Tag Archives: restaurant reviews


You’re a tuna. You’re arcing through the Pacific on a path older than time. You sense an enticing glimmer, feel a violent tug, and are now dying on the deck of a boat.

You catch fish for a living. You know you’re over-fishing the oceans, but the endlessly chomping mouths demand the fruits of the sea. Plates in Omaha, El Paso, Des Moines, and Montgomery, Alabama, require tuna and salmon and eel. You try to think of the happiness that the flesh of your catch will bring to some famished diner, honoring your labor. You try not to think of business guys shoving vast quantities of sashimi into their laughing gullets.

You’re opening a Japanese restaurant. Your market research tells you that the average consumer of Japanese food in this area is mostly interested in a birthday party surrounding a hibachi grill — the kind where the chef tosses a shrimp high into the air and puts on a funny show. You are taking a risk by opening a new place. You add more water to your miso soup, hoping to stretch it a little further.

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You like going to restaurants. You try the new Japanese place shortly after it opens. The food is limp and depressing. The service is a step or two below that. To be kind, you decide not to write a review because it’s hard to open a new place and get it firing on all cylinders. You decide to come back when it’s a little more established. Maybe they’ll have everything worked out and you can give it a fair consideration.

A co-worker proposes going to Wasabi for lunch. Another co-worker vetoes the idea because the online reviews are so scathing.

A work lunch eventually brings you to Wasabi. It wasn’t your idea, but this is where you are told to meet. You are excited to finally get to see the restaurant on a representative day. Scan the menu’s “Prattville rolls” (fried shrimp and cucumber topped with lobster salad) and ponder those who will identify themselves according to stated preferences for the “Roll Tide roll” (lobster salad and avocado topped with tuna and avocado) or the “War Eagle roll” (tuna and avocado topped with salmon and avocado and the “chef’s special spicy sauce”). Idly wonder if the lobster is langostino.

photo 1Your food is again very poor. You struggle to communicate with your server, who seems unfamiliar with the permanent lunch specials. You try adding the restaurant’s namesake spice to your food, in hopes of stimulating your tongue. Nothing. Fortunately, your companion picks up the tab.

You’re describing a cucumber roll to a friend. “The rice was so dry, it reminded me of a certain snapping, crackling and popping breakfast cereal,” you explain. “The slices of sashimi may have been brightly colored bits of a leather belt from Wal-Mart, chewy but flavorless — as if they had perfected an alchemical process in the kitchen that removed the unique taste of fresh tuna and left behind some kind of pink simulacrum.”

You ponder the future of The Alley. Although nearly empty at lunch, maybe traffic picks up at night. Maybe folks don’t mind, or even enjoy Wasabi and the reprehensible Jalapenos. Maybe restaurant owners will get rich and customers well-fed well, fed.

True(ly), Made(ly), Deeply

It is tired to even mention that we live in a culture that is materialistic. All human cultures have ever been so, and there’s not much of a point to arguing that ours is any more thing-oriented than the culture of our parents (they wanted cars, suburban homes, crystal decanters) or our grandparents (they wanted washing machines, televisions, record players). When everyone has pretty much what they need to survive and be comfortable, they must be sold adjectives rather than nouns. We don’t need soap, we need beauty. We don’t need shoes, we need cool. Where once we wanted things, now we want adjectives. This is all Marketing 101 and familiar to anyone regardless of whether they’ve watched Mad Men. Materialism reaches its apex in the culture of the adjective.

Montgomery, seeking to become something other than the mostly broken city it’s been for so long, has seized on adjectives with a surprising fierceness. The City of Dreams (noun) having largely failed to take hold, slogan-wise, thanks to a high-priced consultant’s advice, we’ve now turned to an adjective (Capitol Cool, which the city uses lavishly to describe basically all local activities, including many that are profoundly un-cool – we’re looking at you, Crusade for Christ).

In other cities, they read nouns (The Stranger, The Village Voice). Here we have been delivered an adjective, Made, which is also (and perhaps not coincidentally) a truism. We once dined at nouns (The Village Kitchen, Roux), but now we eat at an adjective (True – yes, we know it’s the chef’s last name, its vague space between proper noun and adjective does nothing to diminish the point here). Both signify a similar zone of authenticity, the liminal space of the real, a branding sweet spot that assures the consumer of the product’s point of origin and epistemological locale. The thing itself is not important. What is important are its adjectives: the thing is made, never mind by whom; it is true, never mind by what criteria. This is the trick of the claim of authenticity – it is non-falsifiable, a matter of perspective, the kind of floating signifier that happens to be flitting wherever you wish it to be. It both valorizes agency and strips it away in one elegant and perfectly Pantone-d typographical set.

To immerse ourselves in the City of Adjectives the other night, we read Made while dining at True. Other than the wine, which was quite good, and the blue cheese (holy hell, Asher Blue), it was a lesson in authenticity. Which is to say inauthenticity. Which is to say it was like nothing at all had transpired except suddenly we found ourselves presented with an improbably large bill.

We’ve been to all of the incarnations in the True space. We had a rave-worthy experience at the Village Kitchen the first time we ate there, then watched as it rattled downhill to its inevitable demise. The rumor was it was just a place-holder anyway, to fill the space and make sure the lofts stayed profitable in the wake of Nancy Paterson’s sudden exit. Then there was Roux, much-heralded but just not good. I got food poisoning there once, then another time I sent the food back¹ only to have the chef come out and argue with me about it.

We’ve now been to True three times. The first time, I was served one of the all-time worst things I’ve ever had in a restaurant – an oyster stew that seemed to be, basically, a bowl of warm half-and-half with a few sad oysters floating dimly beneath the surface. It was so amazingly bad that I found myself wanting to take other people there to experience it in one of those “I think this milk is spoiled – taste it” moments of sadism. Nobody took me up on my offer. I see they still have an oyster stew on the menu; I hope for the future of our fair city that this dish has improved on its early incarnation. The second time we went, we had a perfectly nice meal. This was when I was still eating fish.

