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Lackluster Tallahassee

Had some decent meals in this town, but nothing transcendent.

Kool Beanz has gone downhill since Nick, the old chef, left for Miami.
Cypress remains consistent but pricey and without much variance.
Sage was underwhelming, although they tried.
Cluster and Hops was a bit too precious and over-prepared (finishing sauces, etc.).
Chez Pierre is a frat house fiasco.
Kitcho is above average but nothing special.

So far, out-of-the-way Spring Creek Restaurant remains my top choice...but how often must I eat fried fish?

Full disclosure: I'm a native New Yorker, so my bar is rather high.

That said ... is there any hidden gem I've missed? And, will Liam's make up for this lack of sophistication?

/Miz

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  1. Well, those are the usual suspects...with the possible exception of Albert's Provence...and I would have held it up to anything I have ever eaten in New York, but alas, Albert retired and it is well past its prime. My favorite of your list is Sage....tried several times, and not had a lackluster meal there yet. Imagination, reasonable prices, and good food.

    6 Replies
    1. re: steakman55

      I should give Sage another try. I did enjoy their exotic mushroom fricasee but wasn't crazy about their salad or desert. Will try the steak next visit. I did forget to mention Mozaik as an option. But what about Liam's? How does it rank?

      1. re: mizrachi

        Been to Liam's only once, but know friends who rave over it. I enjoyed it; the food was good and reasonably priced. I particularly like that is BYOB so you don't have to pay a 300% markup...and can enjoy a $40 bottle of wine that costs only $40.
        At Sage, try the spring roll appetizers if still available. I never get the steak in a restaurant like that; only at home or "steakhoues." but went once with another couple and was told it was good. Mozaik's in my opinion isn't in same league.

        1. re: steakman55

          Will try Sage again. I want to like the place. Perhaps it was an off night. Little pricey for an off night kind of place, but we'll give it another shot.

          That said, it seems that Tallahassee doesn't know how to do "simple" food. Generally, the restaurants here do way too much, reaching without any real nuance or subtlety, just dump the flavor all over the damn dish and no one will be able to tell. It doesn't make sense to me. Where is the simple French bistro? Why are there no bakeries? Why are brunch places such a rarity? Even regionally inspired cuisine in this town is below average: the BBQ is nothing to write home about and the fish in a city located so close to the coast is way below average and almost always fried. Maybe enough people are satisfied with Beef O'Brady's, but frankly I expected more from the state capital. It's not that I am looking to be negative. But it just seems that Tallahassee restauranteurs and diners don't mind that it's like amateur hour here. Even the notion of a gourmet deli is backwards. Like the Cicada Market: overpriced and unremarkable, charging $36 for extra virgin olive oil that can be found in even overpriced NY stores for less than half that.

          1. re: mizrachi

            I would try Clusters and Hops. Very small, uncompromising on food for the most part, and I think the main owner, Kent Steele, is as good a chef as you are going to find anywhere...the man can really cook. He also has excellent wine connections and you'll find bottles in there that you can't find anywhere else in Tallahassee.

            You also can buy a bottle of wine off the shelf and drink it with your meal, and I think their wine is far more reasonably priced than that of Cicada.

            I think they do a nice cheese plate, and their duck breast with fois gras over risotto is a f'ing foodgasm on a plate.

            1. re: pillars_of_color

              I will definitely give Clusters and Hops another try. We've only been once and it was a bit claustrophobic. I remember the dishes were all very serious with loads of finishing sauces and aged balsamic reductions etc. Needless to say, I will give them another go and report back. Certainly their take away counter blows Cicada Market out of the water.

            2. re: mizrachi

              I lived in Tallahassee for over a decade, and hit most of the better restaurants, including many that died on the vine. I do think that the best restaurants can hold their own--in terms of the quality of the food only-- against the mid-level restaurants in bigger cities, but it will cost you.

              I agree that many places just dump the flavor all over the food. Most blatant example of this is Anthony's. When the office had to take guests to dinner there, I usually dreaded it. The meats would be generally flavorless. To cover up the lack of flavor, the chefs just dumped a bunch of cheese over it, and melted it.

              Really good Mexican was impossible to find in town, and Tallahasseeans wouldn't know it if it was right in front of them. We had to go to tiny, neighboring Quincy, which has a sizable Central American immigrant population.

              The BBQ joint that someone wrote of here, by the way, is JB's, which is about five minutes north of the GA-FL border. It's pretty good, and worth the drive, but I've had better. The best BBQ used to be at Dave's CC club (now Bradfordville Blues Club), but since Dave sold the place, it's not the same.

              The best seafood place in town used to be The Wharf. They had a troubled history, due to a couple of scandals. When I left, they were planning to reopen. If they have, and have kept the same menu or cooks, it's worth a visit. You get a lot of Florida-style seafood for your buck, and not just fried, either.

