Monday, March 26, 2007

Cheap Outs: Tallahassee's Best Under $15

Summer is America’s vacation time. With all the cashflow going to airline tickets, cruises, or hotel stays, eating out on a budget can be difficult when you’re looking for more than a burger and fries. But it can be done! You can eat great food for a great price here in Tallahassee. Here are five fantastic finds for under $15 that will appease your appetite without breaking the bank.

Po’ Boys –

Unpretentious and comfortable, Po’ Boys has perfected the art of the Big Sandwich from the Big Easy. The fried pickles are not to be missed, and check out the Buffalo Chicken Po’ Boy sandwich, a great option for those opposed to the classic oyster or shrimp versions. Expect a crowd during lunch, but make an effort to visit during a Sunday brunch on a lazy mid-morning. $8-$12, three locations, call (850) 224-5400 for information.

Fusion: Lunch –

Lunch at Fusion on N. Monroe and Sixth is an upscale choice without the upscale price. Flavors are sophisticated but forward and the dishes are expertly prepared. Favorites like the smoked tomato and vanilla bisque and roasted vegetable pita make Fusion lunches a refined alternative to fast food. $10-$15, call (850) 222-4956 for more information.

The Main Ingredient –

There is no dearth of choices at The Main Ingredient, located at the intersection of Tharpe and High, where patrons build their own meal from a flow chart of decisions, starting with the selection of “the main ingredient” (ranging from eggplant to chicken breast), and ending with accoutrements. All of the steps put together can end up being pretty pricy, but it’s guaranteed that you will not leave hungry. The ability to personalize your meal and the virtual inability to order the exact same thing twice makes The Main Ingredient a fun and innovative dining experience. $10-$15, call (850) 383-8333 for more information.

Gordo’s –

Hot, pressed sweet bread, smoky ham, melty Swiss cheese, tangy pickles and mustard – the Media Noche at Gordo’s Cuban Café is a mouthful of flavor. Start with the unbelievable croquetas, hot and filled with ham. Add a side of spicy French fries with Cuban sauce and you’ll end up very happy. Cuban food is a way of life at Gordos on Pensacola. Finish your meal with a steamy café con leche (coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and a creamy flan. $6-$10, call (850) 576-5767 for more information.

Pitaria –

Don’t be put off by the spit of roasting, revolving meat through the kitchen window – it’s only gyro, packing a fantastic roasty-meat flavor and stuffed into a pita. Eating at Pitaria calls back memories of European street food, but for Tallahassee residents, Pitaria is a healthy option for Mediterranean food lovers. The casual atmosphere (Pitaria is most frequented by between-classes students and faculty) and affordable prices puts Pitaria high on the Tallahassee foodie’s guilty pleasures list. Don’t pass up the stellar Fozi’s Falafel pita and the homemade baklava. $5-$9, call (850) 412-7482 for more information.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Mortality of the Critic: Cypress

It hits you when you look at the last stringy strand of turkey on the Thanksgiving plate. You are surrounded by laughing family, telling stories of Thanksgivings past when Uncle Harold forgot to stuff the bird or when Cousin Laura forgot the milk in the pumpkin pie. You look at the last bite. You have been eating for 2 hours. You cannot see your feet under your enlarged girth. It’s over. You acquiesce. You lay down on the couch. Unable to move. A champion eater in your own right – you are defeated.

Cypress defeated me this weekend when I went with Veronica for dinner. The rosy walls and ten thousand palm tree paintings stared at me with a challenge. I am usually able to eat anything without feeling uncomfortable. I can go to all-you-can-eat night at Sonny’s and leave ready to get to Coldstone for a Gotta-Have-It sized Birthday Cake Explosion. After Cypress, though, I finished my entrée (and the four courses and two drinks prior) and barely forced down two ounces of espresso, all the while longing for the pear galette served with bleu cheese ice cream and candied walnuts that I would never be able to experience - at least not in the next few hours. Cypress brought me to my knees and reminded me of my own gastronomic mortality.

I thought it couldn’t get any better when I wanted to lick the plate that the amuse bouche was served on. A tiny stack of grilled foie gras sandwiched between two rounds of savory sweet potato bread pudding and topped with fig preserves and drizzled with exquisitely tart green apple gastrique tantalized me and dared me to call it out into battle. I mopped the last of the vivid gastrique up with my slice of ciabatta and washed it down with my green-appletini. Executive sous chef Brian Knepper came out to say 'hello' and Veronica informed him that he was "the only man who could get [her] to eat goose liver." This was quite a feat for Chef Knepper, being that Veronica's main staples include cheese, ham, and tortilla chips.

