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Tallahassee vicinity: ISO one great meal - Cypress, Liam's, or elsewhere?

  • m

So I actually lived in Tallahassee for 20 years, but apparently the restaurant scene has markedly changed (for the worse?). Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've heard that:

Albert's Provence - seriously downhill after Ughetto retired
Kool Beanz Cafe (was my favorite restaurant) - chef moved to S. Florida (although apparently Keith Baxter is still there - I could've sworn he was the one preparing the great meals I had there around 1999-2000).
Mozaik - was always to me in the shadow of Kool Beanz
Rubie Sky (new) - not really all that great
Food Glorious Food - thought it was a Kool Beanz copycat with less successful results, but haven't been since Kevin Stout of Andrew's Second Act fame joined the crew.
Chez Pierre - oh c'mon
Andrews 228 - why did they have to ruin Andrew's Second Act, the only restaurant in Tallahassee that had a classy white-linen atmosphere. The one time I went there, every dish was drenched in olive oil. It was peculiar.
Z. Bardhi's - was pretty good - how is it now?
Georgios - uninspired, cavernous menu
Sage Restaurant - never went there, but I liked it in its Mon Pere et Moi days

So considering ALL THAT...I'm bringing someone to Tallahassee who's never been to my fair city before, and I'd like to give her one "upscale" evening (we'll be doing Spring Creek Restaurant down at the coast and Market Diner in Thomasville to cover the other end of the spectrum). Is my better bet to go with Cypress, which seems promising in its creativity and use of local ingredients, or Liam's up in Thomasville? How does Avenue Sea in Apalachicola compare to an old standby that I used to love down there, Chef Eddie's Magnolia Grill?

Our standards (unfortunately?) have become fairly high after living out in the San Francisco Bay Area and now Raleigh/Durham, NC (which has an AWESOME slow-food local farmers restaurant movement to the extent that we've been called the "next great dining destination"), so please advise if you think we should save our wallet for another time and place. If so, we'll...I dunno...do Paradise Grill, the Chicken Santa Fe at Tally's Grill, or dare I say it, that heartburn-inducing siren-like spaghetti at Barnaby's.

P.S. I've seen this great previous thread: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/412109. Any new impressions?

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  1. Haven eaten at all these places multiple times, and sharing your opinions on most of them, I would suggest the following:
    top choice: Sage, without a doubt -- of the ones you mentioned. Two years ago I would have picked Albert's, but share your concern with his departure.
    Cypress ok but not as good as Sage and more expensive with smaller portions
    Kool Beanz -- still great food; reaasonable prices, nice portions, but loud and crowded.
    Your opinion on all the others was exactly same as mine.
    One wild card: new restaurant downtown, on Park Ave. where the police station once was, near the Doubletree..."Urbane" which is supposed similar to Cypress. Not been there but got good review from Ashby in yesterday's Democrat, for what that is worth.
    Top pick: still SAGE

    2 Replies
    1. re: steakman55

      My pick would be Cypress.
      There really is NO great upscale meal here. So sad! But, for my taste, Cypress is the closest you can come. Nice wine list there, too.

      I will be trying out Liam's next weekend and will post a follow up.

      1. re: jangita

        I actually went to Cypress way back when they first opened. At the time, It seemed to be heavily if not exclusively influenced by Caribbean tastes and techniques, very similar to Criolla's out in Grayton Beach. I just didn't care for it that much.

        The menu on the website now seems a lot more geared toward "nouveau Southern" with good dose of fresh local ingredients. Has the style indeed changed from its initial days?

        Looking forward to hearing your review of Liam's. Ashby Stiff pins it at 4 hats (tied with Carrabba's, Outback and Old Town Cafe!), but the man has long been perceived a joke in this household (Boston Market - 3 1/2 hats...uh huh...).

    2. Hey Mike,

      What a coincidence! I grew up in Tally too before moving up to the Triangle in 1993. My parents still live there so I visit a few times per year.

      Anyway, my friends told me of some places that haven't been mentioned. They both named Masa's Japanese Steakhouse as their favorite place for dinner. Great teriyaki steak and sushi they tell me.

      Bella Bella for good, reasonably priced Italian.

      Clusters & Hops: wine and cheese shop that also serves good food.

      They concurred that Cool Beanz and Cypress were good but that Cypress was pricey and forced upscale.

      Also, here is the Tally Democrat's recent review of Urbane: http://www.tallahassee.com/apps/pbcs....

      Lastly, I hear there is a new Chinese restaurant next to the round Holiday Inn where Ouy Lin used to be that serves excellent Peking duck, which they carve tableside.

      1. In my opinion, Clusters and Hops is the best. It's a small, intimate place, not great for a group. Don't be fooled by the facade-it's next to a matress store. My fiance and I eat there for pretty much all of our special occasions. For appetizers the eggplant lavosh is excellent, and the truffle macaroni and cheese is out of this world.

        I have had terrible experiences at Kool Beanz, from slow service to way overdone lamb. I've lived here less than 2 years, so I'd say it has gone downhill. It definitely does not have "upscale" ambiance in my opinion.

        Z.Bardhi's is generally pretty good, but food quality can be a little inconsistent.

        Haven't been to Sage, Liam's or Urbane yet. I agree with your sentiments on the other restaurants.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Ashlyn819

          Another vote for Cypress. Since Albert retired, this is the best, most consistent food in town. The only problem is that the menu doesn't change enough for those of us who eat there on a regular basis. For you, however, that should not be a prroblem.

          1. re: Ashlyn819

            Beware: Clusters and Hops = 4 hour dining "experience." And if you aren't fond of truffle oil or tables that accommodate more than 4, you may need to find another venue.

            1. re: mizrachi

              Thanks for the warning about truffle oils. As it turns out, my guest has a STRONG aversion to truffle oil.

          2. I agree with a lot of the recommendations. I would like to add Fusion Cafe. I have had nothing but wonderful food there. The martini bar next door is not recommended.

            1. Mike,

              Liam's and Avenue Sea are the only two restaurants on your list (or mine) that have consistently ranked above and beyond what Tallahassee restaurants seem able to offer.


              1. My vote is for Liam's only because Ave Sea is such a long drive. Sage if you want to stay in the Capital City. I just love Liam's and the menu changes each week because Scott only uses what is fresh and in season. Start with a cheese course and stay away from dessert - it's not that great. Another plus for Liam's is byob so you can bring some fabulous wine! As a woman I find it the most romantic place around.

                1 Reply
                1. re: sunsuze

                  I'm really tempted to try Liam's, since that experience would be completely "new" to me, although I'm intrigued as to why halibut and tuna appear on the menu of a place that seems geared toward fresh, local ingredients. Those would have to be flown in from the Pacific, right? I wonder if it's because halibut is an extremely sustainable fishery. I'll ask Scott if I do end up going there. Imagine that - two out of my three meals in "Tallahassee" will be had in Thomasville, and one in Spring Creek!

                  Aside: has anyone tried any of the cheeses from "Sweet Grass Dairy" in S. Georgia? I have not, but the list of restaurants that serve their products reads like something out of the Michelin Guide (incidentally, only Liam's, Cypress, Luna's and Avenue Sea in the local area). If so, I'm wondering what you'd recommend for me to buy and take back with me. We don't really have a retail purveyor of that brand up here.

                2. Go to Sage! They are a great new addition to the Tallahassee scene. The menu is approachable, yet delicious and inventive. And you have to order dessert! They make everything in house (nothing out of a box) and they are the best in town!

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: djdaphne

                    Sage and Cypress, hands-down. I like the atmosphere in Cypress a little better; Sage is pretty, and yes, the food is better than Cypress, but I felt a bit exposed. Cypress has yet to disappoint me, and I am yet another transplanted bicoastal snob (if there is a hell, they make you eat food as bad as that at Bahn Thai).

                    We stopped in Urbane for wine and a little nosh the night of the Christmas parade (seemed healthier and more interesting than the usual fried junk for sale in the stalls) and were quite impressed. We split a small pizza that had chorizo, a soft white cheese, and figs, and it was seriously yummy. The menu says they charge for plate-sharing but we asked and they did not charge us to share a pizza (um... they'll have to work out those policies since they push some wonderful small dishes, and who doesn't share a pizza?). They had some nice by-the-glass options for wine and I don't recall what we drank but it was also delish. I strongly recommend trying Urbane. Nice chic design, too.

                    We also like the Shell. You can't get plainer (cash only, paper plates, etc.) but if those oysters were any fresher you'd want to slap them. I don't bother with the mediocre sides. I admit to liking the ambiance of the Shell--very down-to-earth and none of that prefab fake Southern kitsch.

                    On the suck side: Chez Pierre (another "they make you eat this in hell" contender); Barnacle Bill's; Harry's (has anyone who praises that food actually BEEN to New Orleans?); and my favorite "what did I do to deserve this," The Melting Pot (I realize that's cheating, since it's a chain). I've been dragged there twice and next time I will have to find a way out. Life is too short.

                    As for Mexican in Tallahassee, save your pennies; it's all ghastly. If you ever have to drive to Atlanta you will pass Taqueria Jesus Maria in Omega, GA. It's a little dive with tacos to die for (live on the edge! try the tongue tacos, and don't anglo-ize them with tomato and lettuce) and does menudo Thursday through Sunday. I have actually contemplated driving to Omega for menudo, since I never seem to line up my business trips so I'm driving when it's on the menu.

                    Clearly we need to try Liam's...

                    1. re: kgs

                      Urbane looks interesting and that pizza sounds terrific. Although their self-definition (refined, sophisticated, and gracious) is embarrassingly pretentious, we will try them out soon and report back.

                      Also, totally agree with you about Chez Pierre. Publix could supply a higher quality cheese plate. Speaking of cheese, the Melting Pot I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies.

                      As far as Mexican goes, you may wish to give La Hacienda II a try. Certainly better than most of the in-town options.

                      What about restaurants in Quincy? I've heard there may be a decent Mexican out that way.

                      1. re: mizrachi

                        We had a really excellent meal at Liam's recently. I had scallops which were fresh, tasty and perfectly cooked. The salad had beautiful local greens, which I really love. (Not the same stuff that comes in a bag from California)
                        I really liked the chees menu. My advice would be to skip the desserts and ask for a rec for cheese and wine to finish the meal.


                        1. re: jangita

                          I forgot to add Sahara's -- not an upscale experience, but nice Middle-Eastern food, the sort of food you don't have to qualify with the expression, "for this area." I particularly like the stuffed grape leaves; I order half vegetarian, half meat. It's not inventive but I can understand not going that route in this area (just like I don't fault Urbane for trying to get across the message that they aren't some student hangout... agreed, their message is a little precious, but we could use more of that in this town).

                          I checked the menu for La Hacienda II... I'll pass. I can hold out for my next business or pleasure trip. We'll set our sights on Liam's, though.

                  2. We ate at Avenue Sea last night and if we lived in Tallahassee I would probably make the drive once a month. What a fantastic gem of a restaurant.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: rhnault

                      We're planning to start the new year off with a bang: trips to both Liam's and Avenue Sea. Any suggestions as to what to order at Avenue Sea?

                      1. re: mizrachi

                        when we were there it was 4 course price fixe. I am not sure if it is always that way or if it was that way because of the holidays. I think they tend to set the menu according to what's available. If you email them from the site they will probably email you back quickly and answer any questions you may have.

                      1. re: sunsuze


                        If you're going up to Liam's, leave early and drive over to the Sweet Grass Dairy. I think you can google directions. If they're open on the day you're up there you can get a nice tour. The cheeses very good.

                        I'd skip Cypress. and Sahara (2 poor meals there in a row over the summer). Food Glorious Food is great for brunch or lunch if you sit outside. Not a fan of the new digs. Masa's is excellent (Lucy Ho's gone upscale). If you're over near North Monroe, try San Miguel's for Mexican. Doesn't have La Hacienda II's great deck but the food's just as good.

                          1. re: maymaybythesea

                            We had a wonderful meal at Kool Beanz this week! Duck Breast with chard and Butternut squash--all done just right! I loved the Turkey Hill salad--the best local lettuce and delicious! We love Lindsay the server who always know exactly the right wine to work with the food.

                            The down-side: It was FREEZING in there!
                            Oh well--can't have everything, and good food is the priority.

                          2. re: crewsweeper

                            If you've ever had decent Mexican food, avoid San Miguel's. I've had to eat there twice, and it's ghastly; it ranks up there with The Melting Pot as a restaurant I will scheme to avoid going to. Sorry, grew up in NorCal and I'd rather eat at Taco Bell than at San Miguel. But if you insist, go ahead and tuck in on those pre-masticated chicken tacos and stale chips. I choose to avoid Mexican food locally and wait until I'm visiting my mother in Santa Fe (it's New Mexican, a little different but even better) or in California or Arizona. As I've mentioned elsewhere, if you drive to Atlanta, stop for lunch in Omega at Taqueria Jesus Maria. No, I will not go to La Hacienda. It flunks the basic test (it doesn't offer menudo, not even on weekends) which tells me it's faux Mexican.

                            1. re: kgs

                              It is sad when Mexican food isn't edible. Mexican is one of my favorites. Since moving here we havn't had anything remotely good. We have given up on finding true mexican in Tally. Something is wrong when Taco Bell is the best option. But, thank god, it is simple enough to make at home and the ingredients are easily found at Publix.
                              What about good Italian? Everyone raves about La Lanterna, but we weren't impressed. The gelato was icy and chalky. Went to La Luna...but it was pretty much prefabricated food. What is the most authentic Italian restaurant in Tally or just outside of? We are willing to drive, but no more than two hours.

                        1. Just stumbled on this site.
                          Keith Baxter is still and has been at Kool Beanz since they opened in 96. There have been a number of cooks who have come and gone over the years, but he's always been the glue holding it all together, The place is still packed every lunch and dinner serving the same quality they always have. Have never had a bad meal there yet. Tally Awards voted it best Amercian Restaurant last year and they are finalists again this year. love Sage too. Terry and Allie work hard every day to produce inventive and tasty dishes. Had some wonderful lunches on the patio there.For a great dinner Liams is wonderful although Thomasville is a drive after a good dinner. Love what they are doing with artisnal cheeses. best selection in the SE...has to be.
                          Upscale in the truest sense is hard to find in our fair city. Comfortable atmosphere serving good food is what you'll find most of.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: dyrms

                            Just had to comment on Sweet Grass Valley -- you can buy their cheeses at New Leaf. I bought a muenster last week and was totally blown away. Yes, by muenster -- you'll never touch the supermarket stuff again!

                            We go to Liam's this Friday and I'll report back. I'll put Kool Beanz on the list. Sage I also like a lot.

                            1. re: kgs

                              About Liam's (but first: re the cheese... make that gouda!):

                              This was a great experience. The restaurant itself is pretty, with great art, high ceilings, and all that, though a bit chilly, as there's no airlock so the main door opens just feet from the first table.

                              We all had foie gras as the appetizer. My feelings about that I'll reserve for another day (I discovered it's hard to eat food when you're questioning its production), but it was all that foie gras should be, I suppose -- buttery, meaty, and flavorful. It was served on a risotto that I thought worked well, accompanied by sprigs of what I think were pea shoots. Our dining companions commented that it had been sauced better the previous time they had ordered it, but they polished it off anyway.

                              Three of us ordered the sea bass, which was served as a thick steak over black rice. The surface of the bass was very lightly crisped with the same sauce it sat on, a tingly sweet-hot reduction that tasted of Asian red chili sauce and hoisin. It was an eye-pleasing arrangement, with the white of the sea bass gorgeous against the black and red of the sauce and rice. I am usually cautious about Continental interpretations of anything "Asian" (if I want fusion, I'll build a nuclear reactor), but this was a triumph, in part because the fish itself was impeccably fresh and perfectly cooked--sea bass can sometimes be bitter, but this one was sweet. I ate the whole thing, which was too much but what the heck.

                              One person had the hangar steak, and in tasting a nibble I agreed it was delicious, a good cut of steak served well. It was served with wee roasted vegetables -- very amusing.

                              For dessert three of us had creme brulee and one had a turkish coffee gelato. On the latter, it must have been good because it was a huge portion and the diner ate all of it, even though I was staring at the gelato with great longing. (We clearly were eating with pre-Lenten abandon.) The creme brulee was not a great success, though it may be catering to current expectations of creme brulee. It arrived in a deep pot, and though the flavor was a deep Madagascar vanilla with a satisfying fresh-dairy flavor and the sugar crust was an even medium-brown glaze, the custard itself was thicker and less smooth than what I expect, and because the deep pot gave less surface than the traditional wide dish, the crust/custard balance was off. Somehow creme brulee has lost its way in America--the only really good one I've had in years came from my own kitchen. Next time, gelato or even better, mousse. Why do I not order mousse more often?

                              I had decaf coffee, which to my surprise wasn't very good.

                              The service was polished and friendly.

                              Liam's now sells wine but continues to encourage BYOB, which of course means you can have a far better bottle of wine than most restaurant menus support (assuming you know how to buy wine).

                              Definitely in the top tier of local restaurants, on the list with Sage, Cypress, Urbane, etc., and absolutely worth the trip. After Lent I plan to get back to the "nice" places again--perhaps with a sojourn to A-Bay and Avenue Sea.

                              1. re: kgs

                                Have you ever tried FishBonz in Thomasville. Give them a try, great angus beef, and fresh gulf seafood. Weekly chef creations. Live piano Friday & Saturday Nights