Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gourmet Gang, Main Street, Norfolk

Gourmet Gang Norfolk Restaurant

For a good while, Laine and I frequented Gourmet Gang once or twice each week. I was hooked on their California Cobb salad and Laine on their Greek. Then, something happened...first, the Greek disappeared from the menu. We could not figure out why a restaurant would remove a Greek salad. Then, Laine had some caramelized walnuts in their seasonal strawberry and walnut salad that just were not crisp. For me, I was just Cobbed out! As we do every Friday, last week we drew from the magic envelope for Monday and what do you know, Gourmet Gang it was, GG for short. We journeyed over to GG on this fine, sunny day and ordered our salads. The Greek was back on the menu. They must have known Laine was coming. For once in my life, I stepped out of the box and ordered something completely different, the autumn apple and walnut salad. My salad of mixed greens, caramelized walnuts, white raisins and Granny Smith apples, was SUPER. It came with blue cheese dressing, which was the perfect flavor to add to this mixture. I'm pretty excited about this salad. I hope they keep it on the menu for a while (at least through our autumn season). I had checked the online menu before we headed over and their weekly specials are up to date. Good to know. Sometimes, I don't think restaurants update their websites in a timely fashion, but GG does. There must be a good web master there. GG is back on our list. I have a feeling we will be in there again very soon. GG has a good variety of wraps, sandwiches and salads. They also have homemade cookies on hand. GG caters to many of the Downtown businesses and you can always find a large business crowd in the Downtown location. If you are limited by time, make sure to get there before noon. Some days, the line is out the door by that time. You can call or fax your order in as well. Calling in has been a success, but the one time I tried the faxing option, GG did not receive it. They did not make me wait in line though, as I brought a copy of the fax with me (Murphy's Law – I'm always waiting for something to go wrong and like to be uber-prepared for those chaotic times). GG is good to its customers. The folks there let you dissect and recreate a salad as many ways as you want to, which is huge for me.

Logo Gourmet Gang Norfolk Restaurant
Chances are, if you work somewhere downtown, your office has had a lunch catered by Gourmet Gang. They have an interesting business history, growing from a door-to-door sandwich vendor to their current restaurant/caterer/delivery service model. I like seeing an independent small business not only survive, but thrive, especially when it is headed up by a woman. Having worked in various locations throughout Norfolk and Virginia Beach, I have had lunches from several different restaurant locations. The food is consistent in presentation, preparation and freshness from each location. The Main Street location our current haunt. To be honest, I didn't even know they had restaurants until I worked downtown. As Alex mentions, they can get quite packed at lunchtime with a line out the door for ordering and a line by the soda machine for those waiting on orders. This kills the ambiance for dining in. If you are seated at a table, someone will literally be standing on top of you while you eat. The menu offers a nice variety of sandwiches, wraps and salads. I am partial to the Greek salad, but I agree with Alex that their Cobb is extraordinary. Their portions are good sized for a salad and the ingredients are always fresh. Although there is a line to order, the food comes up fairly quickly once the order is placed. My salad on Monday was great. Their twist on the Greek is using sundried tomatoes vs. regular tomatoes. Their croutons are just okay, so I usually forgo them. The employees are very friendly, and I see the same ones over and over again.This is a good sign to me. The restaurant business can be quite chaotic, so it is nice to see happy, friendly people who apparently like their jobs. The food is prepared right in front of you, and these guys are really moving. Gourmet Gang is a safe lunch bet downtown.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pasha Mezze - The Palace Shops, Ghent, Norfolk

Pasha. Their site reads ‘Mediterranean & Anatolian Cuisine w / American & European Influences’ and is as enticing as it sounds. Laine was not able to make it to lunch today, but we will definitely visit again so she can review.

Sasha and Leigh, my oldest and very dear friends, have been raving about Pasha. They were going in there every other day! I decided I had to get on the horn and get over there immediately. My opportunity came when Sasha and I lunched there last Saturday. Pasha has a wonderful outdoor patio and with the nice temperature, we opted for the great outdoors. I had eaten something earlier and therefore, went straight for dessert. My choices of homemade bon bons (chocolate walnut ) and bread pudding could not have been better! I truly believe this is the best bread pudding I have had to date.

