Thursday, April 29, 2010

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sweet Magnolia: A Dining Experience

Just like the magnificent Southern Magnolia tree that reaches as much as 114 feet in height and 18 feet in diameter, standing out among all other trees in North America, so does this little Jewel stand out among its competitors in the North Alabama Area.

It sits at the junction called 7 Points in a little enclave of antique, new age and artsy shops that create an atmosphere of the village in New York, patio dining on the bayou in Southern Louisiana or the experience of eating on a veranda in the South Carolina Lowlands. It is really not hard to find, simply head north on Wood Ave from downtown Florence and in about five minutes you will see it on the right as you approach the multi-lane intersection of North Florence.

We arrived about 5:00 p.m. on Saturday evening just as the sun was starting to rest its head in the lap of mother earth. The many shades of soft shadows that were starting to creep across Sweet Magnolia’s patio dining area drew us to that area like a magnet to a piece of metal. We had read many times some of the food reviews of previous patrons, but this was our first time to see it for ourselves.

As you enter the front door your eyes are met by a multi setting of small quaint tables draped with white linen, real cloth napkins, and a beautiful container of violet flowers decorating each table. It is probably the closest thing you will get in this area to being in a small French style diner.

We were met by a young man who introduced himself as Jason Borden, our waiter. We found out later during our conversation with him that he was from Birmingham and had experience working at some of the fine dining places there such as Flemings, The Club, The Village Tavern, etc. We have nothing but the highest praise for the service he gave us during our dining experience, as service does not get any more professional than what we received from this young man.

At our request, he directed us to a small patio table and then gave us the wine list for the night. We chose a bottle of Shine Rodoff Miller 2008 Riesling priced at $19.00. Riesling wine is a white grape variety that originates in the Rhine area of Germany. In fact, it is in the top 20 varieties of grapes grown for wine. In terms of importance in the wine industry, it is considered one of the top three white wines along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They are seldom oaked and considered about as regionally pure as any white sparkling wine can get. This particular wine has a very distinct flowery smell and is semi-dry in taste. It is the perfect wine to balance between various styles of dishes--why it has gained so much popularity over the years.

Jason Borden our waiter for the evening

We started with the Magnolia Cheese Indulgence which is imported melted Brie over a layer of pesto and toasted pine nuts. Brie is a soft cow's cheese that has been typically aged around five weeks. Some are allowed to age longer, but as it ages the flavor gets stronger and the color darker. It has a pleasant earthy taste that blends well with different herbs and olive oil which is why it is extremely popular in the French Regions for breakfast. Our dish was served with Focaccia Crustini bread. This is an Italian bread covered with a mixture of herbs such as oregano, sun-dried tomatoes, slivers of sauteed onions, and drizzled with olive oil. It was listed at $7.00, and in our opinion was well worth the price. The baked mellow taste and smooth texture of the brie, did not overpower the herb flavor of the pesto, and the pine nuts carried the entire dish to a pleasant finish.

The menu listed many different dishes that struck our fancy but we decided that we would get a beef dish and a chicken dish. We could then sample from each other's plate. I ordered the Filet Migon which came with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Julianne Sauteed Red Bell Pepper and steamed Spring Green Beans. Filet comes from the Tenderloin area of the steer and is considered the tenderest portion since it bears no weight on that portion of the steer. A large steer will only provide around 4-5 lbs of tenderloin which comes from along side of the spine, which is why is it also considered one of the most expensive portions of the steer you can purchase. Just for your information, the Filet in France is cut from the smallest end of the tenderloin meaning fillet of Mignon which means small. However, here in America we do not consider only the small portion of the tenderloin the Filet, but the entire tenderloin section.

When it arrived the presentation was impressive and the aroma of the steak beat your nose like the gentle wings of a butterfly. I had ordered Medium rare and with the first cut of the knife there were two things that were immediately apparent. The pink interior of the steak was text book perfect for a medium rare steak and it was obvious the steak had been allowed to rest for the required amount of time so the steak juices could spread back throughout the steak. At the first bite you realize this steak is not your run of the meal piece of meat. We are talking about tongue cutting, kobe quality tenderness. One of the problems with Filet Mignon is the lack of marbling within the steak itself. Most chefs will add fat to the steak as they cook it, as it has the tendency to dry out if over cooked. That is one reason why you should always order the filet
either rare or medium rare. It is not a steak that you want presented to you if cooked well or well done. Price $24.50.

The Magnolia Chicken Venezian which is served with a side order of crème spinach is probably one of the best chicken dishes we have had served to us in quite a long time. The blend is small cuts of tenderized chicken breast, sautéed in olive oil, white wine, then continued to allow to simmer with the added sun-dried tomatoes, chunks of artichoke hearts and goat cheese until the chicken is done but not over cooked. Now! The problem I have here is giving this dish justice in describing its flavor and composition of flavors that produce a taste bud masterpiece that just plain dazzles every sensor in the mouth and nose. I will just stop there for it is not often I am perplexed in describing how wonderful a dish is. I will just say if you go there, I would highly recommend this be one of your dishes. Price $17.00.

We had just about finished our main courses when the owner Ken Shepski came by to check to see if our dishes were to our satisfaction. During our discussion, he told us he was from New York and his background was in Broadway and the Entertainment industry. He still travels to California and other locations performing in concerts and other entertainment venues. As we talked, our waiter Jason delivered us the desserts for the night.