My mother tells me to worry about my cholesterol. She’s probably right, but I figure that my stubborn abstinence to egg yolks will cover me. But when a sea-glass green plate was set in front of me with three cheeses, I couldn’t resist. After living in Paris for more-than-a-few months, my inability to refuse cheese has grown steadily worse. On the left was a Green Hill double-crème, which was a half-brie/half-Camembert hybrid that had already half melted on its way from the kitchen to my table. In the middle was a “drunken goat,” an aged goat cheese cured in red wine, giving its rind a beautiful purple hue. My favorite was on the right. I have to admit, there is something romantic in a deep, flavorful moldy bleu. Cabrales is a Spanish bleu, milder than Gorgonzola, but still carries that signature tang. The cheese plate was drizzled with balsamic vinegar reduction and included a small mount of dried golden raisins and cherries. Twenty minutes later, the plate was empty, and the chance of Lipitor being in my future has increased significantly. And then I helped my best friend finish her artichoke and kalamata olive piadini, which was, of course, covered in melty mozzarella.

I could have stopped there and been comfortably full.

But the promise of a grilled-to-medium-rare full lamb rack was too much. It pulled me in. My plate was placed in front of me – a stack of perfect chops on a bed of roasted white asparagus and potato, celeriac, and spinach gratin, topped with daikon radish sprouts and drizzled with whole grain mustard vinaigrette. I chose an Argentinian Malbec, not-too-tannic yet still fruity and smooth, as a perfect complement for this unbelievably beautiful and exciting dish. The lamb was beautiful, the asparagus was crunchy, the gratin had an exciting Parmesan aroma, and I finished it. All of it. All that was left when I was through were six clean bones.

And I couldn’t move.

It took all I had to sip on the single espresso I ordered.

I was defeated. I couldn’t order dessert. But I was defeated with honor.

I lay down on the couch when I returned home and fell asleep.

It was 9:30.

For more information on this fantastic restaurant, visit Believe me, you want to eat here.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Refreshing Understatement: A Review of Fusion

It’s like a really big box. A grey steel box. The décor is sparse, modern, or almost non-existent - I can’t really tell. The only light that glows in the room is the one coming from the kitchen. Against the darkness of the dining room, it is like the ethereal light of 10,000 blinding fluorescent bulbs. But in grander terms, it is the light of inspiration – the focal point of the restaurant. For decades, restaurant kitchens have remained tucked away, making food preparation like a magical illusion. At Fusion, in Tallahassee, the kitchen is on display. A testament to the restaurant’s main point – the food IS the magic.

The nouveau cuisine restaurant on the corner of Monroe and Sixth Avenue concentrates inspiration. The star is the food. It is not hidden or disguised. There are no flashy furnishings or fanfare to be distracted by. Fusions message is simple: Focus on our food. That’s what we care about here.

At lunch, the only glow comes through the two front glass doors. The long, ashen corridor leads to the large grey room – the dining room. The tables are casually set. The menu is full of attention grabbing descriptions of vegetable filled tortillas and half-pound roast beef-and-swiss sandwiches. For the most part, the lunch menu isn’t ostentatious. Sandwiches, wraps, salads, and an incredible smoked-tomato-and-vanilla soup (that I now occasionally dream about) dominate the list of lunchtime comestibles. Fairly straightforward, but expertly executed.

Lunch began with the aforementioned impeccable smoked-tomato-and-vanilla bisque. The rich red flavor of the tomato hits the palate immediately. After the swallow, the smoky essence and creamy vanilla floats upward, into your nostrils backwards – like the long finish of a good wine. It is, quite literally, bewitching. The turkey sandwich is fantastic and comes with tomatoes that have been macerated in citrus, leaving you with a splash of pungency that only the squeeze of a juicy lime, and no ordinary turkey sandwich, can deliver. The veggie tortilla sandwich is an explosion. Fried marinated artichoke hearts and other veggies are bound by a thin slice of melted provolone for a refreshingly cheesy package. Lunch at Fusion fulfills the Refreshing Lunch requirement to the letter.

Order a cocktail if you come for dinner. Fusion hosts a hip bar (open from 6pm-2am) with equally hip, young barstaff, willing to please the ultimate cocktail junkie’s palate. The same rule applies to beverage as well as the food – pungent and minimalist. The martini menu is extensive, boasting concoctions like the Bluetini (blueberry vodka, blueberry juice, and skewered blueberries) to the Mangotini. The cocktail list will have you salivating long before appetizers are a glimmer in your eye.