In 1994, I stopped eating animals because I became convinced that it was unethical to do so. When I moved to Montgomery, I conjured up a series of rationalizations that ended up in eating the occasional fish. This was mostly because it is damn hard to find a decent meal in this town if you’re a vegetarian. Salad’s good, but it’s not a meal every time. Vegetarians like fruits, vegetables, fats and proteins just like every other human. Also we need them to survive. But recently we adopted some fish and I decided I was done with eating their extended family.

So the other night at True, seeing no vegetarian entree on the menu, I asked if it was possible to order one. Our server (and let me say here that the service at True has always been outstanding, the sign of a well-run restaurant) checked with the kitchen and said it was. In the meantime, we had the cheese plate (too much Boursin but damn good pecans) and deviled eggs (really, for $4.50 you maybe should get two whole eggs as opposed to 1.5). When my entree arrived, I was stunned. I’d simply never seen anything like it. It was an asparagus puree topped with fingerling potatoes topped with fruit. It was like the kind of meal you’d make out of little plastic foods from the kind of play kitchen I had as a child – the kind your mother would pretend to eat to humor you. Except that it was also covered with salt. More specifically, warm and salty cantaloupe.

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The bread was really delicious.

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The fruit surprise. They described this as a “veggie plate.”

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My companion had the seafood in parchment. He pronounced it good.

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The cheese plate and deviled eggs.

But it sure looked nice. So did Made, which has looked like a design class project since its first issue. Here in its third, the content is wearing a little thin but the patient attention to font and color persists. The July cover features a man wearing sunglasses and a sheepskin vest over a long-sleeved red plaid shirt riding a skateboard in an alley holding an American flag behind his back like a wee parachute. This same man, whose name is evidently Luke Lindgren, is posed with the flag-as-shawl on page 11’s “Montgomery Street Style” display with the confusing caption “Board and summer plaid set the local Superhero scene spotted in a Cloverdale alley.” In a July that has so far suffocated us with heat and humidity, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would wear a long-sleeved plaid shirt, much less with a sheepskin vest. Why is Superhero capitalized? Is this person a superhero? If so, is their secret power resistance to heat? Superhero or not, why are they hanging around in a Cloverdale alley?

20130713-204422.jpgThe July issue of Made begins with a but well-meaning attempt by one of the editors to acknowledge the publication for what it is – something for people of a particular socioeconomic group. Anything we say on this point will be obvious. The first issue featured the work of Natalie Chanin, founder of Alabama Chanin, whose clothing is lovely but unaffordable for all but the very wealthiest people in our city (e.g., the $155 “basics” T-shirt). The second issue’s discussion of our beloved Florida Panhandle advised visitors to 30-A to go to Seaside, Alys Beach or Rosemary Beach, all “made” communities far removed from the working-class wonders of Panama City Beach. This issue takes a more Chamber of Commerce type approach to the city, listing a variety of places one might go in Montgomery, with a layout so big and puzzlingly expansive that it makes those of us who’ve worked in newspapers feel like maybe they didn’t have a lot of content to work with this month. Still, there are some nice features. Some of them are even well written (though Made still needs to work on copy editing).

This issue’s call for writers whose voices might add diversity, while well-intentioned, seems a little bit like anticipatory self-defense. In other words, if other folks not as keen on ironic facial hair don’t chime in, then it will be their fault for not getting involved. Here we find the same logic of meritocracy that powers all kinds of systems that just happen to exclude poor people and people of color. Black people not in the University of Texas’ law school? Got to be their lack of trying. Poor people not voting? Guess they don’t care. After all, we asked them to vote and desegregated our schools.

In the end, we’re not interested in hating on Made in the same way that we have come to despise some of our city’s other free magazines (Montgomery Parent, we’re looking at you). There’s no doubt that they have good intentions and want to make a nice looking product that makes the city look better. They just have the slippery adjective feel, which when paired with the gross noun-ing of “creatives” (as in the weird and baldly narcissistic declaration that “we are creatives”) leaves the reader feeling like they’ve just eaten one of True’s deviled eggs: it’s like what you conjure of the real thing, slipping through memory like an oiled weasel through Astroturf, interesting not in itself but as compared to something else or, more likely, interesting because we have become the kind of person who consumes such things (artisanal deviled eggs, Made).

When the server asked how our entrees were, I tried to be circumspect. I said that if any other vegetarians wandered in on that Saturday night, the kitchen might want to reconsider its approach. Minutes later, an official kitchen presence appeared to discuss the dish. I explained that the plate, as presented, was both incoherent and not super-tasty. She responded by saying that perhaps it could use some work on the composition front. I wanted to say that the emphasis on composition was perhaps part of the problem but didn’t want to quite go down the Of Grammatology front, so settled for some vague comments to the effect of “it was salty,” also “these things don’t quite go together,” and finally “this is not actually a meal,” all of which seemed to result in vigorous nodding on her part and a comp on the bill for the offending (but, again, quite lovely) entree.

So for all of Made’s (really, Oxford American’s) well-founded criticism of “Southern Glossy,” we found the culprit just a few miles from our home: beautiful food, exquisitely presented, giving us the choice between a grimace and a thoughtful nod toward innovation. This took the form of warm, salty cantaloupe. Which of course brought to mind Adolf Loos. Not familiar? His 1908 lecture/essay “Ornament and Crime,” a polemic against Art Nouveau, points out that the emphasis on form (and in particular, continuous innovation in form) devalues the product of labor by pushing us into an accelerated production cycle:

“Changes in decoration account for the quick devaluation of the product of labour. The worker’s time and the material used are capital items that are being wasted. I have coined an aphorism: The form of an object should last (i.e., should be bearable) as long as the object lasts physically. […] A ball gown for a lady, only meant for one night, will change its form more speedily than a desk. But woe to the desk that has to be changed as quickly as a ball gown because its shape has become unbearable, for than the money spent on the desk will have been wasted.

