Thursday, October 29, 2009

Respect the Pig: A Defense of Bacon

I’ve been thinking about his comment for weeks now, ever since I saw this Facebook status update from Richard Blais: “Bacon is overrated.” Now, I never thought that in my lifetime, I would need to defend bacon. At the very least, I could just rap my hand against the table like a petulant nine-year-old and proclaim, “But…but…but…it’s bacon!” And that would suffice.

But he’s recently taken his argument to the airwaves, so to speak, via his column in Creative Loafiing, and I must offer my rebuttal. “Bacon is overrated;” I respectfully disagree.

To help explain my position, let me say that I serve as a chef at one of Atlanta’s more prominent Southern restaurants; love for the pig is a part of my culinary DNA. I also have nothing against Chef Blais. I worked under him briefly at a now-defunct location, and he has extended me nothing but great courtesy every time I have eaten in his restaurants. However, I can find little substance to his viewpoint beyond simply declaring bacon overrated due to its current surge in popularity.

First, I simply cannot understand how someone, particularly a chef, can slap the dreaded “cliche” label on praising a food source that occurs in nature—the pig. As chefs, part of the passion that fuels us involves getting excited over ingredients. I must agree with some of the readers’ comments that calling bacon overrated does in fact come off sounding a bit elitist. Like Blais, I also adore Allan Benton’s fabulous bacon and use it quite frequently; but to say that I use it exclusively would imply that, “What I’m eating is better than what you supermarket-shoppers are eating.”

Second, I think that Chef Blais was incorrect in his use of the term “overrated.” How can bacon be overrated? It is exactly what you think it’s going to be. I think that his categorical declaration that bacon is overrated masks the real merits of his second argument: that bacon is used as a crutch. Too often, chefs fall into the trap of using too much of a good thing without a proper understanding of the ingredient. While bacon can improve upon many flavors, the notion that, “Everything’s better with bacon” is quite misleading. Its salty, smoky notes add great depth to dishes with sweeter components—and many others--but it can certainly be added illogically. I understand that the hipster thing to do is to swim against the current of mass adoration, but such a brazen statement as “overrated” seems geared to garner attention.

Currently, Chef Blais has both a bacon cheeseburger and a potato salad with bacon on his menu at FLIP. By his argument, are those dishes now overrated? I don’t believe so…they were delicious when I had them. On the Top Chef: Season 4 finale, Blais offered up two dishes that featured some form of pork belly (braised belly and a bacon ice cream, respectively, if I recall correctly). Would he consider them overrated? I hope not, because they both looked great. Would he make the 140-mile trek to Madisonville, TN and tell Allan Benton that his intensely smoky bacon is overrated? I can just see Allan shaking his head now, throwing a single log into his tiny smokehouse furnace.

So how would he like fellow chefs to take action, if at all? Personally, I feel that bacon (along with delicious cousins like andouille sausage, tasso, and country ham) is a shining example of culinary alchemy—when man’s brilliance meets the succulent and unctuous pig. As the great-grandson of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, I personally have grown up knowing the versatility of the pig, from pan-frying pork chops in streak-o’lean to hoarding a coffee can of bacon grease in the refrigerator for the sole purpose of improving green beans. I’m sure I’m not alone in this practice. Should I now stop using bacon because a segment of the population feels that it is now “over?” That’s pure flummery! I would rather be forced to watch a marathon of Guy Fieri programming than ever temper my love of any cured pork product.

I don’t believe that truly delicious foods fall subject to trends. Foods that inspire intense emotional reactions in people can never be considered overrated, nor do I think any one person has the authority to declare them so. Blais is an incredibly talented chef with a real understanding of food, but I feel that he is missing the mark by throwing bacon under the bus. It’s an easy target, but tasty enough to weather the storm.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Eating Out: Cakes & Ale

I was talking with a couple of my fellow Abattoir diners later that week, and we were discussing our mutual disappointment in the place. While I think my criticisms were fair for what they were, I also think that the place was a victim of the hype. Not necessarily by the media, as the AJC review did not get published until nearly a month after our visit. Instead, I think that Abattoir fell victim to meeting the ridiculously high standards set by Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison's other phenomenal restaurants: Bacchanalia, Quinones, and Floataway Cafe. These places help set the bar for outstanding food in Atlanta, and I was left wondering: Was it us who were at fault for having such lofty expectations? Shouldn't a place be allowed to stand on its own merits instead of being compared to other restaurants within the operation, but with different concepts? I know that if I worked at Ecco and someone complained that the place did not have the same feel as South City Kitchen, I might be a little offended because the concepts are completely different. The soul of the organization should still feel similar, but one does not necessarily beget the other. And moreover, as a chef, are my expectations out of reach? Is it possible to be "blown away" any more?

