Restaurant Memories: The Bohemia

bohemiaThere’s still a restaurant called Bohemia in Hot Springs, and by all accounts it’s a fine a wonderful place that serves some of the best food in the Spa City. I haven’t eaten there for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I just don’t find myself in that part of town to eat very often these days. That wasn’t always the case, though, because the Bohemia, the original Bohemia, was not only one of the best restaurants the state of Arkansas has ever seen, it remains one of the greatest restaurants I’ve ever eaten at anywhere. I don’t recall my first meal at the place, nor my last one, but I can think of several spirited dinners that took place over sauerbraten and schnitzel, and it remains the only place I’ve eaten a Baked Alaska worth talking about.

Fans of the old Bohemia will remember Adolf Thum, the gruff and garrulous owner and chef who, along with his wife, kept a clean restaurant and ran a tight ship. Always eager to strike up a conversation with his diners, I can recall many a night where he would regale us with tales of his exploits as a Merchant Marine in the 1950s, cooking for upscale hotels in New York and Chicago as a slightly older man, and how he used to only pay his own son $20 for an entire weekend’s worth of work in his kitchen. I was a younger man then, and ate several meals with friends who might kindly be described as “hippies” — long hair and afros were the order of the day. Thum gave those guys no end of hell about their hair, swearing up and down that if any man during his days at sea had let himself go like that, the other sailors would steal his clothes and shoes, telling their scruffy compatriot that “the Holy Ghost took them.”

Apart from his quirky, yet friendly nature, the man could cook. Homemade bratwurst, Bavarian style sauerkraut, roast duck, and the aforementioned sauerbraten and schnitzel were all favorites of mine. It was Thum who taught me the difference between the cuisine of Western Germany and his homeland on the border between Bavaria and the Czech republic in the east. It was Thum who explained to me the first time what it meant to braise a cut of meat, and how soaking a piece of beef in wine could both tenderize its texture and temper its flavor. And it was Thum who came to his restaurant at 5am every Sunday to prepare his specialty: a steamed dumpling that is still the most perfect platform for any kind of sauce I’ve ever eaten. These dumplings were, in size and shape, like slices of French bread, but steamed. The texture was silken, pillow-soft and while neutral in flavor, Thum would share the method of their eating with all newcomers: let the thing soak in the sauce of your dish until you were almost done, then eat with gusto. It became the favorite part of any meal I ate there.

Thum retired and closed his restaurant in 2007; I found this out only when I went to take my then-new girlfriend (and future wife) to dinner there just a few weeks after the shutdown. I can honestly say that it was a moment of pure loss for me, and the grief I felt was like that of losing a friend or loved one. That may sound silly to some of you — but I’ll bet you never had Thum’s pickled beef. I wish I had some pictures of the food from those days, but I had yet to stumble into this whole food-writer career. What I do have is memories, of a warm dining room, good food, and one of the most unique men whose food I’ve ever had the privilege to eat: Adolf Thum.

The Diller Room

Have you ever found yourself in a restaurant or bar where the atmosphere just didn’t fit your mood and frame of mind? This happened to us on our first night in Seattle when we stopped into the Diller Room, a dank and dive-y bar located in a building that started life as a nice hotel, turned into a second home for pioneers and miners, and then devolved into a Chinese laundry that served as a front for a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Even after all that storied history, we just weren’t feeling the place on that first night — but a return visit a few nights later found us in a far different mindset, relaxing into a cozy booth in the back of the lounge and talking over food and drink to the hip-hop and soul soundtrack coming from the speakers around us. Our final verdict was that the Diller Room was just our sort of bar after all, especially when it came to the plentiful drinks and cheap appetizers.

Charcuterie plate to the left with a nice cheese pairing to the right.

Each of those plates you see above were $6 during happy hour, and we were happy with the ample selection of local meats and cheeses provided. While not quite up to the level of the charcuterie platter we ordered at Pike Brewing, we still enjoyed these creamy cheeses and savory cured meats, with our only complaint being that the bar made no effort to tell us where the food was coming from. I suppose that’s a rather picky thing to wish for, but we come from a place where a man can buy a smoked turkey and wind up talking to both the man who raised it and the man who smoked it all in the same visit. Still, that meat, cheese, and flatbread was just what we needed to soak up some of the Diller Room’s tasty drinks.