When food starts to arrive, the minimalist style is showcased. It’s like a reverse fanfare. There is so little showiness to the food that it contains its own flourish, no sassy plating required. The butternut squash dumplings are a burst of autumn in each bite. The creamy squash is pureed and mixed with a hint of curry – an aroma that slips into your mouth through the backdoor. The dumplings are both flavorful and mellow, even if they are a bit greasy for my tastes. The cumin sauce drizzled around the dumplings gives a nice round feeling of September to the dish. Fusion also puts an innovative twist on classic bruschetta pomodoro. The crostini at Fusion are topped with broiled, smoked Gouda (an often overlooked Danish cheese that releases an understated smoky flavor when heated) and citrus marinated tomatoes with a hint of mint.

Inconspicuous is a good word to describe Fusion’s entrees. My dining partner ordered a gorgeous medium-rare New York Strip, flavorful and well-prepared. My choice was a crab-and-corn-stuffed snapper with drawn butter. The fish was flaky and the skin was kept on the meat, allowing for the juices to gather between the meat and the skin, making it extra moist. The stuffing, however, was forgettable.

The only problems with the entrees at Fusion are the accoutrements (what comes with the dish). Or lack of. My snapper was served with two halves of a fried green tomato – a Tallahassee staple. The steak came with five (5) battered onion rings. Where was the roughage? The lack of greenery and the prominence of fried things was disturbing, and rather upsetting after such a great start. However, it is almost (stress on the almost) remedied by the complimentary salad that precedes the entrée – choice of three, all delicious.

Desserts aren’t made in-house, and thus aren’t worth a mention – or an order. Go to Bruster’s Ice Cream on Tharpe Street for dessert.

The wine list is beautiful, infusing classic flavors with New World styles. Wines are mostly American in selection with some funky Argentinian, Australian, and Chilean choices. For the most part, the staff is untrained on wines, so knowing what you like ahead of time will save some ungainly fumbling. However, if your order includes a heavy fish dish, like my crab-stuffed snapper, order the last Chardonnay on the list, it is a full-bodied, smooth white wine that holds up to the serious flavors of the snapper and corn-crab stuffing.

Service at Fusion is very hands-off, even when a little help is requested. Your server is virtually invisible, replacing silverware, dropping off cocktails, and clearing plates without a word. The college-age staff is a sophisticated and unpretentious group, carrying on the theme of the restaurant.

The experience at Fusion illustrates a point that has gone well unheralded in the restaurant world. Minimalist doesn’t have to mean boring. Flavor is the main attraction at Fusion, and it is clear that the restaurant demonstrates strict observance of that rule. In a restaurant where garnish is almost non-existent, the actual eating must carry a tremendous weight – and it does.

Fusion is open Monday-Saturday for a delectably exciting lunch, and Tuesday-Saturday for dinner. Average dinner check with appetizer, entrée, dessert, and tip will be approximately $35-$45. Make reservations on Fridays and Saturdays. Prepare to be impressed by a grey box.

Wine Trek: The Big Six

Recall the scene in the 007 classic “From Russia, With Love.” After sitting down and ordering dinner on the Orient Express with the assassin Donald Grant, who is posing as James Bond’s informant (who he has actually already killed), Bond feels suspicious of Grant, and pulls a gun on him. Grant catches Bond by surprise and, after a short grapple, he knocks Bond to the floor by a blow to the back of the neck. Bond looks up at his attacker and says (in true 007 fashion): “Red wine with fish…well, that should have told me something.”

Choosing a fantastic wine to accompany a great meal without the help of your server is not impossible. However, it is necessary to know a little bit about the main kinds of wine available. Once you are familiar with the major varietals (that’s what we posh wine connoisseurs call “types of grape”), you can make an educated guess on the kind of wine that would best suit your meal choice. There are six primary varietals, and with them come a few classic food and wine matchings. What follows is a brief explanation of “The Big Six.” We’ll begin with the three whites (from lightest to fullest): Reisling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, and will continue to the three reds (from lightest to fullest in body): Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.



Reislings are the lightest in body of The Big 6. Depending on the age of the Reisling, the wine can range from light green to straw yellow in color. Characterized by crisp acidity, and a smoother, sweeter taste, Reislings are often the wine of choice for newer wine-drinkers. However, when matched with the correct food, Rieslings can make ordinary food transform. The Reisling varietal is native to Northern France (Lorraine) and Germany. The cold climate slows fermentation of the grape, leaving most Reislings with a lower alcohol content, settling comfortably around 11%. When smelling a Reisling, you will detect notes of fresh cut grass, honey, and even petroleum.