These questions were still fresh in my mind when I decided to venture off of my own beaten path into Decatur to check out Cakes & Ale. As I would learn inside, the place hasn't done any advertising until the past two months. They opened in August of 2008--just in time for the recession! Basically, they've been relying on word of mouth from some incredibly loyal guests and the solid reputation of chef/owner Billy Allin, who built his name locally as longtime sous chef under Scott Peacock at Watershed. But from my experience, all it takes is one meal and you can't help but want to be a repeat guest.

My favorite part about the restaurant is the overall vibe. There's not a bit of pretension in the room, and everyone just seems really happy to be there. I wasn't seated at the bar for five minutes when the guy next to me starts gleefully raving about his burger, then quizzing me on the finer points on how to make a great burger...and he didn't even know I was a chef yet! There are no menus to be passed out; rather a giant chalkboard sits unapologetic in a convenient location for all to see. No hipster decor or that faux-industrial feel that seems to be so popular these days--just a simple, understated dining room. Musical selections--I only heard two: Sam Cooke and the Ramones. It doesn't get much better than that.

I'm probably doing the food a disservice by hyping it as grandiose, because the beauty lies in the simplicity. My plan of attack was to order several appetizers, then gauge if I could gluttonously gorge an entree down my gullet. The first to arrive were the arancini: six little golden brown crispy nuggets of fried risotto. These were extraordinary simply for the fact that they were the first arancini I've ever had without some form of sauce. They were just sprinkled with lemon zest and fennel pollen, which added both a brightness and very subtle sweetness to go along with a delightfully cheesy risotto. A sauce would have completely compromised the nuances of the risotto ball.

After mowing through the arancini at a record pace--looking up only for sips of my brown lager--I started on my second course: an heirloom tomato salad with cucumbers, an avocado puree, sheep's milk feta, sherry vinegar, and olive oil. Only recently have I become passionate about my love for tomatoes, and plates like these are the reasons why. Each component of the plate brought a unique flavor to the party, but their primary purpose was to enhance the tomatoes. The tomatoes themselves were perfectly seasoned and, along with the cucumbers, grown in Allin's home garden. I personally love any dishes with balance, and the tomatoes offered great acid, sweetness, saltiness, and richness, that made for a memorable dish.

Even with the disappointing charcuterie plate at Abattoir in the back of my mind, I wanted to give the Cakes & Ale version a shot without any trepidation. It didn't let me down. All cured in house, this board brought forth a bounty of two types of coppa (dry-cured pork shoulder), sopressata (dry-cured salami), lardo (cured fatback), pork rillette (cooked and blended in its own fat), pickled beets, melon, & ramps, dijon mustard, and crusty bread. Pardon me, but holy crap--that was amazing! The rillette alone was so good, it would make you want to punch someone in the face. Don't ask why you would do such a thing, but the pork would likely inspire such a Tourette's-like reaction that would be easily forgiven, so long as you plied the victim with the same great pork.

My stomach gave me the green-light to proceed with an entree, and after weighing my options (all looked original and very tasty) I succumbed to my cravings and went after the burger. It was very straightforward, and absent of many of the bells & whistles you see on a lot of restaurant burgers these days. It came with cheese (don't ask me to recall which one--white, mild, and nicely melted), sliced tomatoes, and an onion-studded mayonnaise. I later learned that the burger itself was a blend of chuck, brisket, and pork belly. It had great moisture, but I felt it was a touch underseasoned. A bit more salt and pepper, or a little more caramelization on the surface would have made all the difference in the world. Still a very tasty burger, nonetheless. The shoestring fries were crisp and addictive, and I would order these again in a heartbeat.

