Sunday, August 26, 2007

Stella's Kentucky Deli - Guest Review

Where you can eat the lamb next door


by Will Samson, author of Justice in the Burbs

The average food item travels 1,546 miles to get to your grocery store. The average food item at Stella's travels about 15 miles. And you can taste the difference.

There is a growing movement toward restaurants that serve local food. Perhaps the most famous is Chez Panisse founded by Alice Waters in the 1970's. Waters began serving local food simply because the taste was better and the ingredients fresher. Since the advent of her establishment, the Slow Food Movement and the concept of food routes has inspired many more restaurants to look around their area and ask how they can bring local food to the table. Stella's Kentucky Deli, launched in 2006 on Jefferson Street in Lexington, Kentucky, is part of this movement.

Walk into Stella's and you might think this was any other neighborhood diner. The tables are cozy. The glass showcase reveals delicious pies. The drink machine highlights Ale-8, a Kentucky version of ginger ale that is required serving for all respectable Lexington restaurants. And, the plastic menus already have been worn to a comfortable diner level.

But open those menus and you know you have left diner land. You might choose a lamb burger of premium local lamb, topped with Kenny's local cheese, one of the best quality cheeses I have ever tasted, local or not. Or, try the Big D, which is a local, organic braut. My personal favorite is the Apple and Kentucky Bleu Cheese, which the menu describes as "Grilled Apples and Kentucky Bleu Cheese on 7-Grain or French With Toasted Walnuts & Balsamic Mayo." One bite would have made a local food convert out of me. Not that you are confined only to local ingredients. They serve The Elvis, a grilled peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich on french bread which I have never tried but the woman at the table next to me on my last visit raved about.

If you are coming to Stella's for lunch, expect a crowd. This is a small restaurant and, with the quality of the food, is packed during peak hours. You might consider Stella's for breakfast, which, with the good amount of local bacon and sausage available around Lexington, makes their breakfast dishes to die for. Combine that with a bottomless cup of fair trade coffee and you will leave Stella's happy.

The owners of Stella's are committed to the local area, with long ties to the community. They recently purchased Al's Bar at the corner of Sixth and Limestone, a less genteel section of town, in the hopes of offering healthy food to the bar crowd. Al's has a lunch special of a local burger, sweet potato fries and your choice of a beer or coke, all for five dollars.

Stella's Kentucky Deli is open during the week from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm and serve a Saturday brunch from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. They are located at 143 Jefferson Street, Lexington, KY. Their phone number is 859-255-DELI. Bon appétit.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Alborz Persian Cuisine

You'll come for the belly dancers but you'll stay for the food


Actually, I can't vouch for the belly dancers, since they only dance on Fri-Sat and this was a rush hour date, but if belly dancers are your thing, you can inspect the photos on their website. Personally, I can do without dancers, belly or otherwise, but once you've had a taste of the goods at Alborz, it will be hard to do without Persian food, even if you have to endure a belly dancer to experience it.

A somewhat Perisan co-worker of The Woman hipped us to this hip joint. Oddly enough, it's right across the parking lot from Satay, which as you remember, is one killer Thai joint. If you were to position me in the middle of the parking lot, exactly halfway between Satay and Alborz, I might become like the fabled donkey that starved because it was placed equidistant between two equally desirable bales of hay and couldn't make up its mind.

(I once spent an entire dinner arguing with my college roommate, Fred, about whether this was possible or not. Yes, not only did I grow up in Fred, Texas, but my roommate was named Fred, too. It made things confusing in college, since people called me Fred because I was from Fred and they called him Fred because he, well, he WAS Fred. That might explain why I didn't finish college. Well, not at that school, anyway. Actually, it doesn't explain it at all, but there's only so much time for one blog post, isn't there?)
Getting back to the point at hand (and you thought I forgot) the food at Alborz is exceedingly good. You may be wondering what Persian food is like. It's kinda like a cross between Greek and Indian. And just think how good both of those are!

The thing about going to these places with lots of wonderful things to pick from is that you can't try everything because a feller can only eat so much at one sitting. But you have to try. And there's always the doggie bag. Or the lunch buffet. So we ordered an appetizer recommended by the server, Kashk-o-Bademjan. I mean the appetizer was called Kashk-o-Bademjan, not the server. It's baked eggplant with a topping of kashk (dry yogurt), mint, sauteed onions, walnuts and garlic. I was leaning toward the Borani, a mixture of sautéed spinach, onions and spices with homemade yogurt, which I'd still like to try, but perhaps we'll save that for the belly dancers. I can tell you the Kask-o-Bademjan was a winner. It seems a strange combination, but it works.

For the main deal, we let the server talk us into a beef stew, something I would not normally get on a first visit. But she didn't steer us wrong. (Heh, heh.) It was the Khoresh Gormeh Sabzi: fresh green herbs sautéed and stewed with kidney beans, dried lemon and tender chunks of beef. The flavors elevated it far beyond any stew I have experienced. To call it stew seems to undersell it, like calling a Porsche a motor vehicle. We also got the lamb kabob, with juicy, tender lamb. It was served with lima beans, which seemed odd and wasn't The Woman's favorite.

We don't usually have room for dessert, especially after having an appetizer, but I felt like having some coffee, so I ordered coffee and baghlava, a pastry made with walnuts and almond paste. She gave me the option of American or Turkish coffee, so I went with the Turkish. It was a tiny cup of strong coffee, basically espresso. It was exactly like the coffee in France and brought back some memories of the days of world travel on the company nickel. While I like to try new things, after a few weeks of knocking around on little sleep and strange cuisine, it's nice to get a decent sized cup of coffee that's not quite so bitter, so I would eventually locate a Starbucks and order an Americano, which is about as close to American brewed coffee as you can get over there.