This is well-known to the ornamentalists, and Austrian ornamentalists try to make the most of it. They say: ‘A consumer who has his furniture for ten years and then can’t stand it any more and has to re-furnish from scratch every ten years, is more popular with us than someone who only buys an item when the old one is worn out. Industry thrives on this. Millions are employed due to rapid changes.’ This seems to be the secret of the Austrian national economy; how often when a fire breaks out one hears the words: ‘Thank God, now there will be something for people to do again.’ I know a good remedy: burn down a town, burn down the country and everything will be swimming in wealth and well-being. Make furniture that you can use as firewood after three years and metal fittings that must be melted down after four years because even in the auction room you can’t realize a tenth of the outlay in work and materials, and we shall become richer and richer.”

– Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, 1908

Adolf himself had some issues – notably racism (against the tribes of New Guinea, at the very least) and a hefty dose of Social Darwinism, but still makes a good point: Economies come to depend on design, on presentation, on the adjective. This makes them money even as (and because) it devalues the labor of workers.

More recently, Hal Foster brought Loos into the present day, considering the difference between ornament and design. His writing helps us to understand True and Made; most especially my warm and salty fruit-vegetable medley:

“Design is all about desire, but strangely this desire seems almost subject-less today, or at least lack-less; that is, design seems to advance a new kind of narcissism, one that is all image and no interiority” – Hal Foster, Design and Crime

That’s my dish for you, and the rift Made teeters ever closer toward – all image and no interiority. Foster brings us back home, describing this design culture as “an apotheosis of the subject that is also its potential disappearance. Poor little rich man: he is ‘precluded from all future living and striving, developing and desiring’ in the neo-Art Nouveau world of total design and Internet plenitude.” Why are we precluded? Because design maps our boundaries as precisely as a kitten in the litterbox. How else can it make its point?

Full circle to the confused person at True. Should the dish be more composed? No, that is part of the problem. Can Made become something better? Almost certainly yes. Will there be any place beside El Rey that serves decent vegetarian food? Don’t hold your breath. This is the City of Adjectives, a sultry but struggling heat-sink that makes possible the cantaloupe-potato-asparagus puree combination ($19). We like our cow tender, our newspapers glib and our food salty.



(1) I should mention that I waited tables for many years and as a result try not to be a douche at restaurants. This means I don’t do things like order water with no ice and never, ever send back food. But when the fish has turned, it doesn’t take a culinary expert to taste it, and the appropriate response is to comp the meal and produce a new entree ASAP. Sure, some diners think they are all big time and need someone from the kitchen to come out for the ritual bowing and scraping. I am not one of those people. But I understand why someone from the kitchen does come out. You just don’t expect an argument. In any case, we stopped going to Roux.

Jalapenos in The Alley

You don’t need to be Don Draper to know that “New” moves product. Most people who do not lobby the statehouse for a living (that is to say, most people with souls) are optimists at their core. Even if we’ve been hurt a hundred times before by something very similar, a few tweaks and the glimmer of possibility is often enough to get humans to buy or do something that they should know perfectly well will not turn out the way they hope. It was new. This is enough to explain, if not excuse, our decision to go to Jalapenos in the Alley for lunch.

The experience was equally unsavory for the fact that we were seated beneath a photo of an actual execution (a picture of a firing squad from what looked to be the Pancho Villa days) as it was for the fact that we were seated next to a table of cops bragging to each other about beating people up. Not the most appetizing of lunch settings to be looking at executions while hearing about police brutality.

But we were still determined to give the food a fair shake — and it was indeed terrible, perhaps even more terrible than the terrible atmosphere. People that think of Jalapenos as good Mexican food probably also think of Cinco de Mayo as an authentic Mexican holiday. To be fair, good fun can be had drinking beer on May 5. But nothing good can come out of eating the watery tomato swill that Jalapenos calls salsa.

The best thing that can be said about lunch at Jalapenos is that it doesn’t take very long. They whip the menus right at you and are ready to take your order before you have even glanced through items numbered 1 through 70, to say nothing of the 20-plus other items on the special lunch menu. They want to know what number you’re having. They don’t want you to try to pronounce it. They want the number. There are only about 100 numbers, and you need to pick a number right now. Are you ready yet?

Vegetarian items are helpfully set aside on the menu, and the pickings are slim. No, they can’t make the chile rellenos without meat because they are all pre-made. They are ready to bring them out to you now. Have you ordered yet? Have you picked a number?

Don’t get distracted by the Barbie doll wearing a bull fighter costume that has been affixed to the wall. That’s called culture. Don’t let the echo of the 1920s Mariachi music distract you from the surprising emptiness of the place during the lunch hour. That’s how you know what country your lunch recipes came from. It fulfills all of the official red-white-and-green flag criteria for Authentic USA Mexican Restaurant Incorporated. What number are you having?

Perhaps you have been slowed by the stale chips that have been slung at you, the plastic basket staring up at you like an accusation. You chose this fate. You have plugged into Jalapenos for lunch. Just as Jalapenos was plugged into an empty space in the city’s favorite economic development site — The Alley.

This restaurant used to be The Cantina. That restaurant was also terrible, famous for sticking frozen fish sticks in a tortilla and calling it a fish taco. Is this location cursed? No. People might be willing to eat lunch here even though parking is scare. But for that, the food would have to be good.