You know when you eat a big meal, there comes a point when your pleasure sensors shut down, and it almost becomes a challenge to finish whatever it is that you're eating? Well, that about summed up the last few bites of my burger and fries. I finished my beer and applauded myself for cleaning my plate like a good little fat kid, when temptation struck from two directions. I won't go into huge detail on the service, but I felt incredibly welcomed and taken care of throughout the entire meal. A testament to that was illustrated after I had finished going to town on my burger. Billy's wife Kirsten (who had been working the door that night) had sat down beside me and ordered food for herself while I was working on my entree. She ordered two or three small plates, and later determined that she wasn't going to finish her last plate--a potato, leek, and ricotta tart with a beet salad. Instead of boxing it up for herself, she offered it to her bar neighbors to sample, so long as we didn't mind eating after her! Since I almost ordered that particular dish, I made sure to give it a try, and was instantly glad I did. The tart was very reminiscent of a pizza, and the beets were a wonderfully sweet contrast to the rich, earthy tart.

My second temptation hit me when my affable bartender broached the subject of dessert. I could barely move, much less consider eating more. Several items on the dessert menu looked fantastic, especially a brown butter tart with fresh blackberries and ice cream (maybe ginger? creme fraiche--sorry, forgot that one too!). But I cowardly waved my white surrender flag and asked her for my check. Along with the check, she brought a small plate with a small sandwich-like cake: one of the restaurant's signature Phatty Cakes. These little three-bite wonders are two very soft spiced ginger cakes/cookies and a vanilla-mascarpone filling. It's essentially an adult version of the Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie! The standard order of three would have likely put me in the cardiology ward of Emory hospital, but one was the perfect end to a great meal. I really implore you all to check out this little Decatur neighborhood haunt; it's worth the trek.

Eating Out: Abattoir

In the immortal words of George Costanza, "Baby, I'm back!" I would love to apologize for not posting any blogs for over two months, but the world of chefdom has quite often been so hectic, that I haven't had the time or the energy to post a quality review. I don't want to turn into some throwaway four-sentence blog that says, "Yeah, go check out the bahn mi at Lee's Bakery. They're really good." A thorough examination of all of the great (and now, not so great) establishments that I visit is certainly required. And because I've already reviewed a large majority of the truly extraordinary places around town, I will now look to include both the abysmal and the mediocre. Hopefully, we can at least find some humor in those...

My first review since the "sabbatical" was prompted by this week's 5-star review of Abattoir by Meredith Ford Goldman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I've been prone to disagree with her assessments of various restaurants in the past (Anyone remember the grossly generous 4-star review of Home back when Richard Blais was there?), and our thoughts on Atlanta's newest high-profile operation differ greatly.

The occasion of the evening was really special: Executive Chef extraordinaire Chip Ulbrich invited all five of his sous chefs from both SCK Midtown and SCK Vinings, as well as GM Paul Hymel out to dinner one Tuesday night. Having had a very good experience, albeit with limited eating, at Abattoir, I offered that up as a potential dining destination for all of us. Unfortunately, the second time did not live up to expectations. All of us met up at nearby JCT Kitchen for a pre-game beer (and an unrequested free Jell-O shot) before walking across a wooden bridge to the White Provisions building, which houses Abattoir. It's a stunning space on the inside, with a large communal table running down the center of the restaurant, and a spacious patio. We all sat down and eagerly pored over the menu, trying to decide what we should order for the first wave. While all of the chefs have our collective noses buried in the menu, I'm a little amused when I see Paul--the only non-chef--ordering the first round of food for the entire table! Round One included the housemade chicharrones, potted chicken liver & foie gras with armagnac, the wood-grilled bratwurst w/ melted spring onions, and the charcuterie plate. If you've ever had pork rinds, then you've essentially had chicharrones. These were light as air, and left me with this porky flavor that was simply sublime. The potted chicken liver w/ foie gras and armagnac was also tremendous, with this smooth and rich liver puree beneath a layer of earthy and aromatic armagnac jelly. Those were perhaps my two favorite dishes of the evening. The bratwurst had a great garlicky flavor, but was a tad heavy on the fat ratio in the sausage. Also, as was the case with several of the dishes, the portion size (even for one person) was a bit small. Now, I want you to imagine a bunch of ravenous chefs trying to divvy each dish up among seven of us. Even though we were all in street clothes, trying our damndest to be civil and polite at the dinner table, I couldn't help but feel that any one of us might stab the other in the hand with a fork should he try to consume the last bite of a favorite dish. The charcuterie plate was incredibly ho-hum; evident by the fact that I can't remember exactly what was on it. I think there was a lomo of venison, a sopressata or coppa, and I'm positive that there was a pork rillette. Regardless, there was an exceptional plate of homemade bread to help sop up any evidence on the plates.