First and foremost on that drink agenda was a tasty cocktail called “The Manhattan Project,” a mixture of Bullieit rye, Punt e Mes, Antica vermouth, and Angostura bitters garnished with some of the tastiest brandied cherries I’ve ever had. I stuck with beer, choosing the very drinkable Old Seattle Lager from Maritime Pacific Brewing. Jess switched from Manhattans to Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics not long after, and we were well on our way to a wild and crazy night.

It’s always a good feeling when you can return to a place that didn’t exactly hit the spot the first time around and find that it becomes one of your most memorable places after all. Such was the case here with the Diller Room, where the lights are low, the drinks are strong, and the appetizers are cheap enough to keep you well-balanced for a long evening of fun.

The Diller Room on Urbanspoon

Coffee Break: Cherry Street Coffee House

One of the main things Seattle is known for is coffee, and we managed to to drink enough quality java during our stay that I can almost forgive the city for foisting the over-roasted abomination that is Starbucks on the rest of the country. Our first full morning found us needing a jolt of caffeine to counteract the effects of the time zone changes we had made in addition to the end of Daylight Saving Time. Lucky for us, the friendly red glow of a Cherry Street Coffee House location was visible from the front of our Harbor Steps condo, and we wiped the sleep from our eyes and made the best sleepy shambling beeline we could to the front door.

Now to be perfectly honest, the coffee at Cherry Street wasn’t anything special. Jess ordered a respectable latte, while I contented myself with a strong, but slightly over-roasted Americano. The flavor was decent, but there were strong overtones of acid and burnt flavors that overwhelmed the natural sweetness that can often be coaxed from a coffee bean. Still, a dash of half-and-half did the trick of cutting that acidic flavor and allowed us to move on to what was the best part of our visit: the Tomato Bagel. Being a tomato lover, Jess immediately picked this item from the menu, while I went for the classic lox — which was unfortunately sold out. Taking a cue from my better half, I ordered a tomato bagel, too, and we were both treated to a large toasted bagel topped with a healthy schmear of cream cheese and several slices of a lovely bright red Roma tomato. I was skeptical about how this was all going to go down until I took the first bite — and it was pure bliss. Warm toasted bread gave way to the cool, rich tomatoes with all that luscious cream cheese holding everything together. It made for a great breakfast, but I could see myself grabbing one of these for lunch or an afternoon snack.

Cherry Street Coffee House wasn’t the best coffee we had in Seattle, but the service was good and lively, and that tomato bagel will always have a special place in our hearts. There are several locations around the city, so if you need some carbs and cream cheese, give them a try.

Cherry Street Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Piroshky Piroshky

My love for pastries is just a little different from most people. Sure, doughnuts, danishes, and cinnamon rolls rule the the hearts and minds of the baked-good consuming masses, and I’ve certainly eaten my share of them over the years. But I’m a savory guy — even when it comes to pastries, and it’s just my luck that Seattle’s famous bakery Piroshky, Piroshky has people like me covered with some fine specimens of delightful savory pastries. And you fans of the sweet stuff need not worry, either: there’s a fine list of sugary items from apple to marzipan for you to choose from. As for me, my first experience with one of the little stuffed Russian pies was filled with smoked salmon.

First, the crust, which was light, flaky, and baked to a buttery golden brown. Within this delicious shell was a finely minced smoked salmon filling that was smooth, creamy, and quite fishy (in a good way). The hand-held pastry made for the perfect walking snack, and even before I had finished it, I was plotting my next trip to the bakery.