Look, nighttime might be another story. Conventioneers from out of town might not know any better. Jalapenos may do a brisk trade in watered-down sugar-syrup margaritas and Dos Equis. Those people may just be looking for something to fill the “dinner” slot in their evening agendas, just as Jalapenos throws some shredded iceberg lettuce onto your lunch plate to fill that extra space. It doesn’t matter what’s there. It’s just a thing to eat.

For people that have never had any better, this may be just fine. If someone grew up in Hayneville and had never had Mexican food before, Jalapenos might be a delightful treat on a trip to “the big city.” If they’re in for a convention and staying at the Renaissance, they may feel like they walked over and found a gem of a place to hit on Betsy from Accounting.

But we left Jalapeno’s talking about the nature of violence. Our guts were churning in hostile protest about the offense we had just committed against them. The grease was making vile claims. And the city’s favor towards The Alley as the crown jewel of downtown economic development seemed ever more like a farce: “Here’s a tax break. Look at these people drinking cheap beer. Open a business here and hire someone but please, for your own sake, don’t put any of this food in your mouth.”

Jalapenos is not the only restaurant in The Alley that sucks. But it is the only one that feels like someone’s revenge against the city where HB 56 was passed.

Lunch at Martin’s

A truly great restaurant lunch can force you to ask some difficult questions about yourself. Of course, there is the very common, “How can I learn to prepare food like this in my kitchen?” But there is also, “Why don’t I come to lunch here more often?”

That’s what I was asking myself about Martin’s after a fantastic lunch there last week. The answers to the latter question were unsatisfying. Sure, it’s not right next door to my office, but it’s not a substantially long drive. I could get in and out of there easily within my usual lunch break.

And sure, the turn-in from Narrow Lane is horrible. In fact, it is both a terrible piece of paving to enter the parking lot (prepare to scrape your car), but it is also situated at one of the very worst intersections in the city.

But those are not great reasons. And they’d have to be great reasons to avoid the fantastic food at Martin’s. It’s reasonably priced, the service is excellent, and you get the clear feeling that you’re supporting something local with a bit of tradition under its belt.

We don’t even eat fried chicken, which most people will tell you is the main reason to go to Martin’s. It’s clearly some kind of super secret bonus level of amazing fried chicken, but the fact that we’re vegetarians and still rave about the place ought to tell you something about the quality of the other dishes.

Folks that read our food reviews know that we sometimes make exceptions to our vegetarianism for a good piece of fish, and that was the case on this lunch at Martin’s. The fried catfish compares favorably with any other in town, probably one microscopic notch below the lemon-pepper catfish at Isaiah’s.

But the veggies really stand out. First, you have the huge variety. There’s a long list for each day of the week, plus a rotating “veggie of the day” slot that was occupied during our lunch by an excellent dish of boiled and cubed rutabagas.

The mashed potatoes were creamy, and the peas and beans were boiled just right up to the point before they become mushy. We were pretty much too full for dessert, but went there anyway because we knew that (at least for the sake of writing a review) a meal at Martin’s just can’t be considered complete without sampling the dessert menu.

The cobbler quickly made the transition from bowl to stomach to precious memory. The pie was (as it always is) an enormous and eye-popping wedge of chocolate that would seem like an airport restaurant novelty item except that it is one of the finest food items you have ever consumed.

If anything could be improved about Martin’s, the tablecloths and bottles of hot sauce and pepper sauce on the table were a little sticky and grimy. The history of the place is awesome (and it’s great when restaurants put their history on the front of the menu). But you don’t want to feel like you are sharing a meal with all of the sticky-fingered people that have sat at that table before you.

All in all, as noted, we were confronted with tough questions. “Why don’t we come here for lunch more often?” Faced with no decent answers, plans were made to incorporate Martin’s more frequently into the lunchtime rotation. We encourage you to do the same.

Chin Chin

Montgomery has terrible Chinese food.

A few years ago we went to East China based on the consensus ranking of Grandma Advertiser’s readers. That was when we learned to be suspicious of the “tastes” of our fellow Montgomerians. Also, we felt a little sick. But we were younger then, and more idealistic, and we thought for sure a place next to the “Oriental Food Mart” would be pretty good. Sadly, we discovered that all Number One China should be known for is its flagrant false advertising. It took us a year or so after that to work up the courage to go to Ming’s Garden out on the Boulevard. I think we’d secretly hoped that place would be good and were “saving” it for a pleasant surprise. Hopes were dashed. Our food there was a basically inedible pile of vegetables in cloying sauce, served in a time-warp array of vinyl booths. We were so depressed, readers, that we could not even bear to write the place up.

But then just the other day we saw a notice in the paper that lifted our spirits – Atlanta staple Chin Chin has opened a branch in Montgomery! One of us spent many years living in Atlanta and eating at Chin Chin. This prompted extremely fond memories, so we went that very evening, all the way out to one of the bleakest parts of the Hellscape (Taylor and Vaughn, where culture goes to die and be reborn as artisanal mantle decorations) on a night when the City was screaming about tornadoes on the Facebook. Nothing could stop us.

We were richly rewarded for our knee-jerk decision to drive across town in possibly dangerous weather. The restaurant is beautiful, warm and inviting. There’s a small sushi bar with seating in the back, but the main dining room is divided by a nice installation of several giant ceramic pots that are also fountains. The water’s noise actually makes the large room seem quiet and intimate.

