Meandering down the long stretch of Lakeland Drive, local gems inconspicuously blend into the chain restaurant landscape like deer in the woods. You know they are there but it takes focused determination to hunt them down.
Eslava’s Grille occupies the shell of a former fast food restaurant, mixed in with the likes of Primo’s, Saigon, Fusion, Grant’s Kitchen and Table 100 from Jackson to Flowood. The former chef from AJ’s on Lakeland (the lakeside location closed) took off on his own and has operated Eslava’s for just over a year.
Similarly as hearing about a book I’d like to read and then promptly forgetting the title, I had wanted to eat at Eslava’s but it escaped my mind time and time again.
Recently my husband ate lunch there and I snagged a highly discounted certificate on the Restaurant.com website, which was a perfect reason to go back for dinner. The weekend rolled around and we took off for a date night.
Upon entering we saw a fairly full dining room, open doors and no host or hostess. We looked around aimlessly – wondering if we should sit or wait – and were rescued by other patrons who said we seat ourselves. A waitress rushed by shortly after and apologized for the confusion. She came back and promptly took our order of crab cakes, salad, Red Fish for me and Cajun Pasta for him.
Inhaling a basket of warm, buttery crostini with the kitchen in full view, we set in for our leisurely meal.
All four of the listed appetizers sounded great, but the other three might have been better options than the average crab cakes. Their version was thick, lightly breaded, accompanied by a light mango salsa and plated on a creamy sauce. The fresh green side salad was unembellished and came with a lovely house-made vinaigrette.
When my entree was set before me, I couldn’t help but observe how brown and one dimension the plate was. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the large portion of fish prepared with restraint and a dash of lemon, absent of a heavy sauce or pools of butter. It was served with roasted potatoes and an overcooked yellow squash/zucchini medley on the side, which is how Southerners seem to like them. On the other hand my husband’s pasta was plum full of seafood and had a muted spicy kick. After one good dash of salt, I kept sticking my fork in his bowl in return for my vegetables.
We had pleasant, if not slightly drawn out service, because there seemed to be only two people working the dining room besides the cooks. This might have been amended since we dined there, but they need a standing sign near the door instructing people to seat themselves. We observed many parties come in with confused faces. It’s a very small detail but one that could be of great help.
For generous portions and fresh seafood, the prices are fair. If you’re curious to try it for yourself, consider buying a certificate from Restaurant.com because our meal of one appetizer and two entrees was still over $40 after saving $25. I’d like to return for the avocado salsa, pasta or fried green tomatoes and crab meat sauce. And unbeknownst to us, apparently it is a BYOW establishment that other tables were happily taking part of.
Due to the simplicity, you might have the same thought as I did, that I could have made this at home. However, when you don’t feel like cooking, search out Eslava’s bright sign for a solid seafood meal.
2481 Lakeland Drive
Jackson, MS 39216
To conclude our weekend trip (yes, back in November) my friend and I went out for one final meal, which started out innocently enough. Two hours later we settled on a restaurant.
We had befriended a local couple, and per their recommendation, went to explore the downtown Five Points area. Stepping out of the car we encountered a handful of homeless men, but no trace of the lively crowd we were expecting on a Saturday night. Peeking into Surin West, we passed because they allegedly specialize in Thai food and sushi (doubtful). Retracing our steps we spotted Highlands Bar and Grill but we were under dressed and it looked overly busy.
Hopping back into the car we drove to Bottega, but found out both the restaurant and cafe were closed for a private party. Back in the saddle, we headed to Giuseppe’s Cafe & Espresso Bar because they’re the best kept secret in town (according to their website). Sadly we went in, got a table, glanced at the menus, opted out and moved on.
From there we headed back to Five Points, destination Highland Grill, but were sidetracked when discovering Chez Fonfon next door. It might have been easier to drive to Paris.
Having never been to France, I can only imagine that Chez Fonfon emulates the same cozy, intimate feeling as a bistro underneath the Eiffel tower. The lights were dim, the quarters close and wine bottles lined a wall.