Chip had selected some very nice wines, and with a well-balanced red and white in front of us, we proceeded to delve into the section of the menu devoted to our beloved offal. The word "abattoir" literally translates to slaughterhouse; and the building that houses Abattoir was once an actual slaughterhouse. With that "pedigree," I had high hopes for this portion of the meal. We opted for two orders of the "crisp veal sweetbreads, capers, & egg yolk" and one order of the "lamb liver fritters with sauce meuniere." The lamb liver fritters arrived adorned with some sort of tomato compote. Whatever it was, it did not resemble any meuniere sauce I've ever seen in my life. For the non-restaurant people out there, a meuniere sauce is basically a riff on a brown butter sauce that incorporates lemon and parsley, and often times worcestershire, vinegar, or pecans. Strangely, a sauce of that nature seemed to envelop the sweetbreads, on which I found little to no presence of capers or egg yolk. These little menu oversights make a place look a little bush-league, but would have been overlooked had the dishes in question blown me out of the water. But they were, to quote Julius Caesar in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1, "Nice. Not thrilling, but nice."

We moved on to the entrees and selected the wood-grilled pork chop with local greens, the lamb tasting with mint salad and jus, a roast squab with Carolina Gold rice, and their burger with fries. I can't describe my disappointment in how unmemorable each of these dishes were. The bright spot of the bunch would have to be the lamb tasting--highlighting a lamb sausage, lamb shoulder, lamb loin, and lamb liver. Each had a nice meaty flavor that was not overly gamey, and all were perfectly cooked. Again, though the circumstances may have been our fault (too many of us), it was difficult to get a complete feel for the food through one or two bites. The pork chop was dry and underseasoned, and the greens were accompanied by some simple diced vegetables that really brought no additional flavor to the party. Coupled with a really weak broth, this was one of the two biggest clunkers of the night. The squab had an okay flavor, but I thought it was overcooked. Some of you chefs may disagree with me, but I'm of the belief that squab should be about medium rare. In any event, the squab came with the advertised rice and a pretty insipid jus. I was trying to pretend it was Chip's squab-bbq jus that ended up on the floor at James Beard House in 2001. Dean, your thoughts?

But no level of disappointment with the three composed entrees could match how upset I was with their sorry offering of a burger. A red flag instantly went up when we ordered the burger medium rare, and the server said that it would take around 20 minutes. What?!? What kind of sorry excuse of a heat source are you using when ground meat takes 20 minutes to reach medium rare? Well, she wasn't kidding about the 20 minutes part, but the burger was almost completely raw on the inside--no structural integrity whatsoever. It was poorly seasoned and because of the way the tomato was cut (fileted), fell apart when I tried to bite into it. The basic mayo & ketchup on the side just seemed like a throwaway--kind of a "You don't care, I don't care" kind of attitude. And don't get me started on the fries. Dry and hard, this only exacerbated my anger toward a sub-par burger.

We soldiered on through desserts--maple-bacon beignets and a fried cherry pie with buttermilk sorbet. The beignets were real winners, as they were just plain donuts drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with bacon. More bacon would have made them a bit more interesting by offering up more of a salty contrast--what we all love about bacon desserts. The pie had a nice crust, and the sweetness of the cherry filling matched nicely with the tartness of the sorbet, which unfortunately, was half melted when it arrived.

Having the former chef of Bacchanalia at the helm makes me want to hold out hope for this place, but being burned by non-seasonal items justifies my pessimism. I hope this place can turn the corner, because it has the potential to be better than perennial favorite Holeman & Finch. But the first major experience was definitely strike one.

Afterword: As we walked back across the bridge, we decided to stop at JCT for a post-meal beer. Oddly enough, we were given (again, unrequested) another Jell-O shot. I find it incredibly ironic that despite having high school and college experiences that often revolved around heavy drinking, my first Jell-O shots took place in a casual fine dining Southern restaurant that rivals my own restaurant in concept.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mother's Day from a Chef's Perspective

It kills me that I haven't been able to post as regularly as I would like or with the frequency that being a good food blogger requires, but part of writing as a working chef means that I am in the restaurant more often than not. These past several weeks have been pretty grueling, all of which led up to Mother's Day--hands down the busiest day of the year in the restaurant industry. So for this post, I thought I'd give you all a look "behind the scenes" of a restaurant and inside the mind of a chef on perhaps the most chaotic day of the year.