The Italian Crème Cake was huge in portion and, as striking as it was in appearance, it was even better in taste. The blend of the butter, coconut, nuts and sweetened crème cheese made their version of the cake one that you wanted to order again and again. Price $4.95.

The Orange Marmalade Carrot Cake was just as impressive as the Italian Crème. The richness of the sweet marmalade across the top of the icing and the blend of the spices of the carrot cake could not get any better for this style of cake. It was moist with the just right texture. We ordered two cups of dark robust coffee to balance the blend of the sweetness of the cake, and it worked just as we expected. Price $4.95.

We would like to give a very special compliment to Chef James Redd who trained at The Art Institute in California for the culinary skill that he has apparently mastered very well. He has worked at several well recognized eating establishments before ending up here at the Magnolia. He has twenty years of experience and does everything he can to put his expertiese into the quality of food that you will receive if you decide to dine there.

Summary: You can eat out at a lot of local eateries, but it is very rare that you get a chance to dine out at a place that carries with it the level of quality that we received at this restaurant. We looked at the lunch menu and the prices appear to be in line with what one would expect to pay in this area. We were shown the Brunch Menu, and it was quite impressive and we will do our best to get back on a Sunday and give you our take on that experience.

Location: 1154 North Wood Avenue, Florence, Alabama - Phone# 256-765-2234.

Recommendation: This is a thumbs up dining place and highly recommended. The total meal without tip was around $85.00.

Until we meet again I believe I will have another glass at one of your and my favorite locations.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Mongolian Grill Buffet

It was Saturday Night and we decided that it was time to experience the newly opened Mongolian Buffet located at 121 Cox Creek Parkway in the Florence Square Shopping Center, across from the Cracker Barrel in Florence, Alabama.

But before I get into our experience let me ask you, do you know what the word Buffet means, or even how it even got started as a way to serve a large amount of people?

I didn’t think so and you probably really don’t have a real key interest in knowing, but if I am going to go and do all this research on Buffets, I am going to let you know what I found. This makes me feel like I have not wasted my time, so bear with me here.

According to my research, France developed not only excellent cheeses, wines and the guillotine, but in the 18th Century came up with the Buffet system of serving meals. This was where the food is placed in a public area and the diners generally serve themselves, but not always.

If you're older than 50, chances are you at one time or the other heard the term Side boards used. This was back in the days when coal was young and Side Board was the word to describe what we now call the Buffet.

Then you have the wheeled trolley that filled dishes that circulates for the patrons to pick from. Good Calorie saver there, no having to walk around and get the food, it comes to you. All you have to do is stand and dip.

Then along came the system where you pick your food and pay at the register for the items you chose, sort of like a cafeteria style buffet but self served. Then you have the combination style where you pick up some and some are served to you in portions. Then along came the Salad Bar in which you fill the plate and pay by the weight. Now that will get you thinking about your portions and develop that wallet counter instinct.

Now that you have become a master of buffet history let's step inside. As you walk through the entrance the first thing your eye will catch is the very elegant lighting system built into the ceiling and the open design layout of the place.

We were met immediately and taken to a table located directly in front of and beside the waitress station which also contained a large Ice Machine. The reason I mention the Ice Machine is you cannot fail to notice it is there, as it continuously sounds like rocks falling around you as it makes ice.

Our drink order was taken and then we were on our way to see what new items we would find on the buffet that you don’t already find at the other local established Chinese Buffets. At the first food bar you will find assorted fruits and other cold salad items, one of which was a large bowl of marinated baby octopus. Hey! Wait a minute, don’t shy away from these for in reality they were quite tasty even though a little spongy. So when you are there give them a try you may be surprised that you may be going back for more just as I did.

You are going to find the usual fare of what you expected to see on a Asian Buffet spread, but there are some exceptions that I will cover here.

Lightly Fried Frog Legs - we found these to very tender and not over cooked as you sometimes find them on buffets of this type. If you have never tried them you will find they are mild in flavor and have a texture like chicken.

There are various dishes of Steamed Shrimp Dumplings, Butter Shrimp, Pepper Shrimp, boiled Shrimp, Steamed Crab Legs, then different styles of chicken such as Hong Kong Chicken, Chicken Wings, Indian Chicken, and too many others to list.

Then if that is not enough you have the Hong Kong Beef, Strips of tenderized Grilled Steak, Grilled Pork Chops, and other beef dishes that helped you cover the rest of your plate.

Oh! Did I forget the huge slab of Rare Roast Beef that you get to slice just the way you like it. Then before you leave for the table to dig in, you come across a pile of golden lightly fried Calamari . The one thing you will notice about these are the size and just how tender they are. Some cooks have the tendency to over cook them and what you get on your plate is rubbery and leftover plate decoration. We ended up going back for seconds with this item.

We found the flavors of the dishes were very pleasing and exceeded what we have experienced at other local buffets serving similar food to this one.

The one distraction is I am not sure what dining experience they were attempting to give to their patrons. They had a beautiful décor, but then installed TV Flat screens throughout the dining area showing different sports. Then for good measure they added Jazz music. We didn’t know if we should be cheering for a team, swaying to the Jazz or just sitting quietly and enjoying the décor over the falling rock sound of the ice machine.


Atmosphere: Casual combination of Asian and Sports Bar

Dress: Casual

Cost: $10.45 a person not including tip

Overall experience: On a scale of 1-10 we would have to say a 3-4 for where we were placed. Taste of food 5 to 6, variety of food 8-9.

Would we return? The answer is yes and we give this place a “Thumbs Up” for casual dining.