              I would recommend the following places: Cluster and Hops; Cafe Cabernet (pretentious crowd, but great appetizers); Lucy Ho's (great Asian buffet, OK sushi); Nino's; Mozaik; Reang Thai (small, but decent prices, and one of the better Thai places I've tried anywhere). The only good, affordable breakfast place when I left was Another Broken Egg, which is up in Bradfordville, north of Tallahassee proper. They used to have a great place called The Mill, with the best damn muffins and a fantastic traditional brunch buffet, but it closed many years ago.

      2. I will be interested on your impression of Liam's. Personally I think that it is the very best in the area. Before Sage was Sage it was a sweet little French place that served outstanding french country cuisine.

        I agree with you - Tallahassee is a huge disappointment but certainly motivates me to travel a little more...

        5 Replies
        1. re: sunsuze

          Then Liam's it will be. I think we'll try their dinner before their European breakfast, although that sounds lovely as well. We don't mind traveling. Where else would you recommend in the region?

          1. re: mizrachi

            You pretty much hit the Tallahassee culinary nail on its ugly little head....If you are a newcomer, part of the reason may be attributed to the lobbyist spending restrictions of a few years ago.
            That is the alleged reason we don't have a decent steakhouse in town. As for fish, you are again correct: FRY it to a crisp or don't serve it. The baker and the bistro, well, I don't know where they are. Tallhassee is struggling with its provincial restrictions, and the the capital of the fourth largest state, is sadly lacking. My view is, if someone builds it, they will come. You have never, ever seen a crowd like the folks in Tallahassee crowding into the lobby of a new restaurant, like the mediocre chain Macaroni Grill and waiting for an hour and a half to be seated. As for the lack of a good BBQ joint, that is inexcusable as well. That's why people drive 4-5 hours to Atlanta and Tampa for a good meal

            1. re: steakman55

              The former Albert's Provence and the French cafe where Sage is now located were my two favorites. I have not tried Liam's and will put it at the top of my list when I get back to town.

              I heard good things about a small BBQ joint about 30-45 minutes north in a small Georgia town. A neighbor told me about it...I will check out the name and report back.

              We sign up for the music series at FSU and often try to grab a bite to eat at 6:00 on a Thursday or weekend night...it is a joke. Even at that early hour the lines at most decent to mediocre restaurants are huge. I can't tell you how many times we have just given up and grabbed a salad/soup combo at Panara's before a show. (Yawn)

              Two of my standard quick lunch fixes are Po Boys and Tally Grill.

              Ashby Stiff 's Friday review is broken down by cuisine and location. There are a few three and four hat casual spots in places like Thomasville and Appalachacola. Steakman or others, do you have any comments?

              Mirzachi, you may want to look at Steakman's thread several weeks back. He is forming a local chowhound dining group. I won't be back in town until Fall, but maybe we can all hunt for the hidden gems together.

              With family over in Ponte Vedra Beach, I get over to the Jacksonville area on a regular basis. My favorite bakery in North Florida is the French Pantry in Jax. If you get over to that coast check out the Cummer Museum and load up on breads and pastries.

              1. re: Windsor

                There are a few casual restaurants in town that we go to quite often. Bela bela, Jasmine, Rangthai, essence of india. For a nice meal we always head to Apalachicola, Avenue Sea and Owl Cafe are two of our favorites.

              2. re: steakman55

                The best barbecue I have ever eaten was at Shorty's in Miami. All of the stuff in Tallahassee I wouldn't feed my dog. Sonny's tastes like it was dipped in fuel oil. Once there was a decent place around FAMU, but it is closed, I think. The fact is that Tallahassee was settled by ruffians and people who had no taste, and traditions have continued.

          2. The wife swears by Liam's for lunch. You may also want to try Food Glorious Food, outside trumps the new digs, in my book, but we haven't had a bad meal there yet. As for Ashby Stiff's reviews. Every run of the mill Chinese buffet in town sports 3-3.5 toques. IMHO, doesn't carry the weight. Not sure if the lobbyist law is really the true reason for lack of fine dining experiences. If you talk to locals around here, it's the fried chicken, fried grouper, bbq and country buffet spots that they will recommend. And the chains for special occasions. So I doubt if Leon County has a large enough dining demand to support the small populace with more "sophisticated" palettes.

            9 Replies
            1. re: crewsweeper

              Liam's is very, very good. (And there is no corkage charge for BYOB.)

              If you want good, fresh seafood that is not fried, try the broiled seafood platter at George & Louie's in Thomasville. It comes with grilled asparagus and excellent cheese grits. Add a side of fried green tomatoes and a cold bottle of something white. You'll have a feast! It's not fine dining, but it sure is good.

              1. re: onrushpam

                That's funny. I've always been charged around seven bucks for corkage. You must be either incredibly good looking or a real smooth talker onrushpam!