The menu is surprisingly vast, with sushi, Thai dishes, specialties and even hibachi meals. We ordered the seafood hot and sour soup, vegetable spring rolls, a yellowtail roll, the New Zealand mussels with black bean sauce and Crispy Fish Fillets in Hunan Style. Service was impeccable. All the dishes rolled out quickly (but not too fast) and were easy to share. To start, the seafood hot and sour soup (for two) itself may be worth a trip across town. It’s laced with egg and has just the right vinegar-y sour taste. The vegetable spring rolls were not that great – a little slender for the price, served with a giant vat of pink sauce. But the mussels were pretty amazing, each one extremely meaty and glazed with the salty sauce. As we were cooing over the soup, the yellowtail roll appeared. We are sometimes mostly wary of Montgomery sushi (nothing against any particular place but it just isn’t that great in our experience). This was the best roll we’ve had here in town – impeccably fresh fish, well rolled with not too much rice, perfectly served in the true minimalist style.

And then there was the Hunan style fish. It’s plenty for two (we even took some home for lunch the next day), but your willingness to share it with your dining companion is a true testament to your love. The fish is not so much fried as it is crisped, or something similar, so that there’s barely any batter at all, and finished with a great sauce that’s not too sweet or corn starchy. It comes with a small bowl of fried rice that’s loaded with little bits of egg and not at all greasy. Afterward, of course, there were were fortune cookies – except these were more like personal affirmations (“You look happy and proud”). When we extract text from cookie, we want cryptic prognostication, not vapid compliments.

We left so happy and full, only $35 the poorer for our sumptuous meal.

If only it weren’t so FAR AWAY. Seriously, from our house, it takes 25 minutes each way to get there – way too long for a meal if you’re not out in that part of town already. But maybe you’ll start finding reasons to go there once you eat at Chin Chin. We never, ever say this about the Hellscape, but we really should find a way to support this place. Maybe by somehow teleporting it to Fairview.

Things that are closed on Mondays

It’s a Monday. That means that if you want to go out to a nice meal in this town you’re basically out of luck. Recently we had the opportunity to take someone dear to us out for a nice celebratory meal. We were looking for something good, with tablecloths and a wine offerings beyond simply “red or white” and a good vegetarian option, or at least some good seafood. Alas, it was a Monday. Evidently this means most good Montgomery restaurants are closed. We know, because we called them.

We started with Jubilee, because nothing says “Happy Birthday” like an amazing piece of fish served with overpriced rice pilaf. Closed. Then we thought: Michael’s Table! We’ve still never been, but this might be just the right time! Closed. The Olive Room, for spy-movie ambiance and martinis? Nope. The Chophouse, where we’ve been meaning to go when we get rich someday? No. Sure, Roux is open on Mondays in our part of town, but at what cost? We decided to look further afield.

We considered Garrett’s, which is basically in Shorter but has amazingly delicious flash fried oysters. Closed. The last time we had a nice dinner with our loved one, we went to Ham and High – enough to convince us we weren’t going back there, plus it’s at (shudder) Hampstead – nevertheless, the home of Montgomery’s worst fried green tomatoes was closed.

What were we left with? Capitol Oyster Bar is closed on Monday, and although the dining is fine there, it’s not exactly fine dining. There’s always El Rey, but we eat there so often with our loved ones that we feared it wouldn’t have the super special birthday feel we were hoping for – though we knew they would do us proud, we wanted to tablecloth it up and use cloth napkins (instead of the otherwise perfectly serviceable roll of paper towels at the table).

Then it came to us – the City Grill. It’s way out in the Hellscape, and we’d seen it before when we visited the simply atrocious East China years ago (our stomachs may still be recovering – if you haven’t been, spare yourself). A call confirmed our reservation, and we had a plan.

City Grill doesn’t have a website. They have a Facebook page where updated menus and announcements are posted, and it’s easy to find their contact info all over the Internets. We rolled in for a fairly early dinner and immediately found the place to be warm and inviting. The wine list was affordable and unpretentious, the bread was good, and even though we were sitting in a booth we found that the place met our tablecloth-y needs. Two of us got fish, and one got some mussels and their grilled Greek cheese salad. The latter had been highly recommended by a bunch of people on Yelp, which should have been taken as a warning rather than advice, given that the damaged online mob was basically the same group of food idiots who got us to East China in the first place via the Advertiser’s “Best of Montgomery” supplement. The fish was good. The salad was slippery, oily and weirdly sweet. But the fish sure was good, and the mussels were also delicious, like the dessert (creme brulee) we shared afterward. City Grill’s a find, for sure.

Unfortunately, we had to drive all the way across town to get there. What is the deal with the Monday night conspiracy, Montgomery?

We understand that many places are open on Saturdays and want to have a two day weekend for staff. But this doesn’t seem to bother restaurants in other cities. You just rotate staff. That seems like a reasonable solution. Or maybe some people want to work 7 days a week. Kind of like people enjoy eating 7 days a week.

Isn’t this a gaping hole in the market? Won’t some enterprising restaurant owner step up and say, “People of Montgomery! Feast at my table for a reasonable cost on a Monday night!”

Garrett’s: The Art of Food

If you are going to care at all about our opinions of food (and the restaurants that serve it), it is important to be honest. Let’s just be honest right up front, OK?

There are a lot of restaurants in Montgomery that we haven’t been to.

Sure, you say. You people are vegetarians. Or at least you don’t eat mammals. Obviously you haven’t been to such and such favorite barbecue joint. And there, you’d be wrong. We’ve probably been to your favorite place and picked the pork shavings out of their (often) paltry excuses for veggie plates. But we keep trying, mostly because we like the downhome allure of the mom-and-pop BBQ places that exist around the state.

Yet, there are just a lot of places here in town that just haven’t made it to the top of our list yet. And some of these are places that people insist are among the best restaurants in town. For example, Michael’s Table. Nothing against Michael and his table, but we just haven’t decided to splurge and check it out yet. And we haven’t been to the Chophouse (or Vintage Year, or whatever it’s called. Having “chop” in the name obviously is kind of a red flag for us, but we do hear that it’s good, and maybe the next time we can afford to drop $30+ on an entree we’ll find out).

