Tag Archives: seafood

Earth Fare

Regular readers of this blog know that we express our opinions with a reasonably ruthless honesty. If we like something, we are more than happy to sing its praises. But if something unfashionably crosses our critical gaze, we’ll also tear into it with great relish.

I think we’re always fair, but we do have opinions, something at odds with the “say something nice or don’t say anything at all” crowd. We try to back up said opinions with facts — and articulate them in a way that you can relate to. And while we know that we come from a set of particular perspectives that perhaps most people in our city don’t share, we also do our best to go into situations with an open mind.

All of which is a sort of meaningless preface to our review of Montgomery’s new grocery store. It feels necessary because we went there expecting to hate it. And we loved it.

Why would we expect to hate a grocery store? Well, for starters, it is in a part of town that we have dubbed “The Hellscape.” This is the part of town that you might call “the east side.” It is comprised entirely of sprawl, driven by environmental disregard for beautiful country farmland that once surrounded Montgomery, fueled by racism and a fear of city life. It is a land of McMansions and facially race-neutral explanations involving school districts and land values, a realm of soul-crushing big box stores and mono-cultural consumerism, big churches and people clinging to their gas-guzzling SUVs as if they were lifelines. You know the place, even if you’ve never been there. It’s evil.

And yet, as health-conscious vegetarians, quasi-foodies who shun the label, we couldn’t resist the allure of a new grocery store devoted to things we revere: locally grown grown produce, organic foods, fresh bread, succulent fake meats. We figured we’d go, take some pics, and then come home and rip the place for being over-priced and full of yoga-pants-wearing bourgeois soccer moms beaming self-satisfaction and stocking up on quacky new age medical cures.

But even if there are a handful of walking stereotypes in the new Earth Fare, the bottom line is that this store is amazing. The only negative thoughts (other than the ad hom cheap shots added for humor value) we really could muster was a sort of profound sadness that this grocery store is so far away from our house.

We just posted a lament about how downtown re-development has been hindered by a lack of a grocery store. And there’s an entire blog’s worth of posts to be written about the starvation and malnutrition being inflicted on the parts of Montgomery that qualify as “food deserts.” (see also here for a look at another major Alabama urban center dealing with this disgraceful phenomenon).

So perhaps we can be forgiven for celebrating the arrival of a health-themed grocery store in a state that has some of the least-healthy children in the nation.

But really, it’s not about how this amazing grocery store serves the greater needs of a state that seems allergic to being healthy. Nope. Our sense of consumer desire, our urges grounded in food-buying lust … that’s selfish. And we’re at least somewhat OK with that.

We follow the organic food industry with all of the righteous zeal of modern crusaders consumers . We try to buy from corporations that behave in ways we approve of. And we track the boardroom political debates as best we can. Check out this blast from the Organic Consumers Association regarding the reprehensible Monsanto — and then check this (also persuasive) reply from Stonyfield Farms.

And Earth Fare has got what we need.

There’s an entire post to be written about the awful Fresh Market, which is out on the Boulevard. But whatever acid-tipped daggers we had for that overpriced joke of a grocery store were rendered wholly unnecessary by the opening of Earth Fare, which ought to drive Fresh Market out of business within a year.

In the words of one of the total strangers emerging smiling from Earth Fare last week, “Now, tell me again why we’d ever go to Fresh Market again?”

So … what makes it so great? (“Finally,” you grumble to yourself, “the review part of the review …”

It’s not the fruits and vegetables. Sure, there are good deals to be had there (niche items like Meyer lemons and the only organic oranges and lemons in town — besides the ones at sinking ship Fresh Market), but in general you’re going to get a better overall value and selection at the Winn-Dixie or Publix. We might be shrugging it off more than most because we already get local and organic produce from ¬†our magnificent CSA share (spring shares may be available, get yourself to the Red Root Farm Facebook page).

The bulk food section is good. It’s better than Healthwise (though theirs is good too, this one has more stuff and also has bulk spices). It’s a little spendy, of course. We got organic tri-color quinoa ($5.99/lb) and organic pinto beans ($2.49/lb). The beans have a date with the New Mexico green chile we peeled and brought home in freezer bags this summer. (Note to Montgomery grocery purveyors: whoever starts stocking Hatch in the freezer case will win my eternal patronage.) There’s an unbelievable amount of bulk and pre-bagged coffee. It smelled amazing. It was expensive, but it smelled amazing. Next time. The coffee and bulk foods are next to a kind of specialty imported foods rack with the ultimate Stuff White People Like rows of specialty salts and delicious looking imported anchovies that we did not buy but wanted to melt into a pasta sauce.

There is a really big personal care products section with all the quasi-obscure soaps and lotions you might care to purchase. Some of this stuff is hard to get around here – I noted the selection for future trips, thinking it might end up saving me shipping on inevitable online orders. Also there are rows and rows and rows of vitamins and “herbal treatments.” Seemed like Healthwise had that part of the market all locked up, but I’d be surprised if the vitamin-and-cleanse crowd decided to shift its loyalties just because organic olives can now be purchased at the same time as flaxseed oil and protein powder.