That next trip came a couple of days later. A late night of severe over-indulgence had left us feeling a little less than perfect in the morning, and so we made our way slowly back down to Pike Place Market for some coffee and carbs. My choice this time was another savory variety, the beef and cheese, and I was treated to a warm mini-loaf stuffed with minced beef, onions, and topped with melted cheddar cheese. This piroshky proved even tastier than the salmon, and as we sat down by the water front watching the sun rise above Elliot Bay, breathing in the chilly November air, we felt the cobwebs of the night before being swept away and prepared ourselves for another day in the city. The Kotelnikov family has been selling their tasty wares since 1992, and they’ve attracted the attention of foodies worldwide — including a segment on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. It’s clear to see why these pastries have such a devoted following: they’re inexpensive, delicious, and come in such a wide variety as to suit any taste.

Piroshky Piroshky on Urbanspoon

It was the Best of Restaurants, It was the Worst of Restaurants

In my other writing gig as a food critic for the Arkansas Times, I get to try a lot of restaurants in the city, and Jess and I have had more hits than misses — we’ve been lucky. One of the most fantastic hits we reviewed was the White Water Tavern, home of the mammoth burger and the occasional chicken and waffle taco special. Jonathan Wilkins has been running himself ragged getting that place whipped into shape, and his hard work is paying off the dividends of deliciousness. But not every place can be as good as White Water, so here are some of our most recent hits and misses in descending order of greatness.

Mostly a hit: RJ TAO Ultra Lounge. Although really not the kind of place that suits our personalities, Jess and I enjoyed our meal at RJ TAO. The restaurant gave me a chance to try kangaroo, and I’m always pretty excited to try something new. The best thing we ate all night was the Belgian chocolate fondue, which was rich and bittersweet — and surprisingly made a perfect coating for the fresh cantaloupe that was our favorite thing served to the side (we weren’t as big on the stale Rice Krispie treats). The worst thing we tried was also a fondue, this time of the classic cheese variety. Severe separation and textural issues really made hurt this dish, although the flavor of the cheese showed some promise. It may become one of Little Rock’s new trendy places (which they so desperately want), but my overall impression was that it’s a tad overpriced and trying way too hard to be hip. Still, if they settle down and keep using quality ingredients, they’ve got real potential.

Half Hit, Half Miss: Aladdin Kebab. The succulent chicken kebab at Aladdin is seriously one of the best grilled meat dishes I’ve ever tasted: excellent spice and flavor in the marinade, and a good char on the edges of the meat that made every bite a tender, smoky delight. The gyros were tasty, although I prefer a true yogurt-based tzatziki to the sour cream version used here. Hummus was incredibly smooth, and redolent of the tahini used (we could have used a taste more lemon to cut it). That’s the half-hit part. The half-miss is the Mexican side to this eclectic menu, which while decent, doesn’t come close to the level of the Mediterranean dishes. Still, worth a visit just for that kebab.

Pure Miss: Datsaburger. We have several really good burgers in this town from Big Orange to the Root Cafe. Datsaburger is so far removed from these places in terms of quality that the light from their galaxies would take a thousand years to reach it. Their website claims that the owners went all around the Mid-South searching for the secret to making a great burger — and I guess they didn’t find it. Apathetic service, apathetic meat, and worst of all, the abomination I have in that picture over there — the Razorback burger, a glorified McRib without even the decency to give you the pickles. And don’t even get me started on the food-poisoning-incident-waiting-to-happen that is their condiment bar.

Miss? Didn’t Even Show Up: Kebab House. What do you get when you eat at a place where the server first tells you that they’re out of a menu item and then serves it to the table that comes in 30 minutes after you? Kebab House. What restaurant serves up hummus without pita bread, says they’ll bring it to you after two requests, and never brings it to you by the time you leave? Kebab House. Who never offers to refill your drinks? Kebab House. Who advertised free Turkish coffee throughout the month of September and charged me for mine on September 28? Kebab House. SYNC Magazine thinks they’re okay, which should make you mistrustful to begin with. I haven’t left a restaurant this angry since the last time I ate at a Ruby Tuesday. I get asked sometimes what the worst place I’ve eaten is, and for 2012, the answer is (everybody now): Kebab House. Seriously, that place sucks, even the things they actually served us correctly.