Another place we had heard great things about but hadn’t patronized is Garrett’s. A friend told us that their “early evening” menu was a bargain and that the food was tasty. Sure enough, we found ourselves over on the east side of town The Hellscape and had a few minutes to kill. We decided to pop into Garrett’s at 5 p.m. just as the doors were opening. We decided to sit at the bar, have a drink, and order a couple of the cheaper items.

We were prepared to make fun of the semi-pretentious “art of food” subtitle, but we ended up fully and totally impressed. The food (at least the two things we had) was great. The service was professional. And the whole thing was relaxed and delicious. We ended up deciding that our main regret (as with many things) was that it was so far away from our house.

We ordered from the “early bird” menu, joking about how the only people in the restaurant at that hour were the early dining senior citizens that liked to be home before the sun went down. Indeed, we were by far the youngest customers at this hour, but that’s pretty much true anyplace you try to eat dinner at 5.

We had the “flash fried” oysters, which came with a bewitching horseradish sauce. We’d never eaten anything quite like these. And we are big time oyster enthusiasts (those rejecting oyster consumption for ethical reasons should at least check out this Slate article). Turns out that flash frying (for 25 seconds, according to the server) produces a totally different texture and taste to the kind of hard frying you’re likely to see at places like Wintzell’s. The oysters were creamy, but more substantial somehow than they are in all their raw majesty. Sometimes when you taste fried oysters, you only taste the “fried” part of it. Not so here – like good tempura batter (not the crappy kind you’re likely to get around here) and great perfume, the fry treatment demurely accents what it covers.

We also had the crab cakes. They were pretty good, not great, and definitely less memorable than the oysters. It wasn’t that they were square so much as that they lacked a punch. Sometimes when you eat a crab cake, the crab taste is super-intense and therefore delicious. Other times there’s some crab there, which is fine, but the real star of the crab cake is some crazy remoulade or an intense relationship between the crab and its binder ingredients (mustard is good for creating this kind of effect). Here, we didn’t reach either of those flavor highs – the kitchen should either go all out on the crab or all out on the tricked-out ingredient list. But they haven’t, so these felt somewhat compromised. That said, they were still darned good, and a good deal at the discounted early dining price. They went well with the unbelievably cold and refreshing draft Stella Artois we ordered.

Our bartender/server was attentive without being intrusive. We sat at the bar, which they clearly though was super weird, but we were well-treated even with a big party in the back room and the staff still setting up for a big night. We don’t usually say this about places in The Hellscape, but we are looking forward to going back for a full meal and full review.

The Deli at Alley Station

Dear friends, readers, and Internet search-bots,

We realize that posting here at LiM has dwindled to a meager trickle of late. We know. We get it. You are starved for content from our fertile minds. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you are), we have been busy with other antics, including our other blog about Montgomery — Midtown Montgomery Living. No, we have not left this blog to wither and die as the mainstream media would suggest. Rather, we have waited, biding our time, to return to LiM with a vengeance. We plan to be updating it much more frequently from here on out. Thanks for bearing with us (if, in fact, you have). We love you.

Here’s the setup: Historic American city trying to get back on its feet after years of neglecting its downtown takes bold new strides to re-zone and re-develop its urban core. A big fancy hotel is built with convention space! The (heterosexual) river is turned into something people might like to walk alongside and have lunch near! There’s a new bar with a surprisingly good happy hour, even though it’s stupidly closed for daytime football! And a new Italian restaurant that, despite being prone to bouts of extremely sketchy service, offers some damn fine food (including an outrageously tasty pizza with eggs on it)! And baseball! And oysters!

Even as the exclamation points pile up, redevelopment isn’t without its hitches. Lofts are built and occupied at a trickle. Others see construction slowed or completely abandoned when the economy collapses. Ultimately, everyone knows that if downtown is really going to thrive, people are going to have to live there. To get people to live downtown, there needs to be food available for purchase. Food that goes beyond ribs, pizza and vile “Chinese” food. Bigger cities than Montgomery have struggled with this very same issue. Los Angeles’ downtown residential prospects snagged for years on the “no grocery store” issue.

Functioning high density urban neighborhoods are full of delis, bodegas and other corner stores – residents need to run out and get food, diapers, cat litter and other city living essentials. Also they want to be able to eat delicious and reasonably priced food before and after attending the many urban cultural functions that make downtown living worthwhile.

That’s why we were so enthusiastic about the Deli at Alley Station. It seemed like a first step toward sustainable downtown living in Montgomery. Sure, there may never be a Winn-Dixie downtown, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a nice market (milk, eggs, toilet paper, wine) that also sells tasty sandwiches. Alas, despite the various efforts of ex-mayor (and one-term Congressman) Bobby Bright and various other economic development types neither possibility has yet come to pass.

The Deli at Alley Station is an exercise in disappointment. First, you’ll be disappointed in the food. Maybe their Reuben is good – we’ll never know for sure. But the things we ate on a recent visit were truly terrible. One of us had the “Deli Salad Sampler” with pimento cheese, tuna salad and egg salad. Each salad came ice cream scooped onto a longboat-style lettuce leaf destined to ferry them into infamy. For those of us who have suffered the many indignities of repulsive office meals catered by Chappy’s Deli, this meal was the S.S. Minnow to Chappy’s Kon-Tiki. A total of four crackers accompanied this festival of objectionable goo.

It was probably for the best that we were unable to obtain more crackers. The egg salad may be the worst we’ve ever had (and the genre isn’t replete with luminaries). If you had told us in advance that it was actually a scoop of a flavorless mush called root marm, we probably would have believed you. Immediately after tasting, we were filled by regret. As it turns out, the consumption of emptiness is less glamorous than French philosophers have led us to believe. It is more like the feeling after watching Rhianna’s NBA All-Star halftime show, which is to say that you will need at least a shower and possibly a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints to rid yourself of its aftertaste.

