Thursday, December 2, 2010
Hot Suppa, Tulsi, and Cracker Barrel
I find it funny how every year, during the Holiday season, at the exact same time that everyone else is getting ramped up to eat and drink at a furious pace, I’m always going on the wagon and laying low. I’m not sure what it is, Maybe I’m just so beat up by the time I get to late November that being drunk and full just isn’t that exciting anymore. Usually a month-long break brings back the enthusiasm, plus it’s good to do a yearly “oil change,” if you will. The last few days of a recent bender finds me at three very different restaurants…
Thursday Night - Hot Suppa
One of my favorite spots for breakfast and lunch, Hot Suppa, has started doing dinner service Tuesday through Saturday. Normally I give a new concept at least a couple of months before I try it, but I didn’t think that they would have any problem transitioning at all, and I was right.
Originally it was supposed to be my friend Beth and I, but quickly the party grew to include my friends Joel, Nick, and Katie (who can fill a room with noise just as easily as I can). Figuring this could be a little tough to accommodate in such a small space, I contact the restaurant to make sure it would be ok. The seating works out fine once I'm able to stuff my fat ass into the booth, the only drawback being that it slightly limits my ability to flail my arms around wildly while emphasizing points.
I had just spent five hours getting tattooed that afternoon, so a drink is first on my list of priorities. I opt for the Abita “Turbo Dog” from Louisiana, a darker beer with slight chocolate and toffee notes. Hot Suppa also features a full bar now, as well as a small wine list, adding it to the few places where you can get a great breakfast with a cocktail.
The dinner menu is made up of mostly southern fare, with an emphasis on Cajun. We start out with the boudin balls, fried pork-and-rice sausage served with Creole mustard and pickled okra. What makes these different and better than other versions I’ve had is how light and airy they are without sacrificing flavor. The fried oysters served over baby spinach with bleu cheese vinaigrette are equally successful, with a crispy and delicate batter. It is also nice to eat a few greens, as it makes you feel better about yourself later.
Anyone who’s been to Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal has probably had their mammoth portion of foie gras poutine, and the version they are serving as a special at Hot Suppa comes pretty damn close. Two huge slabs of foie with Pineland Farm cheese curds and a dense gravy atop a mountain of fries is a pretty good deal for $21. You can also get “poutine light,” without the foie gras, if you’re comfortable with being a pussy.
Now that I’m already kind of full we take down a few oysters on the half shell and prepare for entrees by getting another round of drinks. I order the fried chicken and waffles, because I like fried chicken and I like waffles. Nick follows me down this path and soon everyone is staring at our chicken and waffle feast with envy. Another standout at the table is Joel’s New Orleans style BBQ shrimp over creamy stone-ground grits, complimented with a delicious butter sauce.
I become aware that my stomach is having more and more trouble fitting into the booth. Beth suggests that we go to some dance party at Space Gallery, which seems to interest Nick, while the rest of us agree that hanging out in Joel’s kitchen while drinking six bottles of wine is a much more sound idea. We head out to Whole Foods where I purchase, among many other things, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot because it’s the only Champagne that is kept in the cooler. I personally think Veuve is a bunch of mass-produced bullshit, but I had something to celebrate, so it did the trick nicely. Beth agrees, even though she still insists on going to previously discussed dance party...
Sunday Night -Tulsi
Probably my new favorite restaurant in Maine, Tulsi has blown me away on two consecutive visits with some of the best Indian cuisine I’ve ever had. Plus they’re open on Sundays, which is an important detail for those of us who work in the restaurant business. My first visit was on Halloween night, and they were in a mild state of disarray due to being one man short in an already small kitchen staff. This was fine, we weren’t in any kind of hurry, but the drawback being that the missing person was, as our server put it, “the bread guy.” This meant no naan, but I figured it was just another excuse to come back again very soon.
After having such a great experience, my first inclination is always to expect disappointment on the second visit, because it’s just the way I am. The whole drive down I continue to remind my friends Kelly and Jess that it was amazing the last time, so hopefully it would hold up this time. Luckily I have one veteran of the last trip, Melinda, in the car to verify that I wasn’t crazy just in case it wasn’t as amazing as I claimed it would be.