Sunday, May 10th, 2:00am--I'm lying on my couch struggling to sleep. I have two alarms set so that I don't miss my 5:00 wake-up time. Our new sous chef Stephen and I have spent the past two days prepping everything for this special menu. We have over 430 on the books, and I want to be prepared for everything. Chip, the executive chef, will be at the Vinings location all day, and our other sous chef, Jon, will be in to expo dinner. This means that everything good or bad will happen on my watch. I've already made itemized prep lists for us and for each individual line cook (everything they'll need--all the way down to salt and pepper) so that they can hit the ground running when they walk in the door. But what if one of my cooks doesn't show up?...What if the refrigeration finally dies upstairs?...Should I have called Chip about the plate set-up for the special ham dish?...I think we use the small potatoes for that one...Will my produce order be here in time? Too many thoughts are passing through my head for me to fall asleep. I roll over to the Heads-Up poker tournament on CNBC to see Brad Garrett playing some Moose Jockey in a hockey jersey. He and Ray Romano came in earlier in the week--super nice guys. Garrett loses. Time to find something on TV I can fall asleep to...ESPN Classic is airing 1980s pro wrestling--instant slumbers!

4:55 am--I wake up 5 minutes before my alarm goes off, and I'm already feeling alert. No time to take my requisite 3 pushes of the snooze button before getting up. I shave, shower, and get fully dressed here at the house--no time for putting on a jacket once I arrive in the kitchen--gotta hit the ground running.

5:20am--Being a coffee-drinker would probably be a good idea right about now, but since that's just not part of my routine, my breakfast of grocery store sushi (judge me if you want), Greek yogurt, and Propel will have to do. I set my iPod to "shuffle" and the second song to come up is Johnny Cash covering "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Kinda fitting, except that I'm coming down from fatigue. Almost to work...I hope nobody's sleeping outside by the back door today.

5:45 am--I get to work 15 minutes early and begin to turn on the equipment and unlock everything. No one will be here until 7:00, and I always seem to get the most accomplished when I'm by myself. I pull all of the prep lists and today's menu as a reference guide. Must start grits early--not running out of those today! I wrap the hams and put them in the oven at a low temperature, make a quick glaze for the ham, and start portioning the spinach-mushroom fritatta and the peach "french toast" bread pudding that I made the night before. Damn! I just stuck my finger with the tip of the butcher's scimitar--it's just a nick, but any cuts or bandage duties are a minor inconvenience when I don't have time for any of those today. Gotta get bourbon gravy started. I really wish I would have made that last night...

7:00 am--I'm really cranking now! Everything that needs to be heated up by me is already upstairs in the hot box. I even started the mashed potatoes and she crab soup myself--usually a duty referred to the prep guys. Speaking of whom, the doorbell rings and prep cooks Jaime and Omar, along with the most phenomenal dishwashers in the land, Armando and Mustachio, are at the back door. Mustachio's real name is Jose, but the guy's 'stache looks like someone took Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck's from their heyday and stuck it on a 5'6" Mexican. Paul, the GM arrives bearing donuts, and we catch up, sharing a few needed laughs...mostly about colonics, of all things! I'm too wrapped up to eat anything at this point. Things are going smoothly now...I hope everyone shows up.

8:00 am--My fears are assuaged when each of my four line cooks arrive within 10 minutes of one another. Ozzie, my grill man gets in 15 minutes early...Joel, my stud of a middle guy, is right behind him. They both look ready to go. Orlando, my saute guy arrives 5 minutes early looking a little sleepy, but focused. Ariceli, my pantry gal, walks in on time as well. I hope she's ready to go. She has the most to set up, but will get the fewest orders. She usually moves with the speed of a quadriplegic turtle getting set up, so I politely stress the sense of urgency of today with her. She seems to understand, and is a little bit intimidated when she sees how long her list of items is. Steve also rolls in, and I briefly sit to confer with him about how the day should go. He's helping out behind the line today, and that really eases my mind. For the next hour, I try to help everyone get ready to go, while Steve sets about making brown butter sauce and poaching 3-4 flats of eggs in case we really get "dans le merde." Because the amigos' radio is out of commission, I crank up my iPod which has a special playlist for all of the major event days. For some reason, I work faster to funk music; so today's musical selection is a heaping helping of Sly Stone, Parliament, Rick James, Prince, and early Red Hot Chili Peppers. Gotta have sample plates of our "out of the ordinary" items--fritatta, peach bread pudding, glazed ham, and chocolate muffins--to show the servers at 9:30. 10:00 is showtime!

