cotillion. How many times do you hear that word these days? Well, if you're in Wildwood, you will. It's on the lips of every white woman between the ages of 50-90. And if you happen to be in this demographic, the Cotillion Cafe may be a good pilgrimage for you. And if you're not, you better be on your best manners because you'll be in the company of them when you get there.

Needless to say, I don't fall in this demographic and I only ended up here because of the 'you so have to try this place' talk that some friends persuade you into. I acquiesced to the word-of-mouth because I am a huge fan of Southern food.

While at the Cotillion, reservations are absolutely a must. Wha', it just wouldn't be fittin' if you didn't. While service was on point for the entire experience, it seemed to me a very noticeable inconvenience to be accommodated during their lunch hour without one. Eventually, they were gracious enough to figure out a table after a few adjustments on their small dining room area. For lunch, we ordered Chicken and Waffles ($13.75), the Junkyard Sandwich ($11.75) and Miz Kathi's signature Fried Green Tomatoes as an appetizer ($9).

We were lucky to arrive when we did. Apparently the table that was split-off from ours (and literally 1.5 feet away) told us that they had to wait 45 mins for their food due to how busy the kitchen was. The fried green tomatoes were quite good when they arrived- hot and crispy, there were 8-9 discs of them nicely arranged around their in-house remoulade sauce. The batter had a mild seasoning of paprika and other scant dry spices that gave the tomatoes a hint of of crunchy complexity. It wasn't too spicy and neither was the sauce. All in all, their signature dish scored high points not only for authenticity but also for universal appeal.

The main course, however, left so much to desire. Let's start with the chicken and waffles. The waffles were limp and soggy. The tenders were coated in the same exact batter as the fried green tomatoes. More over, I couldn't get over the paltry portion sizes. Yes, it was accompanied with gravy with crumbled sausage in a dainty boat. However, it just couldn't even compare to what other restaurants put out for chicken and waffles- a nice big waffle with meaty, crispy chicken strips. Yes, I ordered 'lunch portion size'. But does that warrant this price tag? Unfortunately not. I'd have paid more for a better, generous product. But then again, I looked around the room and thought, perhaps for the retired ladies, something soft to chew, smaller-portioned but with a posh price point was what this restaurant was catering to. I'll stop while I'm ahead.

The Junkyard dog was alright. Noteworthy? Not really- a standard medley of sautéed peppers, onions, bacon, accompanied by a borderline bland sausage. What was really annoying was the side dish glaring at me from the plate in all its puniness- the green bean casserole. In all my years of blogging, this dish brought about a lot of ire especially when it comes to the reputation of Southern food. Firstly, the portion size was less than 3oz- probably enough to fit inside a small jar of baby food. Secondly, never in my entire life have I seen a green bean casserole soaked with that much butter. Thirdly, and probably the worst offender, the casserole was so bland. I was hoping to taste something beyond the salt and fat. But those two flavors murdered the flavors of the vegetable and anything else that was in that baby jar.  I was trying to justify this entire debacle, but then I caught myself- why am I justifying this when I should honestly be enjoying it?

In a pleasant turn of events, we ordered the Hoochie Momma pie ($6.95). For it's unabashed title, this Chess pie with pecans was devine. Finally, my salvation came during dessert! The portion size was generous, flavors sweeter than a sack of sugar, replete with pecans, and a flaky crust. This dessert was a life saver (and stomach-filler) and I knew then and there that at least the baker at Miz Kathi's Cotillion knows how to do Southern right. The rest of the kitchen can head back to Kansas.

IN A NUTSHELL: This restaurant prides itself on making everything from scratch. Service is good but stressed during busy timeframes. The room layout can feel cramped and there is a lot of tasteful (antique milk glass dishes) and not-so-tasteful décor (ordinary displayed aprons and mittens for $25+ each? Please stop preying upon senile patrons) along the walls including the restrooms. The place screams old lady even though I wish it didn't (especially when you have items on the menu like 'Junkyard', 'Hoochie Momma', and 'Redneck Nachos'). Unfortunately for me, my social security checks haven't kicked in yet so I'll take a rain check on food and probably have the dessert to-go. Food times may be a problem depending on the time of day. Though the salads are generous in their portion sizes and there is attention given to food presentation in dainty serviceware, the rest of the food has a disparaging contrast between their price point, quantity, and quality. Just because it's Southern food with simple ingredients doesn't make it acceptable for the food to be bland or floppy. Side dishes need to be presented differently and substantially. True craftsmanship is only derived when you can make simplicity sing and the Cotillion missed the mark on this for the most part.

Cotillion Southern Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Ole Times Country Buffet- Surprisingly good food, meh on the ambiance

Walking into this place, I immediately knew I was walking into a relaxed Southern atmosphere. The walls where covered with a shade of yellow wood panels festooned with random memorabilia crap that someone found a space and decided to hammer a nail to hang it. Some call in ole country chic, I call it beyond tacky and quite frankly, a useless distraction.

