MagoGuide recently had the signal honor of joining North Fork Land Owners Association President Debo Powers for dinner at Kool Beanz Café in Tallahassee Florida. Madame President took the opportunity to dispel rumors that she had not fully recovered from her skiing accident this winter that left her with a badly fractured wrist and altogether too much couch potato time on her hands. Fresh off a first place showing at a ProPro dance tournament in Atlanta, she felt like kicking up her heels a bit and rubbing shoulders with lesser politicians at one of Tallahassee’s best restaurants.
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Rostra rating: 3
Kool Beanz décor simply screams “Hippies With Money!!” The interior walls look like the aftermath of a nasty takeover of the paint department at Home Depot by the staff of a modern art museum. Vibrant pastels and paintings of canis lupus familiaris and gallus gallus domesticus threatened to trigger LSD flashbacks in certain unnamed members of the President’s entourage. The power to the people ambiance continues with wine and beer lists glued to empty exemplar bottles on each table and menus deployed on clipboards (perhaps because they change the contents so frequently?). An egalitarian no reservations policy leads to long waits, while the (anti) establishment flips off fine dining types by encouraging patrons to “Eat, drink & talk loud – you’re among friends!”
If you actually were a hippie with the requisite damaged ear drums from one too many Dead concerts, and thus do not find 20 and 30-somethings braying at the tops of their voices while you try to eat to be particularly friendly, you might do as President Powers and sit in the glass and plastic enclosed and heater bestrewn “outside” seating area. A double bonus associated with this geriatric wing of the restaurant is that the inside seats are far more popular, and thus you can significantly cut your waiting time for a table by opting for the outside area.
President Powers is very old school when it comes to security. She employed me as her taster throughout the meal, a role I had no trouble playing despite the menu’s grudging acknowledgement of what we used to call “the germ theory” back in the day with respect to “consuming undercooked protein.” Our two starters were K.B.C. crab cakes with jalapeño tartar sauce and lentil falafel accompanied by tzatziki and harissa sauce as well as marinated tomatoes.
Both generous ‘tizers were nicely presented on the plates. The crab cakes sported a generous crab-to-filling ratio and were pan seared with a good crust followed by great crab flavor. There was, however, a distinct shortage of jalapenos in the tartar sauce. The falafel was expertly fried, redolent of chickpeas and herbs, but the serving came as three huge cylinders, which made the dish dull and the interior doughy. There should have been at least six much smaller falafels. The tzatziki was mediocre (unforgiveable) and the dish needed acid; just a squeeze of lemon would have made a big difference.
The President’s Director of Communications ordered a micro greens salad, but was told that the kitchen had substituted baby spinach. It came with granny smith apples, walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, and berry vinaigrette. The Gorgonzola was forgettable and the dressing bland. The cherry tomatoes had good flavor and pecans added a nice crunch, but it was essentially just another spinach salad. Along with the salad came an excellent traditional baguette that the table wolfed down with the accompanying whipped butter We clamored for more but were rewarded with a whole wheat version that was way too hippified.
The “plates” made a stronger showing, but each dish continued to suffer from execution flaws. The Cajun-style striped bass was the best of the mains. It was a very nice piece of fresh, locally sourced, wild fish that was expertly blackened. The preparation had decent heat and worked perfectly with an accompanying béarnaise sauce. However, the star of the plate was the okra, sliced lengthwise, dipped in a batter that tasted like a cross between cornmeal and tempura, and perfectly fried. As official taster for the Powers Administration, I felt it my duty to inquire as to the origin of okra in late March. The waitress was adamant that all Kool Beanz produce was local, but Madame President, who is an excellent gardener when not practicing statecraft, was very skeptical that okra could be raised at such an early date in northern Florida. The waitress recoiled when I suggested Mexico, but I would bet there or Central America as likely origins. The bass also came with red beans and rice, which turned out to be a bayou too far. They were overcooked and under seasoned, although they did meld nicely with the béarnaise.
The Amberjack with a feta breading, roasted tomato sauce, artichoke tapenade, braised chard, white beans, and fingerling potatoes had incredible potential but was flawed by gastronomic over-reach. Amberjack is a wonderful firm local ocean fish with a great swordfish-like flavor, but the preparation was a mistake. The kitchen went faux Mediterranean/Greek and the feta breading did not adhere very well to the fish. No Greek restaurant in the Aegean would try to junk up such an excellent specimen with a cheese-based breading, which detracted from, rather than showcased the fish, especially when paired with the artichoke tapenade (another Mediterranean affectation that did not really make it). The fingerling taters could have been crisper (too long under a heat lamp?), and the beans while still under-seasoned at least had good texture. The chard, which was amazing, saved the dish, but there was not enough of it (versus too much artichoke tapenade). It had an unctuous mouth feel and a great smoky flavor profile (smoked pig of some sort?).
The panko fried calamari with Peruvian huancaina sauce and sprout salad was uneven. First off, the squid was really calamaroni—strips cut from very large squid steaks/body sacks. The breading was far too heavy even for such large squid, but since the squid was very fresh and well fried it almost worked. A kitchen this good, however, should have known that squid this large should have been cooked differently; perhaps marinated and grilled, or lightly breaded and baked, or stuffed and braised. The dipping sauce, on the other hand, had the best heat of the night. But a sprout salad? El Presidente has serious vegan chops on her resume, and even she was unimpressed.
After a false start on the wines, we settled on a couple that was quite potable. The Ferrari-Carano Bella Luce was a bit too brassy and died mid-palate with cloying sweetness. We replaced that with a pinot grigio from King Estate Oregon that had nice crisp acidity and was great with the crab cakes. The red for the evening was a Concannon Crimson and Clover with lush forward fruit that went well with all of the mains.
The waitress sang the praises of the Kool Beanz pastry chef, and she did not exaggerate. We decided to split a coconut cake layered with coconut cream encased in a toasted meringue served with whipped cream. One was not enough and we fought over it from the first bite. It was an ungodly decadent play on coconut cream pie. The soft meringue was not too sweet and expertly caramelized. The sponge was infused with coconut cream but again not too sweet, revealing a deft hand with the coconut. It was so good that we ate the globs that spilled from our forks right off the table as we contested every molecule. President Powers finally invoked executive privilege in order to secure the last forkful for herself.
Mago tip: Brave the lines and the noise of the “inside” section in order to sit at the bar and watch the line cooks perform. The entire kitchen is ensconced directly behind the bar and four cooks churn out dishes at dizzying speeds in very entertaining fashion. This is as close as you are likely to get to a chef’s table at Kool Beanz, but it will be worth it. And make sure that you save room for dessert.