It’s a little slower and more controlled than last time, and our server definitely seems more at ease when we roll in. The restaurant itself is actually a converted post office, which becomes evident when you access the bathrooms through the back hall and it has that look, feel, and smell. It’s a very cozy room, so I would highly recommend making reservations just to be on the safe side. We start out with a bottle of 2009 Domaine Sainte Eugenie Corbieres Rose, with the intention of taking down at least two more. When I picked Kelly up earlier, she had complained about not eating all day because she was saving room, which is great except for the fact that it made her a little on the impatient side. We attempted to deal with this by getting her some fries from McDonald’s before we left Portland, which would have worked if everyone hadn’t started eating them. I urge her to drink up fast while her stomach is empty, and then relax and enjoy the food. An order of papadum arrives at the table, with two dipping sauces – spicy mint and tamarind. Kelly starts right in on these but quickly finds out that trying to satisfy intense hunger with airy and delicate crisps is a little bit of a lost cause.
For appetizers we decide on two orders of the shrimp balchow, sautéed in a tangy, spicy Goan sauce and served with crispy naan, because it was so good on the last visit that one just wasn’t enough. These have a decent amount of heat to them, causing the first bottle of wine to vanish quickly and need to be replaced. We also have the malai kabob—chicken marinated in sour cream and mild spices and then grilled in the tandoor oven. I’m not usually a fan of chicken breasts, much preferring the dark meat, but these are melt-in-your-mouth tender.
Thankfully, the “bread guy” was in the house so we ordered three different kinds of naan—aloo with spiced potatoes, keema with minced lamb, and Peshawari with nuts, coconut, and dried fruits. I can only describe the bread as fucking amazing, perfectly crispy on the outside and moist and chewy on the inside, all served with a yogurt condiment, raita, on the side.
For entrees we order the chicken korma, simmered in a yogurt and cashew cream sauce, lamb nilgree, cooked in a spicy north Indian mint sauce and served over lemon rice, and palak paneer, spinach sauteed in spices finished with cream and homemade cheese. All are accompanied by large bowls of fragrant basmati rice. Though everything is outstanding, the lamb with the combination of lemon rice and a small salad with pomegranate seeds truly stands out. The food here is all intensely flavorful, yet has a delicate nature that sets it very far apart from other Indian food I’ve enjoyed through the years. Yes, it’s a little more expensive, but you really see why with the first bite you take. This food requires time and skill to prepare, and to fully appreciate it we feel we need a third bottle of wine.
At this point the chef, Raj, comes out into the dining room to chat. I am starting to get a little drunk, but not quite drunk enough to tell him that he is my personal hero at that moment. Instead I rattle off something stupid and then clumsily introduce my dining companions, to which he smiles and shakes hands before thanking us and heading back into the kitchen.
Despite being painfully full, we have to share a mango lassi, a yogurt based shake, because it was so goddamn good on the last visit. We ask for four straws (I know, it’s so fucking precious), three of which end up in my mouth after a hilarious mix-up. Jess makes everyone proud by taking all four at once, I guess it helps that she was lubricated by the wine.
On the ride back to Portland we decide that calling it a night would be silly, and we head to a bar where I run into my pal Spencer and proceed to drink two more bottles of wine and seven shots of tequila. This utterly reckless behavior is brought on due to my frustration with a week–long cold, thinking “well, I’ll just show my body who’s boss around here!” Of course, this doesn’t work and when I awake in a strange room, dazed and late for work the next morning, I notice I am much sicker.
Tuesday Afternoon - Cracker Barrel
Sometimes I feel the need to go to restaurants solely based on how ridiculous they are, so when I heard that there was a Cracker Barrel opening out by the Maine Mall, I started to get a little excited.
“Sure, I’m a fan of a good Christian time enjoyed amongst other fine Christian folk,” I think to myself. This prompts me to set up a lunch date with one of my favorite companions for absurd adventures, Gemma, informing her that “they’ve got a great gift shop where you can start your Christmas shopping early!”
We arrive on a dreary and overcast afternoon, the perfect kind of day to load up on southern style country fare. The restaurant is located right next to the Wyndham Hotel, or “the twin trash cans” as we so lovingly refer to them. We enter through the gift shop, which immediately puts me on overload, with obnoxious Christmas smells, snowmen, teddy bears, and bad sweaters everywhere. My first reaction is “I don’t belong here, something bad is going to happen to me,” and I realize that I must get to the host stand quickly to reach the safety of our table.