Today’s luncheon included my lovely mother, Nikkie, Sasha and Leigh. Sasha, Leigh and I began Montessori together at the young age of three. We love to eat out, laugh and catch up together. A warning, if there is a ruckus anywhere, it is usually the three of us. Nikkie is taking some vacation days and decided to join as well. She is always up for a new restaurant outing.
And now, I’ll get to the important part, the food. The lunch menu has appetizers, such as the spinach and cheese pastry and Karavana, soups including red lentil, wraps such as the spinach spicy chicken, chicken hummus and the Mediterranean, and main courses like char grilled wild salmon and Mediterranean beef kebabs. There is also a larger dinner menu, a Sunday brunch menu and a late night menu.I ordered the tuna salad wrap, Nikkie had the spinach spicy chicken wrap and Sasha and Leigh both had the hummus chicken wrap (it is not listed on the menu, but is available to order). Everyone had the red lentil soup as their side except Nikkie, she went with the hummus. This is by far the best hummus in town and the best I have had. I am not a hummus campaigner either, so trust me, if I ate it and liked it, it is good, lots of taste and very smooth. The red lentil soup is one of the signature items on the menu and that was fantastic as well. Everything is very fresh and full of flavor. Since our last few outings have had drink issues, I must comment on the water at Pasha. It is not tap and it is not some regular bottled water. It is very clean and fresh tasting. I believe the menu tells you the way they prepare it and what they do rocks. Service was superb, even after the large lunch crowd rolled in. Everyone working there is friendly and very helpful. We did see our waiter, Quentin, helping a few ladies who were uncertain of what to order. He explained the menu item by item. I know the ladies appreciated his help. I know Quentin from the neighborhood and he is doing a great job!

The décor of Pasha is very chic and modern with an airy feel. There is a lounge-type of room in the back with couches, larger chairs and tables. I think they use this for small parties and meetings at times, but it is available for walk in patrons as well if not in use. There is also a bar and I have heard that is busy in the evening. Sasha, Leigh and I are definitely interested in checking out the late night menu and Sunday brunch. When I asked how late they serve, the answer was ‘until the last customer has finished’. Music to my ears.

Beat feet to Pasha. You will be well received.

Located in the Palace Station Shopping Center in Ghent at 350 West 22nd Street, Norfolk VA 23517, Pasha serves lunch, dinner and a late night menu daily along with Sunday brunch.

Pasha Mezze on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hell's Kitchen, Granby Street Location

I was having a serious case of the Monday morning blahs which was further exasperated when Alex drew Hell’s Kitchen out of the envelope for our weekly review. Ho-hum. Not one of my favorite places. I would describe it as tolerable, but not likable. So, I put on my kick some you-know-what hat and headed down the street with Alex to HK. Don't you know, they took all the wind out of my sails by doing everything RIGHT!

I ordered tuna bites (rare) and a side salad. Our food was on the table in less than 10 minutes. It was all good. The tuna was perfectly cooked and well seasoned. Their side salad is large. Not your typical iceberg on a 6 inch plate. It was fresh romaine, slice tomatoes, cucumber and croutons served in a regular sized salad bowl. Our server did a nice job, and kept our beverages full. We were out of there in under 45 minutes, leaving time to run a quick errand.

My only real peeve about HK is the menu. All the entrees have catchy little names, and no descriptions. You have to ask the server to tell you what’s in them. To her merit, she knew her stuff, all the way down to sauces and seasonings, but I still like to be able to read it on my own and ponder my decision. (Most likely because one minute after she tells me, I have forgotten half of what she said.) Aside from that, much to my surprise, I’d have to say that HK is back on my list of places to eat on Granby Street.


Well, Laine and I went to hell and back...Hell's Kitchen that is. I have had two bad meals there previously and was ready to pounce on this place for my third time. Much to my initial chagrin (come on, you know the bad reviews are funnier), my food was great. I ordered the Mandarin Blu salad (mixed greens, chicken, almonds, craisins, blue cheese and mandarin oranges) and was pleasantly surprised. Our service was fantastic as well. Our food came very quickly and our waitress was attentive. A must for Laine and I. If you have never been to Hell, it is definitely a bar atmosphere, but the smoke is non-existent during lunch and you see a lot of the business folk in there munching on chicken wings and pizzas (they are known for those two items). They play rock and roll, louder than most lunch establishments, which is a nice change. There is also live music at Hell nightly and I have had pretty good experiences with that aspect of the restaurant.