Well, that’s an overview of the good, the bad, and the Kebab House. If you have any places  you think we should try, be sure to e-mail us at arkansas.foodies@gmail.com — we’re always looking for reader feedback. And if you like the Kebab House, may your gods have mercy on you. Cheers.

The Arkansas Foodies 2011 Year-in-Review

“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” -Benjamin Franklin

In many ways, 2011 was a hard year.  Natural disasters, economic woes, and the continued existence of reality television all served to really put a damper on what we had all hoped would be a year full of peace and prosperity.  But a lot of good things happened in 2011, too, and Jess and I have never been so thankful for all we’ve been given – nor so proud of everything we’ve accomplished in the past year.  2011 was the first full year for this blog, and what started out as a little hobby for us has turned into a project that we love, and it’s the continued support of our readers that makes it all worthwhile.  So since it’s the thing to do to make “end of the year” lists, we figured we’d look back at our favorite things from our first year – and we also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for reading and sharing your own experiences with us.  Here’s to a great 2012!

Best Pizza: Vino’s Pizzeria and Brew Pub.  We haven’t actually reviewed Vino’s on the blog yet – but that’s because it’s our favorite place in Little Rock and I haven’t written anything I like enough yet to post.  Get the Margherita Pizza, it’s fantastic.  Runner-up: Cafe Amore in Eureka Springs.

Best Hamburger: Big Orange in the Promenade at Chenal.  Big Orange has some of the biggest burgers around with a wide variety of toppings.  Bonus points for serving Dazbog coffee, but the service can be slow.  Still, it’s a very tasty place.  Runner-up: The Pantry Burger at the Pantry on Rodney Parham.

Best Food Festival: The 2011 Jewish Food Festival.  This was one of the most fun days we spent this year – latkes, rugelach, and some of tastiest chopped liver I’ve ever had along with some of the friendliest folks we’ve had the pleasure to meet.  If you go next year, be sure not to miss the baked goods table.  Runner-up: The 2011 World Cheese Dip Championship.

Best Beer: Sofie by Goose Island Brewing.  And I’m technically cheating here, because we first reviewed the Sofie back in October of 2010 – but I didn’t try another beer all year that I liked better than this light, crisp saison.  Runner-up: North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw Pilsner, which I drank every time I could afford it.

Best Side Dish: Truffle-Herb Fries from Big Orange.  These are the best french fries I’ve had that I didn’t make myself.  Crisp outside, mealy inside, dusted with herbs and drizzled with truffle oil, these fries are only made better by the side of creamy aioli they’re served with.  Runner-up: Stilton Tomato Half at Brave New Restaurant.

Best Restaurant: Brave New Restaurant.  Impeccable service, delicious food, and a gorgeous view of the Arkansas River – what more could you ask for?  The Mixed Grill is a carnivore’s dream, and the Cream of Brie soup is one of these best things I’ve ever tasted.  Runner-up: Boulevard Bread Company, both for their PLT sandwich and the foie gras and sweetbreads special, which we drove to sample during some of the worst tornado warnings central Arkansas saw last year.

Favorite thing I was supposed to share but didn’t: The Charcuterie Board at The Pantry on Rodney Parham.  This delightful spread of cured meats, bratwurst, and pate is technically the sort of appetizer that is shared among an entire table.  But since Jess isn’t nearly as big a fan of this sort of stuff as I am, I just ordered the thing as my main entrée.  Delicious!  Runner-up: I think there’s enough food there to qualify the Charcuterie Board for runner-up, too.

Best Main Dish we Made: Shrimp Taco Salad with Black Bean Puree.  That one got us a mention over at Eat Arkansas, and was one of our more popular posts all year.  As for a runner-up, I’m rather fond of our meatballs, our mussels, and my own version of pate.

Best Dessert we Made:  German Chocolate Cake.  Jess really outdid herself with this rich chocolate cake with coconut-pecan icing.  Jess really came into her own as a baker this year, and out of all the delicious things she made, this cake is my favorite.  Runner-up: I love her pumpkin bread, and we also made a pretty tasty strawberry tart last spring.

