Friday, February 22, 2008

Mealtime in Melbourne

On first glance, Melbourne, Florida might look like the sleepiest of sleeper towns. The antique shops line New Haven St., displaying their collectible rocking chairs and Hammond B3 organs and terra cotta planters, beckoning couples and groups of Red Hat ladies to browse a little and pick up a 1904 copy of Jude the Obscure. An elderly woman exits The Village Ice Cream Shop holding a cup of rose colored black-raspberry ice cream while her companion nibbles gingerly on a cone heaped with vanilla ice cream. Nothing would suggest that the city holds a deep, dark secret. Nothing would intimate that the food in Melbourne is stellar.

To be fair, I haven’t eaten at every restaurant in Melbourne, but out of the three meals I did eat there, three were worthy of note. It’s rare that I go on vacation anywhere and end up that the food I eat is 100% memorable, but this time, the impossible happened, rendering it, well, possible. And since it was the season for the impossible becoming possible, Cliff and I, die hard seafood fanatics, didn’t eat one full meal of any sea-dwelling creature the entire weekend. Though we did take a fruitless-but-well-fated trip down to Grant, Florida, a tiny coastal town with a killer Seafood Festival, to go to Ozzy’s Crab House, we were chagrined to find the words, “Be Back Soon!” on the marquee under the restaurant’s sign. Closed for the winter. Bummer.

That night, however, we did end up at Meg O’Malleys, an Irish pub full of Blarney-flavored comestibles and a guitarist singing the “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?” jig. The décor in Meg’s was unbelievably kitschy, with Irish sayings on the wall in needlepoint, stuffed leprechauns hung from the walls, and shamrocks around every corner. The corniness was left behind on the menu, though, with Bangers and Mash heading up the list of Irish-style fare.

For those unfamiliar with Bangers and Mash, let me explain. Imagine: four mild rosemary-scented pork sausages chargrilled over a heaping mound of perfectly creamy mashed red potatoes, topped with thicker-than-cement ooze of Guinness gravy. Bliss. If that’s not enough to get you through the Potato Famine, I don’t know what is. It’s served with a pile of buttered cabbage, so juicy and flavorful that you forget its cabbage. Also featured on the menu, potato balls, Chips and Gravy (French fries with Guinness gravy for dipping), corned beef and cabbage, shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, and just about every other tummy-filling comfort food you can imagine. Finish with a pint of Killian’s or any of the other 14 Irish beers on draught. That, my friends, is the pot of gold at the end of the day’s rainbow.

We turned the corner in the hot sun from A1A at the water’s edge to Indiatlantic Blvd in the beach district of Melbourne when my eyes were accosted by a bright pink building with a sign in front that could have only been a sign from the gods: “The Best Burrito You’ll Ever Eat.” Only a few minutes ago, I had thought to myself, “You know, I haven’t eaten anything that has blown my face off in a long, long time. Maybe I’ve eaten all there is to eat Maybe I’m jaded already!”

My body betrayed my cynical mindset and I pointed emphatically without saying a word at the cotton-candy-colored building. Cliff, perceptive young man that he is, recognizes this gesture to mean, “I want to eat THERE!” Cliff dutifully turned into the parking lot in front of the strange woman mannequin sitting on the teal wrought iron park bench, adorned in a coonskin Davy-Crockett style cap and a blank stare to the left.

Inside, the aqua walls were adorned with signs and posters praising the likesof Led Zepplin, The Beatles, the Haight-Asbury district of San Fransisco, and just about every late-60s hippie/early-metal/drug-induced haze kind of memorabilia. Inside was Rita (we’ll call her) - a saggy, fifty-fiveish, bleach-blonde with a smattering of bright pink lipstick on her smoker’s lips and a frizzy side ponytail. She explained our choices of burrito in a husky voice that might have once been sexy forty years ago. Chicken, steak, fish, or brisket. The choices of sauce were just as varied – chipotle ranch, mango, and two others that I can’t remember (must have been the second-hand ‘shrooms).

Needless (well, maybe not needless) to say, I got my face blown off. It was, true to the sign – THE BEST BURRITO I HAVE EVER EATEN. If I could write that in the same kind of letters that were on the marquee, I would. It was unbelievable. The brisket (I know, the fish taco girl passed up tilapia for red meat), smoked for 17 hours in a dry smoker permeated the entire burrito and left me wanting more long after I felt too full to function. I chose the chipotle ranch sauce, which was a perfect complement to the smokiness of the beef and the heat of the chili.

Cliff, ever the seafood lover, chose the tilapia burrito with rice and beans and the mango sauce. It was sweet and tangy. The fish was flaky and juicy and had great grill char. This is a place you can’t miss on Melbourne Beach.

Saturday morning, we were craving a big breakfast. We stopped at the Beachside Café, right over the bride in Indiatlantic Beach. Settled in between some staple surfshops, Beachside Café is only open between 7am and 2pm, and only for breakfast and lunch (obviously). It’s uber-beachy, most of the waitresses’ bikini tops could be seen under their uniform shirts, ready to pounce on the shelly sand as soon as the restaurant closes. It’s gotta be the life.

After agonizing over both menus (I couldn’t just decide between breakfast and lunch right off the bat), I chose something not even on the menu, but written in tiny script on the Specials board across from our table. Greek Benedict. Two poached eggs piled atop a bed of runchy baby spinach leaves and toasted English muffins, slices of ruby red tomatoes, crumbles of brackish feta cheese, and a drizzle of probably the best Hollandaise I’ve had in a while. It was a recipe to be duplicated over and over.

Cliff’s breakfast was just as kitschy – corned beef hash isn’t something a Peruvian boy from Ft. Lauderdale eats very often (if ever), so I had to explain it to him. A deep-seated love of crispy hashbrowns over griddle-top corned beef hash is one of the many thing that makes me a Southern girl. It certainly wasn’t inexpensive, but it certainly was a great experience.