You have to go through a double-laned cash register channel before you get to the buffet. Sardonically, it reminded me of how pigs are probably queued before they pay they meet their maker. The entrance winds into a narrow hallway that wraps around the parameter of the restaurant and opens up in the middle of the restaurant to- tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and honey for sale (all at pretty reasonable prices).

I could tell by this sales structure that they either a) may have been overwhelmed by large crowds b) may have experienced people that didn't pay on their way out c) needed to figure out a way so that a hostess doesn't have the headache to find you a table or d) all of the above. I think there could have been a smoother, classier way to handle this but it did bring about a burning question- if the food is purportedly good, why relegate customers to this?

It was rush hour and I had to forage for a table before food. I had to mark my territory with an empty plate before heading to the buffet. It was every man for himself. It's funny when you're the paying customer and you have to fend for things. After being initiated into all things Ole Times, I sat down to eat. The food was surprisingly tasty. And that's the only reason why this restaurant made it on to my blog. Everything seemed to have been freshly readied and maintained. There was a cold buffet bar with salads, dressings, and toppings as well as a long warm buffet island with fried chicken, various kinds of prepared beans, fried catfish (on the bone and filleted), smoked sausage, smoked ribs, and bbq pulled chicken among other things.

Let me tell you about the vegetables- they were simply prepared but yet so flavorful. I couldn't help but notice smoked ham hocks bobbing in most of them. Though some many find it revulsing, I actually liked that they didn't shy away from where their flavor profiles were hailing. I enjoyed the collard greens and the stewed cabbage- both of which were not cooked to death but were soft enough for nuanced texture while still imparting their juicy earthiness. The mashed potatoes were perfectly fluffy and salted. All in all, the first plate really rejuvenated the lunch experience. What can I say?When food is good, you stop griping and you start paying attention to what's in front of you.

The fried catfish fillets were so perfectly done. A perfect cornmeal coating gave the right amount of crunch before my teeth sunk into some of the moistest fish meat that I have had in years. Matter of fact as soon as I had it, my mouth screamed for more even though I wasn't particularly hungry. This was the only item that I went back for seconds. Speaking of fried, you probably are wondering by now how the fried chicken was. Yes, I'll admit it- I'm a fried chicken snob. But this restaurant's was quite good. It doesn't take the first place prize of the most amazing crispy skin of my dreams, but the meat was moist and the batter-to-meat ratio was nearly exact to what I always look for. And speaking of chicken the Smoked Chicken and BBQ Pulled Chicken were really good. The smoked chicken had a great rub with a very evident smoke ring that showed the penetration of the flavors into the meat that only happen skillfully. The meat was moist when I broke into it and the skin had a good char that made the palate happy. I loved the BBQ Pulled Chicken rendition- it was sweet with an addictive meat-to-sauce proportion. 

The smoked sausage needed some added dimension. It was too Plain Jane and unlike the fried catfish, I did want this meat to have been elevated somehow with added spices during it's preparation. On the other hand, the ribs were dry but spiced well. The smoke muted and married the ingredients almost too well and I couldn't discern if cumin, paprika, or sugar were the leading ingredients for the rub. I could have preferred some more heat on the ribs but looking around the dinning room, I think the rub mix was neutral enough for everyone to enjoy. Similarly, the Mac-N-Cheese was okay and probably more for the kids who lust for it's cheese sauce than for adults who want a bright cheddar flavor to come through. However, the spaghetti and meat sauce was very tasty and delicious. It had been a while since I had last tried this classic dish so it was a welcomed surprise to see it on their buffet.

What I understood from this experience is that this restaurant understands good southern food. Southern food tastes best with few ingredients but cooked with a higher skill set so the flavors speak for what home cookers cannot pull of. I also enjoyed the service here. The server was friendly and the employees replenishing the buffet line were more than helpful when some standard questions were thrown at them. I even was brazen enough to ask the attendant about the spices that were smothered on the smoked chicken and he offered to bring the chef out to describe his preparation for me. The attendant went on to say that each cook has their own particular vegetable that they like to prepare in a certain way- which means, if you go there, you may not get the exact product that I got. Yes, in a way, that's job security. But in another way, the freedom that the chain gives for the cooks to pour their love into their signature side dishes can only benefit the customer by ensuring a quality product is presented.Ole Times has been in business for over 8 years now. They have several outlets in South Georgia including sister restaurant chains by the names of Mama June's and Smok'n Pig.

Additionally, there are some quirks to this place- they have a separate counter for fried pork skins, a soft-serve machine (if this is by popular demand, tell those people to go somewhere else), and pies for dessert that are pre-sliced into tiny slivers and then served on styrofoam plates (while everything else is not).

IN A NUTSHELL: For less than $9 per person for lunch, I can see why there was a crowd. The food is good. I just wish they would explore different options of corralling the masses while still retaining it's casual dining experience. Regardless, it's worth the awkward pay-up-front-Golden-Corral experience because some of the food was indeed yummy. You don't want to take someone here for a first date- it's way to casual for that. But you do want to take your long time partner when food in the fridge is running low and you need a low cost, but delicious restaurant to go to. Do try the fried catfish, smoked chicken, and BBQ pulled chicken. I realize that with the masses, price is king. But I do want Ole Times Country Buffet to understand that they have a better food product than most in their league- and that deserves a higher platform for in my book.

ole Times Country Buffet Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, January 22, 2016

TJ's Seafood Shack- good food with good company always makes a good experience!