Take a journey to Hell...

Hell's Kitchen is located at 124 Granby Street in Downtown Norfolk and is open 11am-2am Monday-Friday and 5pm-2am Saturday and Sunday. There is also a Chick's Beach location, HK on the Bay.


City Line Cafe, 205 E. City Hall Ave.

thumbs maybe

If Laine and I are looking for something quick, or looking for a short walk if the weather is bad, we often head over to City Line Cafe. City Line offers soups, salads and sandwiches. My favorite trait of City Line is the BYO - Build Your Own. They allow you to build your own salad or sandwich. There are various types of lettuce (including spinach - in case you dine with Popeye!) and pretty much any topping you can imagine. While I am NOT a DIY (do it yourself) person at all, being able to customize my food is pretty important. I am one of the world's pickiest eaters. My mother likes to tell my friends that I am a 'weird eater'. Whatever, it is my food and I want it like I want it. Back to City Line, our food is always ready quickly and has been 'solid' in the past.
I must add our last experience to the review in fairness. In sum, City Line was 'off its game' last Friday. Laine and I both 'built our own' salads, as usual, and ordered water (I'm trying to stay off the sauce...iced tea because of the huge amounts of Sweet n' Low I use - apparently it is bad for the kidneys. Who'da thunk?). Well, the cashier gave us a cup (a small one - I've seen larger shot glasses) and we headed to the drink fountain...NO water...and NO ice to boot. Laine and I went back to the counter and stood there for a good 5 minutes and made faces at each other before we just became fed up and asked her where the water was. She looked a little lost and then gave us water...from the TAP! Come on people; get some water in your drink fountain. Don't they all have that these days? Oh, and ice, of course. Our food was still fast and was still good, but the water thing sent me on a short trip to the moon. Luckily, I came back...this time.


I always try to support the ‘little man” with my dollar. I feel like I am supporting the American Dream when I do that. Not that I am “anti” chain restaurants or businesses, but you simply don’t get the same warm, fuzzy feeling as you do upon walking into a place where you know the folks that work there and they know you. Keeping that in mind, I must admit that I tend to give City Line some leeway in situations where I would stomp on a larger competitor.

On the upside, the food is consistently fresh, and well prepared with generous portions. When you order grilled chicken for your salad, they freshly cook an entire boneless chicken breast for you. It is still warm when it hits the salad. It is not a precooked and previously frozen slab of chicken. They have homemade potato chips with a variety of spices that I have been told are delicious. I have sampled a couple and completely concur. On the downside, City Line seems to be struggling with some new business growing pains. Staffing is a problem. You just can’t operate a lunch joint in downtown with only two people during the peak hours. And I really like these two people too. They are busting it out with one on the register and the other cooking, but it is like swimming upstream against the current. Sometimes it can take 20 minutes to get your order. That is pushing the limits of the average consumer’s patience. The water incident was funny at first, but when the end result was a Dixie sized cup of warm tap water, the humor faded. A lot of people want water with their meals, why punish them?

So, in the spirit of entrepreneurialship and a killer build your own salad (I am getting addicted to the artichoke hearts and avocado), I’ll keep going to City Line. For the future success of the business I hope they work on hiring some midday support for my kitchen buddies and invest in upgrading their soda machine with a water dispenser.