While Melbourne may not be the next great culinary capital of the world, it was fantastic that we could find some great fare without having to try. I had forgotten to plan our meals ahead of time (something I have learned to obsessively do before going somewhere new), but it didn’t seem to matter. We ate well on gut instinct. Pun intended.

Meg O’Malleys
812 E. New Haven Avenue
Melbourne, Fl. 32901
Tel. No. (321) 952-5510

Burrito Beach
315 Ocean Ave, Melbourne Beach, FL
Tel: 321-729-6244

Beachside Café
109 5th Avenue,
Melbourne, FL 32903

Phone: 321.953.8444

Review: Don't Bother Counting Calories at The Lady and Sons

It’s hard to believe that under this sedan-driving, Ann-Taylor-frequenting, champagne-guzzling exterior, that there’s a true GRITS inside of Holly Kapherr. It might take a little bit for the “ya’ll” to come out, but one sure way to uncover the hidden Southerner in me isn’t a trip to the mud pit, or a tractor pull, or a livestock auction. It’s a steaming plate of slow-braised collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and a steaming bowl of indulgent she-crab soup. The best place I’ve found so far for this event to occur is Savannah, Georgia.

I’ve watched The Food Network go steadily downhill with the rise of a certain big-mouthed lass from Saratoga and rerun after rerun of Unwrapped. There’s only so much I can comfortably stand of a graying, post-Double-Dare Marc Summers explaining the microhistory of Ding Dongs. The amount of food-related reality TV on the schedule is unnerving. Even Emeril Lagasse, the stalwart Cajun-Creole chef has declined to resign with the Food Network for his hit show “Emeril Live,” the first show that, while admittedly inane to hardcore foodies (seriously, how many times must the audience clap for more garlic?), brought The Food Network any kind of recognition.

But the decline and fall of The Food Network isn’t what this review is really about. It’s about Paula Deen and her ubiquitous stick of butter. Or two. Sure, Michael Chiarello, Bobby Flay (affectionately referred to as “Bobby Gay” by one of my culinary school chefs), and Tyler Florence may have Michelin-starred restaurants on their resume, but Paula Deen is the real success of the star-chefs.

One look at Paula Deen’s story of how she came to the kitchen is enough to hitch a handcart to, but her restaurant in Savannah, The Lady and Sons, is enough to pull a wagon train. I was fortunate enough to have dinner there last week during a last-minute detour home from vacation in almost-dead Myrtle Beach with my boyfriend. I’d had my eye on Savannah for a while, this restaurant in particular, and a reservation at the restaurant kept eluding my infrequent visits.

Situated in the heart of Savannah’s historical district, the restaurant, a three-story temple to mashed potatoes and gravy, draws the biggest crowd almost every night of the week. And it’s not just tourists, according to our server. Locals join the crowd frequently. The mayor is a regular. When politicians show up, the restaurant has something to say, and let’s face it, our civil servants are more likely to listen to their dinner than to their constituents – at least on non-election years.

Reservations don’t exist at the Lady and Sons (although I heard through the grapevine that as long as you have a valid Savannah area code, you can pretend you’re a local and make reservations. Will try next time and report on success or failure of the mission). Instead, they use a system of priority seats, where you have to show up at the restaurant, put your name on the list, and hope it’s not 9:30pm when you finally get a table. Cliff and I showed up at 7:30pm, and that was the timeslot allotted to us. Luckily, we had some things to do, so the wait didn’t seem too torturous.

As soon as we walked in for our table, the steam from the overflowing buffet line filled our lungs. The critic in me sprange to attention: What? A buffet in a celebrity-chef's restaurant? Something must be afoot! It was, and immediately the smell of buttered grits and red-eye gravy and cheese biscuits roused my Southern girl spirit and I ordered lemonade, completely ignoring my city-girl white-wine instinct. A few hours more and I would have gone straight for the mint julep. The sweetest and lemoniest lemonade appeared in front of me garnished with a mint leaf perched on the side of my glass.

I picked up the menu laid in front of my place setting – a paper doily. I was told once by a wise woman, whose name I cannot remember, never to underestimate the charm of a doily. There must have been 100 doilies in the restaurant that night, because the restaurant was oozing charm.

We ordered a lot of seafood. Cliff is a shellfish freak like me. Being both Peruvian and from South Florida, his favorite dish is a bowl of rice heaping with anything in a shell. That’s pretty much what we ordered, only we changed accents. We traded in our rolled Rs for elongated vowels and requested crab stuffed shrimp for me and two enormous “Savannah-style” crab cakes for him (on a bed of rice and black beans, it made him feel right at home).

Did I mention that Paula Deen isn’t exactly known for diet food? The “Shore-Is-Good” seafood dip came bubbling out of the oven and sat quite comfortably in our bellies, a mélange of shrimp and crab meat, parmesan cheese, and pretty much every other kind of cheese you could imagine. I’d never tasted so much richness in a tiny ceramic dish.

Next door to the restaurant is a charming store seeling plenty of beautiful Southern-style kitchen and tableware at big-city prices. One set of brass silverware (read: one knife, one fork, and one spoon) with gorgeous cherrywood handles weighed in at $50.00 each. That’s an expensive tablescape. Other things like the tiny kitchen timer shaped like an aluminum saucepan caught my eye and sold for $8.00. You can find the modest in the Paula Deen Store, but why would you want to?

The Lady and Sons is pretty much the opposite of pretense, which is exceptionally exciting, seeing as how Paula has several television shows, tons of great cookbooks, and a nationally-distributed magazine. I guess more than just hoppin’ john starts with just a stick of butter.