The fake meat divisions were a big hit with us. We don’t need you getting all preachy with us about the need to get away from meat substitutes, or talking about dioxin, or just trying to convince us that there’s nothing wrong with inflicting suffering on sentient beings so you can consume their flesh with a light dusting of truffle powder. When you don’t eat meat, you (may) miss its texture. This doesn’t mean you want to eat Tofurkey (really, nobody should). But it does mean that sometimes you just want to buy packaged seitan rather than always making your own, that veggie dogs can be delicious, and that Publix doesn’t have to have the tempeh market cornered. Earth Fare had all that and also a bunch of weird stuff in the freezer case. We’re gonna keep making our own seitan, but it’s nice to know we can get packaged foods like the rest of the bourgoise.

There’s an olive bar, of course. The thing about olive bars is that you can’t tell until you’ve tasted the stuff. The one item we got was really good, but we’ve only tried that. More sampling required.

The cheese selection was lavish, what you’d expect, really, and is by far the most exotic and well-curated in town. We’re merely amateur turophiles, but we felt confident that their vast (and expensive) collection of cheese contained many gems.

The deli looked great. One of us was sort of overcome by all the vegetarian food in the deli, and wanted to try/buy it all. Fortunately, she was prevented from emptying our bank account into various kale-soy concoctions by the hordes of dimwitted idiots mobbing the understaffed counter. These are the people who have tons of time to study the menu and look in the case and still get to the counter with a “hmm, let’s see. I think I might like to have…” So we opted out. We couldn’t escape the desserts, of course we couldn’t, with our well-documented sweet tooths – the kindly man pushing apple pie samples ended up selling us single serve treats instead (good, not great). We also got bagels. Needed salt. And onions. For “everything” bagels they were curiously nihilistic. But still, they had bagels! Can’t get fresh baked bagels at Publix or Winn-Dixie. At least not in our neighborhood. Depressing.

Of course by the time we got to the register we’d already spent way too much money. An avocado here and a salad dressing there meant it was pretty easy to rationalize the seasonal sixer of Sierra Nevada at the register. Sigh. A trip to observe and sample ended up as a triple digit expense. Ouch.

Still, we’re glad the store is there. It exploded our expectations and we’ll likely be back. Yet, all of the above commentary about sprawl and the abandonment of Montgomery remains spot on. We’re glad Montgomery has a top notch store in Earth Fare. But when Trader Joe’s comes to town, can they please find some way to build it on the Boulevard?

Wintzell’s Montgomery

There was a great rejoicing from our group of Montgomery friends when it was announced that Montgomery was going to be getting a Wintzell’s Oyster House. And honestly, that note of anticipation was pretty much the high point. Wintzell’s is known by many Alabamians as a great place for seafood. Many, many people speak fondly of the Mobile location(s). If only a fraction of the chain’s good food and service would come to the new expansion location, there would be much more rejoicing. Unfortunately, although we love oysters and seafood places, our heart remains with the Capitol Oyster Bar (and not at all with Young Barn Oyster Pub).

The news was good at first. Wintzell’s would be coming downtown. Anyone who has been faced with lunchtime downtown would obviously celebrate this entry into the gaping maw of the under-performing restaurant scene. Yet, there was dismay attached to the news that instead of fixing up one of the many existing awesome old buildings downtown, the franchise would instead patch onto one of the few parts of downtown that didn’t need any renovations at all, the Marriott Renaissance hotel — which already has a perfectly functional (if overpriced) restaurant.

So finally they opened, latched onto the downtown hotel and slammed full of customers for the first week or more of their time in business. What did we think when we finally got around to checking it out?

The service is just terrible. Look, we’re not those high maintenance customers who order things “extra crunchy” or sub in various ingredients. We’re happy if we can find something on the menu and if you keep our glasses full. We are even good tippers and have personal experience of how difficult life can be for servers, especially in new places where all of the bugs haven’t been worked out yet.

Yet, we have been twice (just to give the place a second chance) and the service is feast or famine. At first, it was the super annoying thing where five servers plus the manager come by to see how everything is. Total overkill. Hard to even get a bite of food in between people checking in on you. One guy even stopped in and seemed to make fun of how much food we had ordered. I reminded him that his place of business charges money for the food and he should be encouraging us to purchase it instead of gawking at the amount that we were consuming.

But then, the famine. Where the parade of people once came by to examine the details of our dining experience, suddenly, we were abandoned. So, again, we’re pretty patient customers here, but at a certain point, you have to get up and just go refill your own tea at the server’s station. And that’s annoying.