Visit City Line online, or in person Monday-Friday 11AM-3PM

Friday, September 19, 2008

Crackers - Norfolk, VA

Looking for a great tapas menu? Head to Crackers. Formerly on 21st Street in Ghent, Crackers is now located at 4226 Granby Street near the Granby Street bridge. The 21st Street location had 5 or so tables and the bar. This new location is much larger but still has the same fun, funky feel of the original scene. My mom, Nickie, and I saw David Byrne last night at the Ferguson Arts Center in Hampton and on the way back needed a little something before going to bed. It was nearing 10pm and most restaurants stop serving their main dining menu around 9pm on weekdays. Nickie had not yet been to the new Crackers and it was conveniently on our way back into town. Funny thing...other Talking Heads/David Byrne junkies from the show were there too! The bartenders were upset they had not been at the concert and pulled out the Stop Making Sense CD and we were all moving to the music as we ate. Fun! Nickie and I ordered the tuna sashimi, the sesame seaweed salad, the fried grouper with creamed spinach and bacon (that was a special) and the tomato, basil and mozzarella stack with a balsamic vinaigrette. Sound like a lot? It is tapas, so we usually order a bunch of things and share. There are so many good items to choose from, it is always hard – not a bad thing! There is always a fondue special, a butter special for the bread and butter place, a few entrée specials and a dessert special. We did not have dessert but the hazelnut panna cotta sure sounded appealing. The menu is filled with interesting choices, walnut encrusted brie served with a specialty jam, calamari and spinach with pine nuts and raisins, just to name a few. Don’t forget their signature dessert, s’mores which you get to make yourself! They bring you a little grill with a Hershey bar, marshmallows, graham crackers and skewers with which to grill. What more can you ask for…and you are not out in the woods fretting over a potential bear attack.

Tapas entrees are priced from $4-10 and you do have the option to turn a tapas item into a full meal should you desire. The bartenders are fun, play great music and most importantly, make superb drinks. Crackers is open 5pm-2am daily. Head over there for a fun and memorial dining experience.



Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Granby Bistro & Deli

What a great find! Laine and I have strolled past Granby Bistro a zillion times. We had heard that the sandwiches were good but the salads just "okay" so we had steered clear. In our weekly pull of restaurants to review, Granby Bistro was the chosen one. How lucky were we that we chose it because the person who gave us the "okay" review on the place had to be mistaken. We were joined by our friend Mandy, with whom we always have a lot of laughs and a great time. The bistro reminds me of little restaurants I have visited in New York City, quaint, the owner always there and everything is homemade. The cuisine is labeled Mediterranean, but the menu has a good variety. There are salads, sandwiches, burgers and full entrees of salmon, chicken and a few cuts of meat. I ordered the Chef Salad with Turkey. They have ham as an option as well. I thought it was nice not to have to ask for turkey instead of ham - customization was an option for once ('When Harry Met Sally' again here). The house dressing is a traditional Greek and was fantastic, some of the best I have had in a while. My water without ice request was even met on the refills. Service was good, the food was good and the atmosphere was just right. Prices are very reasonable. With tip, my meal was right around $10. You can't beat that with a hat! Laine and I are super excited that we have a new, close place to visit. I am certain we will venture there again very soon. There is also a mean looking dessert case, where everything looks homemade and delicious. We might have to check that out one day too.


If you want a restaurant that specializes in modern interior design, where the tablecloths and napkins coordinate with the walls, ceiling and bathroom sink, this may not be the place for you. However, if you want a place that specializes in standard deli fare made with quality, fresh ingredients this place is a goldmine. Walking in the front door is like stepping through a time warp that leads you back to the 1960’s. I don’t mean that in a negative way at all either. There is a certain charm to the interior that comes from the well maintained fixtures, furniture and appliances. There is one plant in the front window that has grown to the proportions of something straight out of “The Little Shop of Horrors”, but other than that it is cozy.

I am always on the lookout for a great Greek salad. I lean towards the traditional style, not the haute cuisine that includes everything under the sun. I liked theirs. The vegetables were very fresh. As Alex mentions, they have a dynamite house dressing, and put just the right amount of anchovies on top. Mandy ordered the generously sized chicken salad sandwich. Nice big chunks of fresh chicken, not swimming in mayonnaise, and again, traditional in preparation. She said it was good. No processed meats in this joint, which is refreshing.

There was a steady flow of people in and out. The server was busy but very attentive. The food came out quickly after ordering; keeping in mind that practically everyone in there is on a lunch ‘hour’. Granby Bistro and Deli is a no brainer for a quick and satisfying lunch downtown.