While musing over our options we torn into a basket of bread and soaked in the glow. To begin, my friend and I split the Little gem bib salad with apples, tomme and tarragon-cider vinaigrette. It was a simply dressed salad, tangy from the dressing and sweet from the fruit.
Craving a healthy reprieve and saving room for dessert, I chose the salmon with lentils du Puy and niçoise olive butter for my entree. The generous portion of fish and lentils were perfectly cooked and complimented by the salty sharpness of the olives. My friend equally enjoyed the Coq au Vin which was tender and moist.
Reluctant to select just one, I settled on the Pear Almond tart for dessert but almost ordered the Chocolate Pot de Creme my friend had. Luckily, she’s the sharing type and let me scoop up a spoonful of the silky smooth rich chocolate mousse. Charmed by the flaky, buttery tart, I savored my dessert with a cappuccino leaving no crumb behind.
I imagine that the croque monsieur and steak frites are delightful, and wish I had room to taste the cheese plate. Chez Fonfon is as enchanting as Birmingham and a fairly inexpensive way to experience the allure of Paris. Just try to avoid the two hour tour to get there.
2007 Eleventh Avenue South
Birmingham, AL 35205
Well, for me at least.
Following a recommendation, we wandered into V Richards looking for breakfast on Saturday morning. V Richards is a neighborhood establishment, part specialty food market, part cafe. The cafe isn’t expensive and is rather reasonably priced, but I love exploring items in markets – the chocolate tea biscuits! the fig jam! oooh the cheese case! – and have a habit of spending a pretty penny on culinary treats.
Ah, but I was there for a meal, bypassed temptations and focused on the task at hand.
Above the prepared foods case, a large board is displayed on the wall explicitly outlining the three step ordering procedure. I was amused that step one is to look at the menu. They must have frequent problems with confused customers.
The breakfast menu is served from 8-11 a.m. and I was having trouble deciding between the basic two egg plate, daily special and famous salad sampler. Then, I spied another special and was sold on the Breakfast Casserole with ham, peppers, cheese, eggs and bread cubes (I want to say it was brioche). Per step two, I placed my order and paid at the register.
Subsequently, you are given an number and if eating in, seat yourself. There are two dining choices, a small indoor area or tables with umbrellas scattered about on an outdoor patio. We chose the latter option and enjoyed the morning sunshine.
We sat for awhile waiting for water and beverages, but observantly deduced you are responsible for retrieving your own water, drinks, utensils and condiments. No one mentioned this protocol so we were sitting ducks – let this be a helpful tip.
Shortly after figuring this out, my cappuccino was deliver as well as our food. V Richards is a food market, not a coffee shop, so the drink was mediocre at best. I’d pass on the espresso drinks.
My friend and I both ordered the breakfast casserole, which came towering on our plates, accompanied by a cup of fresh fruit and plain grits. Bread pieces were the main binder and there was scarcely any egg, it was more like a bread pudding than breakfast egg casserole. It started out tasting pretty good due to the crispy crust, but grew tiresome, too dense and too thick.
A passing waitress kindly let me switch out the pale white grits for the cheese variety which were okay. As a Yankee, grits are hard to enjoy without being doctored up somehow and Primo’s Cafe has really spoiled me. The fresh fruit was a nice ordinary cup of cut fresh fruit.
The cafe was busy and many others were enjoying their dishes. I would go back and simply ordered something else next time. Unlike Paris Hilton, the famous salad trio must be famous for a reason.
Nevertheless we did our best to comply with step three, enjoy our meal and have a great day.
3916 Clairmont Ave
Birmingham, AL 35222
Watching a Cirque du Solie show is instant inspiration to start doing push-ups or a guilt inducing catalyst for indulging in one too many cookies. Good thing we went to the performance after eating at Mon Ami Gabi.
On our final evening in Las Vegas we had dinner at Mon Ami Gabi and took in the “O” show at the Bellagio.
Upon arrival for our reservation, we were traipsed through the restaurant to a table adjacent to the outdoor patio, perched in perfect view of the Bellagio fountains across the street. The stars were shining, the water danced and the room was illuminated by a soft glow. And as if in Paris, a romantic aura permeated our meal.