9:45am--Just finished line-up with the servers. Everyone was surprisingly attentive during my descriptions. I don't think I had to repeat anything, which I always appreciate. Most of the "A Team" is on the floor today (except B.A. Baracas), so I'm getting more comfortable with how today is going to pan out. I can't even tell if anyone's hungover--I'm really impressed! Paul comes up to me and tells me the soup of the day is scorched. I'm a little incredulous as I take a sample. It's not scorched, but it certainly doesn't taste good. Chip and I put in some time trying to save the cream of spinach and garlic soup yesterday, but it doesn't seem to have re-heated well. The garlic is way too overbearing and "off." Hating to lose, I try to come up with a new soup that could potentially feed a couple hundred and be ready in 30 minutes. Paul calms me down and tells me to just 86 (run without) the soup of the day. I taste everything on the line and confirm that all of the cooks are both physically and mentally ready to go. As line-up ended, we had our first 3 tables walk in the door. I grab a couple of wet towels for wiping plates, wash my hands, and get my large glass of ice water ready on the expo side. The printer spits out the first few tickets, and we're off to the races...

10:45am--My board is fluttering with tickets, and the kitchen is getting hit hard. Luckily, our menu is designed to be executed with ease--with as little time-consuming cooking as possible. That means no eggs made-to-order and no pancakes, among other things. What's this? A server comes up to me and asks if we can do pancakes. Why won't people order what's on the goddamn menu? I really don't mind accommodating special requests, but an ill-timed one could send the kitchen into a tailspin...I make the call to say no. Our peach "french toast" bread pudding is delicious...tell them to order that. The guys are keeping up nicely with the rush, and the servers are really running food faster than I could have hoped for. I check in with the guys, and everyone seems to be doing well and in good spirits. A good first turn! They all reload, and get ready for round 2.

12:30pm--Oh my God, we're flippin' busy! Joel's fryer is full of chicken, catfish, green tomatoes, okra, and croutons; and none of them can be ready fast enough. I'm calling out orders loudly so that I can sell as many check as quickly as possible. We're selling an abnormal amount of fritattas and bread pudding...Go figure, I guess people actually want breakfast foods at breakfast time! I bellow down to Omar to throw more in the oven. The kitchen comes to a standstill--they're out of plates! I rumble down the stairs to fetch some from the outside storage area. As I'm unpacking them, I realize three of them are broken...gotta remember to tell my Ed Don rep about that in the morning. Oh, just realized we were running low on rhubarb preserves...I quickly throw some more on and tell Jaime to check on it as I hustle the plates upstairs. I usually start singing whenever I'm in the weeds, and it's typically never a good song. Today's Cheffrey Jukebox selections are Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie," and the Gourds' cover of Snoop's "Gin and Juice." Anything to work faster...

12:52pm--Some 11 year-old kid gets his fingers stuck in the holes on the back of a chair. Armed with a ramekin of butter, Paul arrives to the rescue to lube the little butterball's fingers out. That kind of service might cost you extra in Vegas.

1:15pm--For the umpteenth time, someone needs a kid's chicken fingers on the fly (fast as possible). I'm a little annoyed, but everyone's working really hard on the floor today; a few mistakes are inevitable. I translate this need to Joel, who is valiantly struggling to stay out of the weeds...he handles the hiccup like the true pro that he is. We get it out as quickly as we can. Hey, if the kids are happy, then Mom is happy. And that is the goal, isn't it?

1:27pm--A woman just requested to change tables because she thought that her server was trying to steal her husband. Read that sentence again, please. I seriously can't make this stuff up.

1:45pm--Jon arrived almost 2 hours ago and has started getting things ready for dinner. He intercepts me yelling for refills of things from the top of the stairs and passes them on to Omar and Jaime...More she crab! More grits! More fritatta! Whaddya mean, no more fritatta? I made 72 portions! I do some quick mental math and realize that yes, we probably have sold close to that amount. Hopefully sales of that item will dwindle as we delve further into the lunch portion of the day.

2:30pm--Ozzie tells me that he has to leave to start working at Ecco for dinner. I thank him for a job well done--he really busted his ass today and was a total stud behind the line. 86 fritatta! Thought I was going to make it on that one...Orlando moves over to grill and Steve takes on saute solo. Orders are still pouring in. I'm burning a hole in the 10 feet behind the bar between the main pick-up window and the pantry window...I've still got some hustle. Brent and Major were right--I am incredibly fast in distances under 10 feet. I think the guys are starting to lose focus a little bit...some of the plates are coming up a little sloppy...limp, flaccid bacon, giant fatty end of bacon in an otherwise tiny pile of collard greens, overcooked eggs...I hand each of the mistakes back to them and they quickly replace them with perfect plates. Gotta imagine there are some pretty happy guests today.