Granby Bistro is located at 225 Granby Street in downtown Norfolk. Open 7:30AM-3:30PM Mon-Thurs, and 7:30AM-10PM Friday, serving breakfast until 11AM and lunch daily.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The 219, Granby Street

Exterior The 219, Norfolk Restaurant

The 219, on the corner of Granby Street and Tazwell, has been off my list of places to go lately. The past 3-4 times we had lunch there the servers snobby, it took too long to get your meal, and the food was boring. If I am going to spend close to $20 for lunch, I want some bang for my buck. However, one of the landmarks of a good friendship is compromise. Alex wanted to give them another try. She had recently been surprised by a great dinner there, so I folded. In my opinion, 219 did a 180! Service was prompt and appropriately friendly, our salads came in 10-15 minutes and the food was great. Is someone new in the kitchen? They are definitely paying more attention to preparation. There is attention to visual presentation that was lacking previously, and improved content. No more lettuce salads! I had the Pecan Encrusted Goat Cheese with Pears. It was chock full of the ingredients listed on the menu, nicely seasoned and flavorful. (Okay, the pears were too hard to eat, but it didn't ruin the salad.) Lunch entrees run $8-11, salads will cost $3.50-$.50 extra if you add a meat or seafood topping. The place was nearly empty on a Friday at lunchtime, which led us to believe that maybe we weren't the only downtowners to have written it off. Another interesting tidbit...the property and the restaurant are for sale. This may be another reason for the renewed emphasis on service and meal prep.


The 219 is known for its eclectic atmosphere and great food. I have had some good meals over the years there, but as Laine said, we wrote them off after our last few salads were basically lettuce and the service was subpar. On a whim, I ate dinner there last Wednesday with a good friend of mine. Johnny* was in from out of town and had been to The 219 for lunch but not for dinner. We both ordered the crab cake, for which The 219 is famous. The Virginian-Pilot publishes a 'top 10' for one particular food item a few times a year and The 219 was near the top of the top 10 best crab cakes in the Tidewater area. Our meals were superb. The crab was jump lump, no filler and grilled to perfection. Johnny went with the standard julienned vegetables and roasted potatoes. I substituted bok choy for the potatoes (I am Sally from 'When Harry Met Sally' for those who have read our previous blogs) and also had the julienned vegetables (squash, zucchini, carrots). We finished with the Blueberry and Peach Cobbler served with Vanilla Bean ice cream. That was wonderful. Service was also good. Prices during dinner are slightly higher, a few 'market price' entrees, like the crab cake. I did not pay so I'm not sure of the total (thanks Johnny), but I would estimate the crab cakes were around the $25 mark from my past dining experiences there. A smaller version of the crab cake is always available during lunch as well.
On 'the review' visit with Laine, I had the Seasonal Grilled Vegetable Salad and it was remarkably good. Loaded with vegetables which were cooked perfectly. Their vinaigrette dressing is made with a unique olive oil which mixes well with this salad. As Laine mentioned, when you are paying $20 for lunch, the meal should be noteworthy, and in a positive way. The 219 has made it back onto 'the good list'. If it is sold, I hope the new owners maintain this renewed quality.

*Names are changed to respect the privacy of our guests.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Tropical Fattie, I mean, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Granby Street

no TSC

We decided to put chains that exist in Downtown Norfolk on our review list as well. I am a complete chain-a-phobe, but Laine and I agreed that to be fair we need to review everyone. Tropical Smoothie is running a promo: two wraps with chips or fruit for $9.99. This was before tax, of course. With two drinks our total bill was a little over $15, still not bad for two lunches, but boy, were we slightly disappointed by the time this was all over.
The tables were still messy from prior patrons for once - this does not please Laine and I in the least. Our food was ready fairly quickly, but it was not 100% correct. We both ordered Popeye's Favorite (grilled chicken, tomatoes, low-fat mozzarella cheese, artichokes) on the low-carb wrap. For the side, Laine had the Baked Lays and I had the orange. When our food was ready, mine had the wrong wrap - it clearly was not the low-carb. I had to ask them to remake it, which they did and about which they were very nice. They even gave me another orange (little spiff - I can often be paid off, like the mob). We thought the taste wasn't bad, but something did have a slightly processed after-taste. Not sure if it was the chicken or maybe the low-carb wrap, but something... The oranges were fresh, which is good. Bad fruit is such a let-down. Overall, for under $8 each, Tropical Smoothie, seemed 'okay'. Now, a pack of wild horses could not easily drag us back, but we gave it an average review...until Laine checked out the nutritional information for our lunch. I will let her take it from here...