While studying the menu we tore into a warm, crusty banquette, slathering the pieces with butter and didn’t quite know what to do with the plate of seasoned corn. Still reeling from the monstrous proportions at Hash House a Go Go, we decided to order sparingly and share.
I savored a towering cup of Onion Soup au Gratin draped with melted Gruyere cheese. A bread round and strands of onion were submerged in the chestnut broth, finished with a touch of sweet vermouth. My friend let me steal a bite of her Endive and Bosc Pear Salad which was light, finely dressed and punctuated by dots of blue cheese.
Then my other friend and I split a plate of Steak Frites Bone-In Ribeye, bearnaise sauce on the side. The steak had an ample amount of fat and was adequately cooked (good not great). Instead of ordinary french fries, the steak was surrounded by thin, flat crispy potato sticks, but having never been to France I couldn’t tell you if this was the French standard.
For dessert I wavered between the Apple Tarte Tatin and Profiteroles; I ended up greatly regretting not requesting the latter. The dark Apple Tarte Tatin was tough, gummy and left mostly untouched. Since we were heading to the late Cirque du Soile show following dinner, we had a round of mediocre cappuccinos.
The meal was satisfying and reasonably priced, a rare fine on the main strip, but the atmosphere was the magical part. If planning on a visit, be sure to inquire about sitting near the windows in full view of the strip and fountains. Get the profiteroles and worry about the push-ups later.
Mon Ami Gabi
Paris Resort & Casino
3655 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Being on my first trip to Las Vegas and celebrating my thirtieth birthday, I wanted to have the quintessential Sin City adventure.
By Sunday we had already racked up a huge cab fare to Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana, club hopped at the Palms, stuffed ourselves at Hash House a Go Go, walked the Strip, watched the fountains, indulged at Nobu, danced on the stage at Tao and hit up Tryst.
After another late night (early morning) we made our way to the Bellagio for our one and only buffet experience.
We weaved our way through the hotel and casino to The Buffet and stepped in line around noon, which is very poor planning. The line was already extremely long, like they were giving away Justin Bieber concert tickets at a middle school, and snaked around many turns. Having no other plan we sucked it up and waited. I had disregarded one of my own buffet tips.
Once in awhile I would forlornly glance at someone in the parallel line marching straight up to the front. We weren’t staying there, didn’t gamble or have any connections so I never asked for a line pass, but it would have been worth the question. If at all possible, get a line pass from the hotel. Another buffet tip.
We stood in line for about an hour until we reached the cashiers to pay for our meal.
Unable to resist the temptation, we upgraded from the regular weekend brunch buffet ($24.95) to the weekend champagne brunch buffet for $5 more. At $29.95 a person we felt obligated to graze over a leisurely meal.
With receipts in hand, we waited about five minutes for a table to open up in the dining room. Just like a regular restaurant you have a waiter or waitress who brings you silverware and drinks. It took awhile for our waitress to appear and then it took even longer to receive our beverages. Nevertheless she continually topped off our champagne and brought orange juice for mimosas.
The buffet has many stations featuring cold seafood dishes, breakfast items, fruit, sushi, a salad bar, soup, pizza, carved meats, pasta, omelets, breads, desserts and too much to name. I took a lap to see all the available options and then decided what to eat.
Everything I spooned on my plate was of premium quality, fresh and ranged from good to terrific. A few items that stood out were perfectly cooked garlic broccoli rabe, a couscous dish, a fresh mixed greens salad, the beef tenderloin and the bacon. My friends raved about the prime rib and went back for seconds. The desserts were perfectly proportioned and we chose a number of them to share, but none of them were remarkable except for the chocolate chocolate chip cookie.
I would love to know the champagne they serve because it was dangerously smooth. We ate, laughed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
There are countless buffets in Las Vegas open at all hours of the day, covering different genres of food. But for our one meal and money, I’m happy we ended up at The Buffet in the Bellagio. Just be sure to spring for the bubbly.
The Buffet in the Bellagio
3600 Las Vegas Blvd South
Las Vegas, NV 89109