                1. re: sunsuze

                  Nope. The first time I called for reservations, the woman I spoke with said they encourage BYOB and there is no corkage. And, we weren't charged for it. That was in April. We haven't been there for dinner again, so that was the only time we did BYOB.

                  1. re: onrushpam

                    gee, I've dined there twice in the last three weeks and was charged both times! Guess you lucked out!

                    1. re: sunsuze

                      We'll probably go there again for dinner soon... will see what happens re: the BYOB...

                      The corkage fee wouldn't bother me a bit... to be able to bring our own choice of wines and have such a fabulous meal is a true "find"!!!

                      I just wish we had time and money to do it more often!

                      1. re: onrushpam

                        Liam's food is decent....not what I would call a true find. There aren't many restaurants around that I would call a "true find". Great food is determined by the usage of great products coupled with great technique. Liam's food is alright.

              2. re: crewsweeper

                Avenue Sea is the BEST FOOD you are going to get within a couple of hours drive of Tally, IMO. Definitely worth the drive to Appalachicola.

                Windsor: I think you're referring to JB's, but I've heard they've closed and personally, I thought they were not good.

                1. re: pillars_of_color

                  A bunch of us were recently saying that it is a shame there are no nice seafood restaurants locally except for good ole Bonefish, which is always great, but it is a chain and usually overcrowded. Although some of the better restaurants serve some good seafood dishes we would like to see more (a) elegant establishments devoted to seafood.

                  1. re: benedpo

                    There is a restaurant in Sumatra, Florida that is unpretentious and has some of the best seafood I have ever eaten. It is out in the middle of nowhere, about an hour from Tallahassee. I wrote about it at http://www.flwildflowers.com/restaurant If you can get out to Liberty County down highway 65 toward St. George Island, you will see it on the left. It's closed Monday and Tuesday. Word of mouth is making this place more popular than ever with people who can get out there.

              3. Bakery ideer.

                The Cake Shop (whom with great affection I refer to as the Cake Nazi)on John Knox makes the best cakes, cookies, and muffins in town. Not crazy about her bar cookies though. If you have dealt with this bakery in the past then you know the "rules."
                *No special requests.
                *You can only select from the cakes that she is currently making. No exceptions.
                *No cell phones allowed.
                * No attitudes.
                *No forgetting to pick up an order.
                *Quietly wait in line and do not make eye contact with the person behind the counter.
                * Stay in the line!
                *Have your money ready.
                *When it's your turn be ready with your order. Do not smile or make small talk! *Complete your order and hand over your cash. Do not expect change.
                * If you receive change do not count it in line.
                *And for Gods sakes don't ask for bread!!!

                Please don't tell her I said this. I'll be blacked balled!

                10 Replies
                1. re: sunsuze

                  She does make the best cakes in town, which illustrates the problem because her cakes are decent but they're far from great. Aside from her snotty demeanor, her biggest problem is that she doesn't use enough salt, particularly in her icing. Good bakers and confectioners know the importance of adding enough salt to sweets. It accentuates and balances flavors, and if you don't have enough it ends up tasting flat. There's a guy in town who has a small bake-to-order business from his home and his cakes are vastly superior and cheaper. I had some of his cheesecake the other day and it was probably the best I've ever had.

                  1. re: zothhh0

                    More info please! Does this guy have a name? How does one get in touch with him.

                    1. re: vinoepasta

                      His name's Dexter, the business is NiNi's. 321-5285. You'll be really happy with anything he makes, and he's really easy going about special requests.

                      1. re: zothhh0

                        Thanks! Can't wait to check it out. Any favorites?

                        1. re: vinoepasta

                          I've had the cheesecake, a yellow cake with chocolate frosting, and a red velvet cake. All spectacular. I don't know what he does with his cakes but they're very buttery and way more moist than others I've had, including The Cake Shoppe and Au Peche Mignon (which seem to be moist only because they're basted with a sugar/water solution). Most cakes are just a conveyance to get frosting into your mouth, but I could honestly eat these plain and be happy as a clam.

                          1. re: zothhh0

                            Thank you! I haven't yet been to the cake shoppe but have been to Au Peche Mignon, very disappointing. Most bakeries use compounds and alternate fats to prolong shelflife of baked goods. These alternate fats are cheaper than butter. It sounds as though he skips that alternative and uses butter, Thank God!

                            1. re: vinoepasta

                              Yeah, he definitely uses butter and plenty of it. I haven't been knocked out by Au Peche Mignon either. I think they favor a European style of cake (no surprise, given the name) which is deliberately baked rather dry so that it will absorb whatever syrup or liquor they brush it with. I don't really like it. I don't get much of a buttery note, just sweetness. Pretty good coffee though, and the people are really nice. The only cake I've ever eaten that was even in the same ballpark as Nini's is from a place that was down in Clearwater called Blue Mountain Bakery, now sadly out of business. It was owned by a baker from Japan and his stuff was tremendous. He also had those cool inversion-style coffee pots shaped like hour glasses where you heat the water until it's sucked up into the grounds and then filters back down. It was a mighty fine way to spend an afternoon, stuffing my face and chugging coffee.