Adding to this is the quality of the food. Some of the diners in our party seemed happy. A round of oysters was enjoyed and the beer was cold and in frosty glass mugs. But my dozens of oysters were filled with flecks of shell and grime. And my blackened fish po boy, well, when asked how it was, the only word I could muster was: “toilet.” It took several pieces of the butter drenched toast to wash away the aftertaste of that toxic fish-slab. The fried oyster po boy was overly bread-y, spiritless, and sad. And at dinner it’s about three times the price of a much better sandwich over at Destin Connection.

And the atmosphere just isn’t the kind of place I want to have food. With bare concrete floors, there is massive echo from the swarming crowds. And this magnifies the booming effect when the staff comes out and screams one of their quirky Happy Birthday songs to some unlucky diner. It’s the kind of crap you’d expect at a Flinger’s restaurant from Office Space where they count the pieces of flair on your vest. But it’s not the kind of thing right-minded people want to hear when they are trying to consume some food.

The Montgomery Wintzell’s is going through all the motions. They have studiously assembled some of the atmosphere from the Mobile restaurants; taking the quirky aphorisms from the wall of the original (a great place to eat, in Mobile’s oldest wood frame structure, where layers of scribbled and fraying lawyer jokes and take-my-wife-please themed puns manage to seem authentic because they basically are), lining them up and stapling them up and down the wall. Nothing says funny like a joke calling a woman a battleaxe. In any case, the total fakeness of the quirk made us totally nostalgic for the first Witnzell’s and hate this one. Also the oysters were small. Not so in Mobile.

Yes, they have dollar beer and $5/dozen oysters at happy hour. But at what cost?

Capitol Oyster Bar

The access-type road that you take to get to the Capitol Oyster Bar runs along the Boulevard and must feature Montgomery’s single most dangerous traffic intersection. Norman Bridge crosses the Boulevard in an insane orgy of unmarked roads and lanes that twine together in an improbable pattern and is, seemingly, constantly traversed by an army of escaped mental patients in brightly painted cars. It doesn’t help that the ABC store is on the access road, meaning many veering nuts swigging from just-purchased bottles. Or, also, that the super-shady Diplomat Inn (no doubt, where visiting diplomats stay) is on the corner.

If you’re brave enough to venture down here you’re going to encounter what is probably Montgomery’s finest oyster joint, a place that rivals all of the other oyster joints we’ve ever been to (and that, dear readers, is a LOT of oyster joints, this being the food that has caused at least one of us to fall off the vegetarian wagon many many many many times, finally being grandfathered in as a “sometimes” food because it meets the new “no eyes” rule – yes, we know that’s a dodge, don’t write us citing the collected works of Peter Singer, please). The Capitol Oyster Bar holds its own against all of our national oyster bar experiences in terms of both quality and price.

Calling The Capitol Oyster Bar unassuming is sort of like saying that Augusts in Alabama are a bit on the warm side, or that Nick Saban is well paid. It’s a straight up, unapologetic dive that looks as if it hasn’t changed appreciably in 30 years. oyster-barThe menus are also your paper placemats, tea is served in clear plastic cups, and there are televisions in the corners of the room showing various sporting events. The lights are low, but not dim. Ephemera covers the wall where the bar and kitchen entrance is. Food choices are reasonably limited – basically, it’s seafood that you can order fried or prepared in a few other ways, on a platter or a sandwich or just peel & eat, along with the usual sides like cole slaw and fries, hush puppies, etc. There’s a hamburger plate for the contrarians.

If you wanted a 50-page menu you’d have gone to the damn Cheesecake Factory like the bourgeois pig you are. In a place like this a larger menu would only insult you, or even fill you with despair. After all, you’re here because you’re looking to devour some serious oysters – the kind that overflow your hand just a little bit and magically taste like the sea, even better with a little lemon, and even better with some horseradish. Horseradish which is so good that it seems like maybe you’ve never even had horseradish before, like how can horseradish taste this good? That’s what you’re here for. And you won’t be disappointed.

Oysters are market priced ($8.50 a dozen when we were there, but check out what a good deal the bushel is at only $50), expertly shucked, and served on plastic cafeteria trays. No fancy piles of crushed ice for this meal – that kind of nonsense is for people who don’t really eat oysters and prefer to stack them artfully or smother them in mignonette or some other awful thing that ought to be a war crime. Your oysters might be so mind-bendingly delicious that you find yourself needing another dozen. Go ahead – you deserve it. You’ve been ever so good.

The other thing of note in addition to the great food, is that the C.O.B. is also a thriving nightspot. There’s good blues music at just the right volume over the speakers when we ate there around 7 or so on a Wednesday, but the waitress told us to check out the live blues music on Thursday nights, when you can just tell the place gets really crowded and it turns into a pretty cool divey bar with a big outdoor patio. We’ll have to report back in another post after we explore this place while it is functioning in this capacity.

NOTE: Capitol Oyster Bar is closed on Mondays. Plan accordingly so you don’t get your heart broken.