I'm so glad I gave this place a shot when I went with some longtime friends. The birthday girl is a huge seafood lover and I didn't want to take her to a Red Lobster. I wanted her to try something different, something unique, something small-business minded… this something ended up being this wonderful place called TJ’s seafood shack!

I called ahead to make reservations only to find out that they are very low-key and relaxed which was perfect for the company and ambience that I was looking for. Matter of fact, the decor at this place has upside down buckets as lampshades. It’s not like the cookie cutter feel that you get when you walk in from one restaurant to the next. I believe the owners were trying to create an ambience that is very reminiscent of some mom and pop fish shacks that you would see along the Florida coast. It had a good warm and welcoming vibe.

That being said, we all know that there is no substitute for good food! It was especially important for me this time as I was taking a special friend for her birthday lunch- and she is a self-described picky seafood connoisseur. Her food cannot be too greasy nor too dry, neither raw nor too overly cooked, and neither heavily battered nor too simple looking. Basically, you can say that I was taking Goldilocks to lunch and she wanted her porridge juuuuuust right.
For appetizers, we ordered Sweet Platains ($3.75), Sweet Potato Fries with Honey Mustard ($4.99), and TJ's signature Smoked Mahi Fish Dip ($4.99). The appetizers really kicked off the lunch experience beautifully. The sweet fries weren't greasy at all which received rave reviews from the entire table. One of my friends commented on how beautifully the smoked Mahi fish that was done- delicately balanced with not too much cream cheese and just the right amount of sweet cornichons. The dip fish was so finely minced that you could actually use it as a perfect substitute for cream cheese on bagels (think of it as an clever riff on lox and bagels).

I particularly liked the sweet plantains, however- tender, perfectly brown and crispy on the outside, without the trailing grease slick that most people are accustomed to with plantains.

For the main course we had a Haddock Platter ($9.95), a variation of the three gator tacos ($10.50) where each taco was different, the Salmon platter ($9.50), and TJ's Seafood Shack's signature Po Boy Sandwich ($8.75). While ordering, we heard that the gumbo ($3.99) was made in-house and from scratch everyday. So, we ordered some of that as well! As they say in New Orleans, ‘laissez le bon temps rouler!' (let the good times roll).

The Haddock platter showcased how and why this place takes it's fresh fish seriously- a long, well-proportioned fillet (they buy their fish whole) which was coated with the right amount of pecans and breading. The fish was light and flaky and not overcooked. Just perfect. It's always good when restaurant knows not too coat the star with too much blah blah blah and let the protein do all the talking- if you know what I mean.

The Shrimp Po Boy was good but nothing to write home about. I have to confess, I've had quite a few Shrimp Po Boys in my lifetime and this ranked in the middle of the pack. That being said, the shrimp were perfectly cooked, the batter on the shrimp was crispy just like you would expect, and the remoulade sauce had all the right notes for the chorus. Additionally, it was at a very reasonable price point. What more could you ask?

The favorite entrée on the table was the combination tacos- a Salmon taco, a Gator taco, and another fish taco (which I gave away to share with the birthday girl- who, might I add, was very happy with her food). The salmon was well done but not dry- good blackening seasoning which reminded me of Cajun seasonings (garlic powder, paprika, onion powder, cayenne pepper, oregano, and thyme). The crumbled bacon was a good topping option not because well, bacon is a gift from the gods, but because it actually lifted the taco to another textural stratosphere. I only wished the bacon bits were served sizzling hot.
I really found myself digging at the beans and rice- the bean gravy was not too soupy and not too thick and the rice was cooked without any spices. The creamy cilantro sauce that topped it gave the side dish an extra zing. The sauce was in-house (as most of their stuff is) and you can find it in many of their dishes where it's a good ‘as needed’ option for binding, flavor, and textural nuances.

My favorite dish, however, was the humble looking gumbo- hands down! Delicately spiced, probably simmered for hours, non-slimy okra marrying with tomatoes and other vegetables topped with a generous scoop of plain white rice. You can't go wrong with this dish. Matter fact, I might just come back for a big ol’ bowl of this delicious gumbo whenever I'm feeling the blues.  There's few things in this world that make a man happy than good soul food done right. I really could taste the love in this side item.

IN A NUTSHELL: Good restaurant with a laid-back attitude (they serve food with plasticware). A wonderful find in Orlando where fresh fish joints are desperately needed to expand local tastebuds. This is a family run business- and they take great pride in their product by continually improving on it. They have two locations towards the east side of Orlando. If you like fish and want to stay away from the chains, you’ve got to give TJ's seafood shack a try! Tell them Goldilocks sent you ;)

TJ's Seafood Shack Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato