Apr 25, 2018

A commoner dines at Two Ten Jack, Nashville, Tenn.

One of the nicer perks about traveling for business is that, even on a commoner’s budget, I have the opportunity to experience certain sights, sounds and tastes I just can’t find in my hometown.  So, when I learned about a restaurant in East Nashville popular for its Japanese izakaya (aka neighborhood pub) theme, I jumped at the chance to try real ramen, yakitori and Asian-inspired cocktails.

Named after a Japanese card game I had never heard of before, Two Ten Jack occupies a commercial space on the lower level of a rather sleek, modern looking building just off Eastland Avenue that mixes business and residential tenants.  The building is fairly close to the previously blogged about Rosepepper Cantina and looks a little out of place in a neighborhood of older homes and restaurants. You kind of have to be in the know to find it, which probably only adds to its coolness factor among the local foodies and hipsters.  But it’s also that coolness which makes East Nashville such a popular place to be these days.

The interior of the place was close to what I had imagined – dimly lit, modern decor, a lot of exposed wood and candlelight.  I lucked into a corner seat -- the last one -- at the bar and took it all in.

I was particularly impressed with the diversity and expansiveness of Two Ten Jack’s liquor selection.  In addition to a unique list of cocktails, mostly focusing on sake- and shochu-based drinks, its selection of wine, beer and spirits made any drinking decision complicated.  I ultimately decided that I needed to try something I had not experienced before -- one of the many shochus they offered, served straight neat with a sidecar of water to chase it.

For other shochu novices like me, think vodka, only with less kick and a smoother taste.  I enjoyed it as a warm-up to my meal …

… which brings me to my appetizer of choice.  Of all the small plate options Two Ten Jack offers, I felt again that I had to try something not often found in the Japanese-themed steak and sushi houses of central Illinois.  Yakitori was an easy decision; choosing one skewer over all others wasn’t. I ultimately chose the hatsu skewer because I’d never tasted chicken heart before, and I also knew the appetizer would be small enough to not spoil my appetite.

I could not have been more pleased with what I ordered.  It was super lean, mildly flavored (definitely tasted the chicken), cooked perfectly (not overly chewy), and the savory spice rub on the side gave it a nice extra kick.

The main reason I went to Two Ten Jack, though, was to experience the ramen.  Let’s look at that again, shall we? That’s real ramen, not the packaged kind college kids -- and occasionally commoners like me -- have depended on for survival on a tight budget.

This is hot, fresh and savory tonkotsu ramen, to be exact.  Pork belly and noodles in a rich pork broth, a soft-boiled egg floating prominently and garnishes galore for added flavor experiences.  The serving was massive, but I slowly conquered the bowl and slurped down every drop.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give Two Ten Jack is that it has left me with a regular culinary craving for future visits to real-deal Japanese izakayas for more of the same.  The Nashville area is lucky to have such a good representation of the cuisine. If you’re in Nashville and need a foodie fix for something other than traditional Southern cooking, you won’t go wrong with the authentic flavors found at Two Ten Jack.

Apr 9, 2018

Feeling the beat of the Congo Square Rhythms Festival

In New Orleans, springtime signifies much more than the return of greener grass, colorful courtyards and short sleeves.  That’s because the celebrating in the Big Easy doesn’t stop with the end of Carnival Season.  It just rolls on into Festival Season.

Roughly defined as the period of time between Mardi Gras and Memorial Day (right about when Hurricane Season starts … there really are no traditional seasons in New Orleans), Festival Season encompasses a variety of springtime musical, food and heritage celebrations.  These range from longtime heavyweights and top tourism draws like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (more commonly referred to as just Jazz Fest) and the ever-growing French Quarter Festival to more local celebrations like the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo

The Congo Square Rhythms Festival may be, in my uneducated opinion, on the verge of being the next festival to grow from being a local attraction to a real tourism draw.  I look back at French Quarter Festival pre-Katrina, and I see the same potential here.  Each year, the festival celebrates the influence of African culture and the historical significance of Congo Square to the city.  Held every March since 2012, the festival is operated by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the same folks who have made Jazz Fest the city’s second most popular reason to visit behind Mardi Gras.  In other words, they know how to throw a party.

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...