Alborz has been there 7 years but the guys at the table next to us had never heard of it, so it might be one of those well-kept secrets. In which case, you should sneak on over and try it out and get the world-traveller vibe going for yourself. And tell the dancers I said hi.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Treehouse - Podcast

Explore the pastabilities


SpyMan and The Wunderfool go highbrow, sampling the snails at a ritzy Italian joint.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Chon Som

Thai me at the crossroads when I die


It's been way too long since I had a fix of Thai, something I've been wanting to address, especially since I read this article about how capsaicin puts the smackdown on cancer. Research shows it actually binds to proteins in cancer cell mitochondria, triggering cellular death without harming healthy cells. And of course, as discussed in a previous Thai review, a capsaicin buzz is a nice healthy way to experience better living through chemistry.

So, having this whole subconscious Thai obsession as a simmering undercurrent in my little pea brain, when I hit the snooze button for the third time and heard a spot for Chon Som on the morning drive-in show, I woke up long enough to note the name. Then I dozed off as they listed all the backed up traffic I didn't have to drive through on my way downstairs to my desk. Yes, I am rubbing it in, cause life is suh-weeet.

Once at the desk and ready to grease the wheels of commerce, I discovered that Chon Som is way up north, past Parmer, so it was moved from the weekend plans and to the top of the rush hour date night queue. (Yep, I have a backlog. I wonder if I could get folks to offer me incentives to move them up the list. Hmmm.) They just opened last August and I can't believe it took me this long to find out about them. Especially when I found the following:

  1. They have sushi in addition to Thai cuisine
  2. The happy hour includes $1 nigiri sushi
  3. The happy hour includes $1 off the maki sushi rolls
  4. They have a coupon on the website that gets you a free appetizer if you get $15 of other stuff

Finally, the day I have to actually care about traffic arrived. The Woman picked me up and we took the almost deserted north lane on Mopac to Chon Som. We beat the crowd, as usual. The place looks nice, even though it has a concrete floor. There's a sushi bar just as you come in, and then table and booth seating to the sides. The tables have an interesting design on them, as you can see in the photos on their website. The walls are decorated with canvases from some local artist who paints musical instruments in unusual colors. (I didn't inspect the cards to find out who the artist is.)

The Woman picked the free appetizer. There was a choice of Vegetable Spring Rolls, Thai Tofu, Age Tofu and Hiayako (also tofu). We went with the Thai Tofu: Tofu served with sweet garlic sauce topped with herbs and crunchy peanuts. Not a real fan of tofu. I found it interesting, if not compelling. I was saving myself for some dollar raw fish.

In case you're not a sushi afficionado, here's the lowdown birds-eye on this caper. Nigiri sushi is the kind where a hunk of something sits on top of a nugget of rice. Maki sushi is the round stuff with rice (and maybe a layer of seaweed) on the outside and the good stuff on the inside, like a California roll. It's made as a long roll and then cut into slices. See Wikipedia for more detail.

Of course, nigiri is the best, cause you get that big ole slab of raw fish right there on top, like in the wiki photo. Since I was mainly there for the Thai, I decided to skip the maki and go straight for the good stuff. The $1 stuff was limited to shrimp, octopus, squid and various kinds of fish. I went with an even half-dozen fish sampler.

  • bincho (albacore tuna)
  • maguro (tuna)
  • sake (salmon)
  • suzuki (sea bass)
  • tai (snapper)
  • saba (mackerel)
Where else are you going to get 6 generous nigiri sushi for $6? These suckers had half an inch of fish touching the platter on both ends. The tuna and salmon I recognized. I couldn't tell the rest apart. The salmon was the best I've had outside of Japan. The tuna was good. I've had better, but I wouldn't turn down seconds, I assure you.

But the main attraction was the Thai menu. The Woman staged a mini celebration in our booth when she saw larb on the menu. (Romaine boats filled with minced beef, tossed with lime vinaigrette and served with red onions, green ontions and mint.) She became a fan of larb in Hawaii, where we would drive over the Pali to the windward side to our favorite Thai place in Kaneohe, Chao Praya. If you're going low carb, larb is the way to go, cause it's greens and meat, no rice.

I stuck with the old reliable, red curry: Spicy curry blended with red Thai chilies and bamboo shoots and basil. She asked for medium; I asked for hot. I should have looked a the menu because when I heard the folks behind us order, I discovered that the ratings are hot, very hot and Thai hot. And the chef mentioned there's the next, unwritten level, Chef Hot.

I thought the larb came out hotter than the curry, but The Woman wasn't sure. They both tasted great. The curry was nice and thick, with red and green peppers not mentioned on the menu as a bonus. We ordered so much food that we couldn't eat it all, so we signaled for the little red wagon and took some home. (I'm going to sneak the leftovers for lunch tomorrow when The Woman's not looking.)

Rather than go on about the rest of the menu, I'll let you check it out on the site. It looks great. We spent $25 and took food with us, which is rare for a Thai place, where prices tend to get steep. Also, it was the friendliest Thai place I've ever been. They treated us like regulars, even though it was our first visit. These folks are serious about showing you a good time and some great food. I'd say it's worth the drive, even from south Austin. Dang, all this writing is making me hungry. I wonder if it's too late for a snack?