                              1. re: zothhh0

                                Sounds like Blue Mountain Bakery or something like it would be a welcome addition to downtown Tally. I would love to revisit the familiar feeling of having my favorite coffee and pastry on a Saturday morning instead of mourning it.

                                1. re: vinoepasta

                                  He has a website now: www.ninisbakery.com
                                  I had a key lime pie the other day. Phenomenal. Rich and very limey, not excessively sweet.

                        2. re: zothhh0

                          Hi I definitely agree with everyone about the lack of quality dining and bakeries that exist in this town. Although I haven't tried NiNi's yet there is a lady in town that works out of her house as well.I heard about her through a friend of mine thats orders desserts from her several times a month, so I decided to give her a try. Her company is called The Honey Pot and she can be reached at 850-339-3681. She is in the process of a website so instead you can reach her via email which is TheHoneyPot@live.com.

                          Also she will take special request and can make anything that you could possibly think of not to mention she has a wonderful attitude while doing it. You should check this place out and when you do you have to try the chocolate peanut butter cheesecake its wonderful.

                  2. I think its a little harsh to call the entire City lackluster because it doesn't have the fancy/trendy restaurants of NYC ( I too lived in NYC). I admit that mizrachi is correct in the assessment of the restaurant scene, but I'm sure mizrachi didn't move here for the food. I for one applaud Cicada , La Lanterna, and other little food shops for trying to bring in foods and wines that this City needs. There are hidden gems, as Tallahasseans posting on Chowhounds have revealed. I would recommend Bella Bella, La Hacienda II, Samrat (off the menu not the buffet), Sushilicious, and Far East. You won't get Alice Waters, but you will get family run solid food. BTW sunsuze is spot on as to the cake shop, but my favorite is Au Peche Mignon French Pastry in Market Square. Although they don't do the traditional birthday cake, usually great pastries and the owner is much more flexible than the Cake Shop.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: masala maci

                      I only mean to characterize Tallahassee's sub-standard restaurant scene as lackluster, not the city itself, or its inhabitants, or anything else unrelated to food. I was hoping for a certain quality level that simply does not exist here. Differences in opinion on this matter come down to a question of taste. Bella Bella is a servicable restaurant, a lazy sunday night pasta kind of place, but in no way could it ever be considered a gem, hidden or otherwise. As far as I'm concerned, Samrat gave up a long time ago and should be avoided at all costs. Even the newish Indian restaurant which replaced the previously wretched Curry and Wine is only just adequate. In my opinion, these places just represent the kind of culinary malaise I've found in this town: not reaching, worthwhile only for lunch or when just can't bear your own kitchen. I think that what Tallahasse lacks is simple, high quality restaurants -- not fancy/trendy, just straightforward and delicious food. For the record, Cicada Market is overpriced and of questionable freshness. However, I agree with you about La Lanterna, and that may be our best Italian restaurant.

                      1. re: mizrachi

                        I need to try La Lanterna. Where is it? It's not in the phone book....how strange. I think Z. Bardhi's is an excellent Italian place that for some reason is overlooked.

                        And I admit that I agree fully with mizrachi. I lived in the armpit of Florida for a long time. Merritt Island/Cocoa/Cocoa Beach. Yet that area runs circles around the offerings here. Granted the armpit of Florida attracts more people and is much larger...but we even lack a decent homestyle southern place that is so abundant in the small towns of the Carolinas and Georgia. I can't firgure it out...

                        1. re: sunsuze

                          La Laterna Italian Market is off Capital Circle near Rangthai and Calico Jack's.
                          (850) 878-9738. I'm not sure how to get someone who has the talent and business acumen to have a place like M has described to either come or branch out in Tallahassee. It seems like Mon Per et Moi (where Sage used to be) and the likes always end up leaving.

                          1. re: masala maci

                            La Lanterna is great. If only it were a full restaurant instead of lunch time deli. Still, even their frozen items, like their lasagna, are high quality. And I love that it's a cozy mother/daughter operation. I once mentioned to the daughter that many of the Italian pork stores in New York carry a carbonated espresso drink called Manhattan Special and within a week she'd ordered a few cases without ever having tried one. Now this place I'd certainly call a gem.

                            The lack of very good, simple restaurants in this town may have less to do with talent or business skills and more with the apathy of the average diner. If folks here are lining up around the block to eat at Macaroni Grill then why even consider opening up a smaller, better place? Present company excluded, I just dont think the citizens of Tallahassee care enough.