Their trademarked slogan is "eat better...feel better". I can only recommend that if this is your true desire, run screaming from Tropical Smoothie Cafe and eat somewhere else! Now, I accept full responsibility for every calorie and fat gram I consume, even those consumed with alcohol, so I have no idea why failed to check out their online menu and nutritional values BEFORE eating there. I plead a serious case of Monday-itis! But Gadzooks Batman, eating too much of their food will leave you shaped like a smoothie cup. Our Popeye's Favorite weighed in at 626 calories and 29.3 grams of fat. UGH! I could have chewed on a MacDonald's cheeseburger for 300 calories and 12 grams of fat, or a Wendy's 1/4 pounder for 430 calories and 20 grams of fat. Even their salads are loaded with fat. Nutritional disasters aside, I pulled three to four chicken chunks out of my wrap that could have easily substituted for bricks.The tables were all dirty, and we were part of the early lunch crowd, arriving slightly prior to noon. Although they messed up one of the wraps, I give kudos to the staff on their recovery. Two individuals came out separately to check on us and make sure that Alex's second wrap was okay, and to apologize for the earlier error. However nice they may be, Tropical Smoothie Cafe is now on my growing list of "restaurants to avoid like the plague" in downtown Norfolk.


Friday, September 5, 2008

Machismo Burrito Bar, Norfolk

Exterior Machismo Burrito Bar, Norfolk Restaurant

One of the things Alex and I enjoy about working downtown is that you can walk just about everywhere you need to go. On days we are up for bit a longer lunchtime stroll, we find ourselves heading out to Machismo Burrito Bar, located at 409 W. York Street. This is a stripped down joint with one purpose, getting a burrito in your hand as quickly as possible. No one greets you when you walk in (thank goodness). There are only six tables and 4 window seats inside. The patio, which is essentially in a parking lot, has three more tables and a door that opens the wrong way. So why bother walking out there? I love this place! Definitely makes my list of top 5 lunchtime favorites. The food is consistent. I always get a burrito. I love that they have pork as a meat option. The chips are just OK, so I usually pass, but who needs them? These burritos are big! Lunch is under $10 for a big burrito, adding guacamole and a soda. I am a spice wimp, but for fans of the burn, they boast stocking 100's of Hot Sauces from around the globe. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options available too, like vegan cheese and vegan sour cream. My only complaint is that they are a mess to eat. Most of the toppings are sitting in pans with sauces which tend to make the end product watery. DO NOT UNWRAP THE BURRITO! It will fall apart and end up all over your lap, making you the butt of co-worker jokes for the remainder of the day. Other than that...chow down!


I second Laine's review. I enjoy the walk. It gets us slightly out of downtown and gives us a new 'crew' to people-watch, which is half of the enjoyment of eating out. I always order a 'bowl' at Machismo. You can choose chicken, beef or pork or just go vegetarian. I am not a vegetarian, but I enjoy just the vegetables. I ordered the chicken one time (at band camp). It had a slightly odd taste, so I abandoned that going forward. You can then choose your type of rice (brown or white) and your type of beans (black and some other varieties). I forgo both because guess what, I don't like rice or beans. That is the best part of Machismo. You can customize it down to the type of salsa. For someone who is like Sally from 'When Harry Met Sally', this is super important. I then ask them to LOAD this bowl up with 'my' stuff, corn, sprouts, guacamole, sour cream, mushrooms, peppers, chunky salsa, olives, lettuce and spinach. Sodas are only $1.50 - a deal around this town, where restaurants like to sock it to you with the drink cost (not even an alcohol drink, I'm talking a soda or tea). This is our field trip for the week usually. We tend to go on Fridays and look forward to it. Machismo is the spot-yo. Try it out.