3:15pm--Everyone's nearly spent from such a grueling service. The fun is only starting, as we have two very large parties ordering at the same time. Even worse is that nearly every item has a special modifier on it..."Fried chicken, no mashed potatoes or green beans, sub scrambled eggs and salad; Shrimp and grits, no grits sub potatoes with sauce on the side; Loin of unicorn, poached in its own tears, served with piopini mushrooms and Grape Nuts...tartar sauce on the side. It's getting pretty ridiculous. I'm calling out what I need and calling for servers to run the food to the tables. I'm really losing my voice now...even the water or tea isn't helping...The servers are still running food with energy--Kevin and Rachel have been real rock stars today. The kitchen is putting up the last few tables when I hear, "Chef, no more grits." Aarrgh! I thought I had made enough! I find out from the tables that a few people don't mind having mashed potatoes instead. Whew! Crisis averted.

3:35pm--I find a quick break in the action to run downstairs and call my mom to wish her a Happy Mother's Day. She is so understanding that my profession limits my availability on the holidays, and is quick to assure me that we can celebrate whenever I'm off. So this Wednesday it is.

3:50pm--My dishwasher left at 3:30, and the dish pit is starting to overflow with dirty dishes. I shake everyone's hand, congratulate them on doing such a phenomenal job, and commence to washing dishes. I'm really hoping none of those glasses fall off the ledge...Nope! Guess I'll order more tomorrow. I wash my hands, grab two slices of pizza that Paul had ordered for family meal, and painfully stumble down the stairs to check how many covers we did. Let me tell you, cold pizza never tasted so good. 490 covers! Holy crap, that's gotta be a record here! Chip calls to see how service went...they did almost 750 for brunch at Vinings, and would go on to serve over 1,000 people. That's just ridiculous. He asks checks on the status of the smoked boneless rib roast he had planned to run for an evening special. I don't remember anything about it! Fortunately, Jon is on top of things and has it 30 minutes away from being comes out perfect. Paul congratulates me on not getting thrown off the train during the day. I feel like I can barely move, and I really don't want to summon the energy to think.

4:12pm--I'm starting to see if Jon needs anything for the night's service when just then, I hear it. The two words I've learned to fear more than just about any other. Jorge, my pm dishwasher utters the painful words, "Chef, agua." That usually means that water is flowing from a source from which it shouldn' a hose or the dish machine. He's right...the toilet in the employee bathroom is overflowing into the prep kitchen. I move everything out of the water's path, take off my watch, and grab a squeegee and some bleach...after such a hellacious service, I wouldn't feel right about ordering anyone else to clean it up. After thoroughly dousing the floor with bleach, we're good to go. I laugh to myself that it only seems fitting that after such a triumph, I immediately move to cleaning up toilet water. And I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school!

5:30pm--I start getting the prep list ready for tomorrow. Emory's graduation is that morning, and we should be super busy for lunch. Man, there's a pretty big load to have ready before 11:00...glad I'm in at 8:00. Ham didn't sell too well...that should make a delicious lunch special. I decide to truss and roast some turkey breast so I don't have to worry about it in the morning...I don't have the energy or the patience to make any sauces tonight. They're already rocking upstairs and in need of mashed potatoes.

6:30pm--I'm done for the day. I shake hands with Paul and Steve and slink to my car for the 30 minute drive home. Needing music that's a little more subdued, I pop in my Cast Iron Filter CD and think how glad I am that it's over. I make it home and have a series of the greatest post-work experiences ever: 1) I take my shoes off--wow, that felt great! 2) I grab a cold Turbodog out of the fridge and head straight to the shower. 3) Enjoy beer while taking shower. 4) Call for a delivery of Chinese food--my moo shu arrives just as Iron Chef airs a repeat of Mario Batali vs Paul Bartolotta. I think back to eating at both chefs' restaurants in Vegas and really wishing I could sample what they're cooking--it's battle rice, and both guys' food looks amazing.

10:10pm--Time for bed. I should be making a game plan for tomorrow, but I'm really thinking about how I've talked a beautiful food journalist into having dinner with me tomorrow night. For anyone who is a fan of this blog, I implore you to check out hers as well. .