Speaking of aftertaste, there was the tuna salad. Let us speak no more of it except to say that it is not good when your customers are unfavorably comparing it to the tuna salad at Subway (also served with a depressing ice cream scoop, and also the color and consistency of our coming nanotechnology Armageddon).

Finally, and with fleeting shreds of hope for a decent lunch, we dutifully sampled the pimento cheese. Which was served in a scoop-sized portion probably large enough to employ a small army of cardiologists. Now, we know from pimento cheese, and we can honestly say that this stuff was, um, edible. It wasn’t good (that honor is reserved for the edgier kinds of cheese spread that come with small amounts of diced jalapenos), but it was edible. But not in the bucket size. And not with four crackers. And really, not as a stand-alone entree for a lunch (which, where we come from, is a meal). We must emphasize that it was not good. But it did at least taste like the thing it was supposed to taste like.

On the other side of the table we had a cup of soup and the Alley Station Special Grilled Cheese Panini. This is a tarted-up grilled cheese, but it was heavily sold on the online menu, as well as the giant wall-sized menu in the store. This was no obstacle to our cashier’s total ignorance of the item’s presence on the menu. Which seemed odd since it was one of three items flagged with a fork to signify a “signature” item.

We assume, in this culture at least, that a “signature” appellation means that the item is one of the best on the menu – that it stands above the crowd of mundane club sandwiches and turkey wraps as something the chef stakes his or her name to, that it is therefore worthy of flourishes and the word “special” and the little hearts over the “i”s, or what have you. Not for nothing is John Hancock still associated with the politics of personal endorsement. If this is the case, then the Deli at Alley Station is in big trouble. This sad disaster of a sandwich was chewy and cheesy in all the wrong ways. Yes, Virginia, grilled cheese sandwiches can be gross. It was even gross dipped generously in the cup of mushroom bisque. Which soup was edible in the same way as the pimento cheese. Its cook, alas, had made the decision to replace flavor with extra cream. In the age of Rhianna, we all settle for simulacra.

The day we were there we felt it was almost certainly drawing lunch diners off of Sa Za. Which is too bad, if only because this meant more people were eating mediocre sandwiches when they could have been eating delicious egg pizza. It was the allure of the new, we are almost certain – the same reason you couldn’t get a table at Wintzell’s when it opened, but now can walk in and sit basically anywhere.

After you finish being disappointed in the food, you can start being disappointed in the place. The Deli at Alley Station misunderstands the problem with downtown living. The problem wasn’t that people couldn’t get lunch. Sure, maybe they couldn’t get much breakfast outside of the Renaissance’s restaurant (and certainly not “all day” breakfast – let’s see how long that lasts). But is a turkey club (or even a good Reuben) really a revolutionary addition to the downtown foodscape?

The problem was the lack of “grab and go,” of actual deli food (meats, cheeses, breads, the stuff a market offers) and the lack of market offerings. The DAS has decided, in the latter area, to opt for the Rhianna solution and substitute simulacrum for reality. They have a refrigerator case full of candy and dubious health waters up front. On the side there are moon pies and Cracker Jacks well out of reach of any adult (let alone child) who might like to purchase them. There’s a weird display of cans of dog and cat food next to Chef Boyardee ravioli on the other side of the freezer cases. It looks like it’s for show, but is “reachable” by sliding ladder (along with several six packs of beer that are seriously more than eight feet off the ground). Is this really going to be the thing (or a thing) that convinces folks that downtown is now livable?

The DAS could possibly appeal to people who think it’s a treat to go to Panera Bread. This might also eventually serve as an acceptable eatery for people that work downtown. Unfortunately, since the state is broke and probably due to fire all of the state workers soon, there will be fewer of those in the times to come.

There are too few tables for it to be a “hangout,” and we have outlined its total failure as any sort of grocery store, despite the hilarious prop cereal boxes that seem to suggest that someone once listened to an audiobook about urban redevelopment in their SUV as they sped off to their Eastside Hellscape McMansion.

Just because the Deli at Alley Station fails as a deli doesn’t mean it’s bad. We like Dr. Dre despite the fact that he’s not an actual physician. The problem is really with its failure as a restaurant. It will be interesting to see whether Montgomery consumers reward the DAS’ abject mediocrity, and whether downtown ever gets the necessities for the real urban living it claims to want.

The Marina

One of the strange things about dining in Montgomery is the small number of places that have great outdoor seating. Sure, we have some pretty brutal heat in the middle of the summer. But much of the rest of the year is nice for sitting outside, even if you need a sweatshirt. We’re lucky to live near Sinclair’s and El Rey so we can take advantage of their nice patios. And sometimes we’ll get a drink at Noble’s, where the tiny fenced in patio transports you to a tropical paradise. Especially if the parrot is hanging out with you. Which is why we were so delighted to re-discover the Marina Bar and Grill.

I say re-discover, because one of us had been for lunch a few times last year and pronounced it bad. Not just okay, but straight ahead bad. At the beginning of the summer, the place re-opened under new management (the previous owner passed away), and we went with some work friends to give it a try.

It is damn hard to find the Marina if you’ve never been there before. Or even if you have. You have to drive through parts of Montgomery that seem entirely burned out, overgrown, impossibly poor, and improbably abandoned. You keep having to remind yourself that you are still in Montgomery. It’s really shocking. Once you get to the Marina (just past the place where the Montgomery Rowing Club keeps their equipment), you’re not even sure you are in the right place.

When we were there a few weeks ago, they had no sign. But inside it’s nice. The service is friendly, the tea is good, the beer is cheap, and you can sit outside! In the shade or in the sun! Near the river! And see downtown! There should be many more places that offer this kind of amenity. We know the Mayor is busy, but somebody should take the initiative to do some work on the other side of the river as well.