Best Bar:  This one is a tie between our two favorite bars in Eureka Springs, the Squid and the Whale, home of both Guinness in a mason jar and the spiciest Bloody Mary ever and Henri’s Just One More, home of the best dirty martini I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink.  We spent a very fun afternoon crunching around in the February snow between these two places last winter.  Runner-up: The Flying Saucer, where we wound up in Sync magazine looking a little tipsy.

All in all, 2011 was a fun year.  We tried a lot of different food, had a lot of great meals, and met a lot of really interesting folks who like to do things just like we do:  they cook well, they eat well, and they live life to the fullest.  We hope you all have a happy New Year, and we’re looking forward to bringing the deliciousness to you again!

Review: Copeland’s of New Orleans

I always like it when a chain restaurant can make me eat my usual dismissive words, and Copeland’s of New Orleans in the Shackleford Crossing shopping center is one of the tastiest times I’ve ever had doing it.  On a day when we wound up getting disappointing service from a local favorite, it was nice to experience the friendly and efficient service provided by the staff at Copeland’s – and the food was pretty tasty, too.  Jess and her mom had eaten there before, but it was my first time; and while their food is a bit pricey, it’s good and the portions are so huge that there’s no way a normal person could ever think about leaving hungry.  I’m a pretty big eater, and even though I skipped breakfast and ordered a lunch portion I still wound up stuffed.  Copeland’s is a spacious and friendly restaurant, and we’ll definitely be going back.

Because it was lunch and we had some shopping to do afterward, we didn’t sample any of Copeland’s drinks on this visit, but we did start off with an order of Crawfish Bread, toasted French bread topped with spinach, artichokes, Alfredo sauce, crawfish tails, and Monterrey Jack cheese.  The bread was firm and chewy – and it was surprisingly capable of holding up the copious toppings.  I was happy to be able to actually taste the crawfish tails among all that other stuff – all too often they’re just chewy little flavorless bits.  We also started with bowls of Copeland’s Gumbo and their Crab and Corn Bisque.  The gumbo was respectable, although nothing outstanding, but Jess and I enjoyed the bisque a great deal.  Creamy soup loaded with sweet corn and lump crab meat – a perfect combination of flavor and texture that I didn’t expect to like nearly as much as I did.

For my entrée, I ordered the Eggplant Pirogue: two slices of crisp-fried breaded eggplant over linguine and topped with spicy Alfredo sauce, shrimp, and crab claws.  Well, okay, to be honest, it was just one crab claw – even though the menu was pretty clear that there were going to be claws present in numbers greater than one.  That’s my only complaint with the dish, though, as the eggplant was firm and sweet and the pasta was only just on the edge of being overcooked (which is honestly where I like it).  The shrimp were flavorful and the creamy sauce didn’t overpower the dish but was great for sopping with the bread Copeland’s serves with all their dishes: a strange hybrid of a biscuit and a dinner roll that was interesting and tasty.  I love eggplant, but I usually don’t order it because it comes out soggy and bitter – Copeland’s did neither.

Jess’ entrée was called Catfish Acadiana, which is just a fancy name for a huge filet of fried catfish.  It came served with a “creamy shrimp butter sauce” which reminded me of sausage gravy made with shrimp instead of sausage – strange, but rather tasty.  The fish was tender and mild tasting, and the breading was very good, almost like a chicken batter.  For her sides, she got some rather bland and uninspiring mashed potatoes and a crazy-decadent macaroni and cheese.  Honestly, just to say “mac n’ cheese” and conjure up the blue box really doesn’t do this stuff any justice at all – it was rich and creamy and loaded with cheese and crisp bacon.  I took a few bites, and while I found it delicious it was far too rich for me.  I’ve got to give Copeland’s some credit for the side dish – it really delivered more than any side dish has any right to do (pay attention, mashed potatoes).

Copeland’s of New Orleans is located at 2602 Shackleford Road, in the Shackleford Crossing shopping center, and they’re open for lunch and dinner.  It’s one of the better places serving up Creole-style food in the area, and well worth a try if you’re in the area.  Enjoy!

Copeland's of New Orleans on Urbanspoon