As we are seated I am disappointed to learn that they don’t serve any alcohol, as that would make it less of a “family friendly” environment. We decide to make do, and I order a Stewarts Orange & Cream soda, while Gemma opts for apple cider. The dining room is filled with the usual kitsch, and I observe what was clearly a five hundred pound man at a neighboring table consuming enough food for about ten adults.
I feel that most chain restaurants, no matter how shitty, can at least serve food that tastes good by using enough ingredients that are bad for you. I came here with the intention of getting country-fried steak, figuring that it’s impossible to fuck up. The menu is extensive and has many categories, taking a break between each to try to sell you additional things, such as frying pans, peg games, etc. My country fried steak entrée ($9.29) is under the “Fancy Fixin’s” category and comes with “made from scratch” buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins, “real” butter, and my choice of any three “country vegetables.” Vegetable choices include, among other things, macaroni & cheese, cottage cheese, steak fries, fried apples, and pinto beans. I go for the mashed potatoes and whole kernel corn, along with fried okra.
Gemma initially is leaning towards country fried shrimp, but is then seduced by the prominently displayed “chicken n’ dumplins platter ($8.29),” which promises the “best of the breast” paired up with rolled by hand, made from scratch dumplins. Her country vegetable selections are hash brown casserole, fried apples, and turnip greens.
Just as I’m about to ask where the bathrooms are so I can go look myself in the mirror to affirm that I hate myself for doing this, a random customer pipes up and yells “through the gift shop, buddy!” I thank the friendly Christian as I slink back into gift nightmare Hell, and when I arrive back two minutes later I find our table is already littered with a shitload of food.
My chicken fried steak tastes fine, though the consistency of the gravy is like mashed potatoes. This turns out to be ok, because my mashed potatoes were barely “mashed” at all, filled with big lumps. To remedy this I mix my corn into them, hoping to disguise the potato lumps by telling myself that it is a corn kernel I just bit into, nothing more. My fried okra could best be described as “deep-fried Mushy Ca-Ca,” and after eating two I push them very far away from me. Biscuits and corn bread are wildly disappointing, being dry and not even salvageable with the small pat of “real” butter provided.
If you think this sounds bad, things are going even worse for Gemma over on the other side of the table. Her “Chicken and Dumplins” looks more like wontons that someone had blown their nose all over. The “Best of the Breast” blended seamlessly into this monochromatic mess, with the hash brown casserole being the only edible item on the plate. It is a very unfortunate situation, as we were very hungry to begin with, but ate just enough awful food to not be able to justify going somewhere else to eat again. I will say that the service was excellent, and at least we don’t have to wait long for our check to get the fuck out of there.
If you’re still interested in checking out Cracker Barrel, you’ll be delighted to find out that certain days are better than others to dine there, such as:
Friday Fish Fry, with a choice of Haddock or Catfish.
Saturday Chicken N’ Rice, featuring made from scratch Chicken N’ Rice.
Sunday Home-style Chicken, with boneless chicken breasts fried to a golden brown in our kitchen, as opposed to right next to your table.
On the way out we explore the gift shop a little more, and find a few hidden treasures:
As we leave I vow never to return, which is sad because I spend a fair amount of time at mall-side restaurants due to them being my safe-zone for any kind of family gathering. I respect certain chains because they are always consistent, which is comforting to me. My go-to list remains the same:
1. Longhorn Steakhouse (definitely the best quality, owned by Capital Grill)
2. Chili's (very bad for you but tasty – also good margaritas)
3. Famous Dave’s ( I like the ribs)
4. Imperial China (not a chain, but near the mall. tasty Chinese-American, loaded with MSG)
5. Wild Willy’s (I like the burgers here, and they’ve got very tall beers and a crazy drunk robotic piano cowboy)
6. Texas Roadhouse (just don’t bring kids with peanut allergies, unless you wish to harm them)
The worst would be:
1. Cracker Barrel (see above)
2. Applebees (bland, shitty food)
3. Ruby Tuesdays (wildly inconsistent)
4. Pizza Hut Italian Bistro (the name alone should piss you off)
5. Olive Garden (the only experience I’ve ever enjoyed here was in high school when I took acid with a friend and skipped school. We ended up here, ordering all you can eat breadsticks & salad while giggling uncontrollably for about an hour. I don’t recommend going here unless you’re tripping your face off)