We are pleased to report that the food is greatly improved. The catfish sandwich was very, very good – one of the very best fish sandwiches in town. The shrimp po boy was also quite tasty. Not full of frozen and flavorless shrimp, like we expected. But it was on good bread and the shrimp were properly cooked and spiced. Tasty! Our dining companions pronounced their chicken salad sandwich and shrimp basket to be good as well.

The fries are crispy and salty and just what you want in a side. It’s nice to leave a lunch of this kind of food not feeling vaguely cheated, and we think part of this might have to do with the wonderful views and the beachside atmosphere. We are really looking forward to going back sometime and watching the sun set over our beautiful river.

Taking the Subway Downtown

We were looking for lunch in downtown Montgomery — a dangerous enterprise soaked in optimism while perilously close to the match of compunction, as when we have eaten (and regretted for a long time afterward) a mix of the Flames grill cheese fries and “Cajun” fries (Cajun, evidently meaning dusted with brownish powder far inferior to its crack-infused powdered cousin used by a different corporation to render the Sonic tater tots impossible to put down). We were too lazy to bring lunch to work, even knowing perfectly well that we could not afford to eat out. Perhaps a desultory glance through the refrigerator had convinced us that even lunch was too much of a future for our various poorly-identified containers of leftover vegetable medley, of garlicky meat substitute, of hummus. Hummus is not really much of a meal in itself, we’d say to ourselves by way of rationalizing the inevitable.

By rationalizing, we’d slipped already into the specific milieu of the downtown Subway (22 Dexter Avenue) nearest our offices, itself a flourescent-lit temple to the Cartesian lunch, a place where the promise of banana peppers’ vinegary snap and an array of mayonnaises can make us both fully empowered and strangely desubjectivized, each of us Hercules liberated of his labors and set free to roam the salad bar.

Some of us did not want cheese. Those Internet literati had already visited Subway’s website and discovered that their “Six under Six” did not include cheese. Which omission struck some of us as a grim testament to the doomed struggle against obesity and another reason to pillory (if not stone) that annoying pitchman Jared if he ever so much waved a flavorless green bell pepper slice in our general direction. Others of us were inspired by the man in line just ahead of us whose sandwich consisted of four pallid, steaming “grilled” chicken parts straight from the microwave, stacked two at a time like props from a zombie version of Animal Farm, on wheat, with a generous John Hancock splortch of some kind of white sauce. That man stood before a woman truly befuddled by the idea that flatbreads are not, in fact, sold in foot-long lengths.

Those of us who wanted cheese had several options — all in thin, neat triangles lying peacefully in interchangeable plastic bins — the cheddar, the pepperjack, the white American. Which latter choice meant we had to look the African American Sandwich Artist® behind the counter in the eye and orally evince our preference for White American. This, next to the building where the first shots of the Civil War were ordered and just down the street from Doctor King’s church.

Often, when in Subway, we were secretly thankful that we do not live in one of those nanny states where caloric information must be published – otherwise we might never order the tuna sandwich, which is surprisingly delicious for a menu item in its price range and is therefore one of the only tasty non-ice cream items we have ever been served with an ice cream scoop. Other times, we are not feeling too much like contributing to the rapidly approaching extinction of tuna by ordering it as a flavorless mush on breads of dubious nutritional value. In which case we will order the Veggie Delite® and begin to run the gauntlet of justly disaffected Sandwich Artists® reaching their plastic-begloved hands into a variety of black tubs of toppings.

We are dazzled by our own autonomy, the captains of our own destiny, set free from employment’s subjugation into a world of design that will capture the Sandwich of Our Imagination. Or else we are slouching through the line with the rest of our kind, feigning animated half-conversations about Jeff In Accounting or Melinda In The Front Office or This Client I Had The Other Day — secretly eyeing the wicker baskets of chips to see if the Parmesan kind can be had, or if once again we’ll settle for the indignity of the barbecue. Some of us have mastered the process and know the cues and secret verb combos to maximize the place’s Cultural Studies 101 Fordism, the accumulated efficiencies of such an obvious kind that their mere mention is enough to incur at least a little back-channel ridicule among those of us who are plainly Too Smart For This Job.

Some of us are awkward, indecisive, anxious, displaying intercultural incompetence like a poignantly visible case of the hives. We hem. We haw. Unsure of what it means to haw, we hem some more. We commit to the Monterrey Cheddar. No, no, the Italian Herb and Cheese. We forget to say our sandwich type. We choose a cheese and are passed along, exasperated, to the Sandwich Artist® tasked with the distribution of shredded iceberg lettuce, paper-thin slices that are more reminders of tomatoes than the fruit themselves, onion and bell pepper bits, never enough black olives, amnesiac transparent cucumbers, low culture pickles and banana peppers put there only to remind us that we have tastebuds (if, at this point, we wish to remember). If we wish to forget we might order jalapenos. Because we are already in the process of forgetting, we will not remember that the Sandwich Artist® is incapable of providing a smattering of jalapenos, but must out of some post-industrial necessity lavish the peppers in a final gesture of extravagance. We are tempted to read it as making up for stinginess on the black olive front, but deep down we know that it is mere revenge for our hesitance, nothing more than a petty penance for our overwhelmed everyday indecisive mortality.

There is no unsweet tea. This is Dexter Avenue. There is only sweet tea and a variety of Coke products and water of questionable origin. There is also a cooler of bottled drinks that is likely only for decorative purposes. We have combos, or else we soldier on with only chips or drink, or neither, leaving with our wrists through the carrying holes of a sad and sagging plastic bag of ennui, of regret, of compromise and simulacrum. Also it includes napkins.