Also try: Gewurtztraminer (Germany) (usually drier than the standard Reisling)

Classic Pairings: Thai cuisine

Spicy Curry

Cajun cuisine


Fruit-based desserts

Sauvignon Blanc

Fuller in body than a Reisling but less powerful than a Chardonnay is the Sauvignon Blanc varietal. It ranges from light greenish to honey in color, and is characterized as a “fruit-forward wine.” This means that the amount of fruit that you can smell in the wine overpowers the other minerals or alcoholic aromas. Even the tiniest sniff at the top of a glass of Sauvignon Blanc reveals its fruity essences. Grapefruit is always dominant, with hints of green apple and pear. You can also smell a bit of a herbaceous quality in some brands, including parsley, chive, and tarragon. Sauvignon Blancs have a clean feeling that makes a well-chilled glass a perfect aperitif for a summer barbeque.

Also Try: Pinot Grigio (Italy) , Pouilly-Fuisse (France)

Classic Pairings: Steamed, baked, or sautéed white fish with spring vegetables

Barbequed Shrimp and Vegetable Skewers


No doubt about it, Chardonnay is the best known varietal. Its creamy feeling and smooth acidity give it the edge when it comes to pleasing a crowd. It is a full-bodied white wine that stands up well to seriously flavorful foods. Depending on the age of the wine, Chardonnays can range from light green to caramel yellow – a huge span that makes Chardonnay an extremely versatile wine. Classic Chardonnays are smoky, with flavors of ripe apple, and pear. These flavors are paired with aromas of butter, spices (like nutmeg and cloves), and oak. The oak smell comes from the wood barrels that Chardonnays are typically aged in.

Also Try: Chablis (France)

Classic Pairings: Salmon with beurre blanc sauce

Lobster Thermidor

Seafood linguini with cream-based sauces

Cheese-Stuffed Chicken Breast


Pinot Noir

The Pinot Noir grape produces a red wine suitable for any occasion. It is a light-bodied wine and a fantastic one for white-wine lovers willing to give reds a try. The color of Pinot Noir wine ranges from ruby red to cranberry, depending on the age of the wine. It is a very earthy wine, usually smelling of clay, leaves, mushrooms, vanilla, and minerals. In some cases, you can smell dark caramel or berries, usually raspberries and sour cherries.

Also Try: Gamay (France), Shiraz (Australia/New Zealand)

Classic Pairings: Wild Mushroom Risotto

Grilled Game Birds (Pheasant, Quail, Duck)

Rotisserie Chicken


A classic Merlot can bring sophistication to any table. Being medium-to-full in body and tannic in nature, a Merlot is an old-standby that charms even the most discerning tastes. Newer Merlots, a year or less old, are cranberry in color, but can develop into deep brick red wines. Usually a chocolate-cherry smell, Merlots can also carry scents of bakeshop spices like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon that are even detectable by beginning connoisseurs.

Also Try: Syrah (France), Sangiovese (Italy)

Classic Pairings: Molten Lava Chocolate Cake

Garlic-Studded/Herb-Crusted Lamb Rack

Cabernet Sauvignon

The best known red wine grape is indisputedly the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal. Full in body and with an erudite reputation, Cabernet wine enjoys the reputation of being the wine of choice for true wine drinkers. Cabernet Sauvignon is heavy on the tannin feeling, leaving a lasting feeling in the mouth that lingers long after the wine has been swallowed. They are typically dark raspberry-to-brick red in color and carry essences of cedar, blackcurrant, cherries, and even eucalyptus (in Australian vintages).

Also Try: Medoc (France), Tempranillo (Spain)

Classic Pairings: Bleu Cheese-Crusted Filet Mignon

Boeuf Bourgignon

Dark Chocolate Desserts

Knowing The Big 6 is just the first step to understanding more about wines. From this list you can make a fully-reasonable hypothesis about what wine to order with your dinner, and that will help you to enjoy your dinner much more fully. Wine is not meant to overshadow or steal the thunder from food. On the contrary, wine and food are delicate complements, and creating the perfect symbiosis between the two takes practice. With these guidelines, you’ll look like 007 when making your selection. After all, only evil assassins order red wine with fish.

To be published in the Summer issue of Good Outs: Tallahassee magazine