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hatred of the Chicken Caesar

To the people who order a grilled chicken Caesar while dining out:

For the love of God, fucking stop it!


Now, I must apologize for my choice of words here. I'm not normally a big proponent of dropping the f-bomb in my writing (my speech--especially when at work--is a completely different story), but this is an epidemic that lights a fire under me. In our culture of mid-level sit-down chain restaurants like LT McSpiff's or TGI O'Shitsters, we seem to be becoming de-sensitized to the garbage that they try to pass off as acceptable cuisine. But nothing represents mediocrity on the American menu more than the Chicken Caesar.

First of all, the salad isn't even American. It shows up on nearly every Italian restaurant menu--must be Italian, right? Wrong! The Caesar salad was created in 1924 in...Tijuana, Mexico. That's right, one of Mexico's most indelible marks on American cuisine contains no meat, tortillas, or any form of salsa. Yet somehow, nearly every restaurant in this country seems obligated to include it on their menu--even mine. And just as a burger wouldn't be complete without fries, there is always the option of adding on the salad's evil doppelganger: the grilled chicken breast. Is there possibly a more boring cut of meat out there? The breast is handily the most flavorless part of the chicken, and grilling does nothing to enhance the juiciness of a piece of meat that is quite prone to drying out when exposed to direct heat.

In my opinion, people order the chicken caesar when they can't decide on anything else for whatever reason. "Caesar salad with grilled chicken breast...pretty hard to fuck that up, huh?" must be the thought running through these people's minds. But the point is, we don’t care really what it tastes like, only that it tastes like the last one we had, that it’s consistent. McDonald’s learned the effectiveness of that strategy early on. Friends, if you are having difficulties deciding on what to order, I implore you to ask your server for some help. Most people in the food industry are both food lovers and fiercely opinionated (especially at SCK), and will certainly help guide you in the right direction. And do some research! Find a place that looks interesting. Find some regional or ethnic specialties. Google some of your favorite types of food and where you can get them in your city. If you don't recognize the name of a national chain, you're on the right track. As a chef, I take a huge amount of pride in the dishes on our menu and the specials I create. So it breaks my heart to see someone deprive themselves of the dishes that we do better than anywhere else in lieu of something "safe" and "predictable." To me, food is such a sensory experience and has the capability to create some lasting memories. I know of no one who has any memory of a chicken Caesar other than when someone asks them, "What did you have for lunch today."

From my years in the restaurant industry, I've also discovered--to my consternation--some people who believe that they are following a healthier lifestyle by ordering a chicken Caesar. I'm gonna let you, dear readers, in on a little secret. The main flavoring components in Caesar dressing are garlic, anchovies, and lemon juice; but the body of the dressing comes from two sources: egg yolks and oil. Would you like to know what else is comprised of egg yolks and oil? Mayonnaise. That's right, a Caesar salad is little more than romaine lettuce tossed in flavored mayonnaise and topped with parmesan cheese. At least we at SCK up the ante by adding fried okra and cubes of fried grits instead of the standard croutons.

Sadly, I fear that this will be part of the lasting legacy of American cuisine. The amazing food writer Michael Ruhlman writes, "those of us who love food understand it as a fundamental part of our humanity: that the gathering, preparing and sharing of our daily nourishment is the core of our days and who we are. It is at the very center of our culture. And our legacy, the content of that culture, judging from the sheer volume of portions served, is surely the Chicken Caesar, bottled dressing, thickened with Xantham gum." Most of these national chains likely get the same bottled dressing from an industrial food supplier in New Jersey. Folks, the only good things to come out of New Jersey are Bruce Springsteen and the Sopranos. That's it.

I guess I would just like to see a little more creativity and imagination thrown at this lumbering warhorse of a menu item. Ruhlman fired the initial shot on his website, and a few big name chefs were quick to respond. Chris "Guts R' Us" Cosentino conceived a version with a deep-fried cockscomb taking the place of the crouton. Now if someone will make a version featuring crispy pork belly, then I might just be inclined to order it.

I would love to hear everyone else's opinions on this. Am I just some psychotic chef on a futile crusade here? Does anyone else feel that this is too much mediocrity to bear? Please indulge me.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Eating Out: Tassa Roti Shop

One of the drawbacks to living in suburbia is that the selection of interesting independent restaurants is quite slim. This wave of dining establishments built around a shopping center nucleus has given way to a proliferation of crappertank restaurants like Applebee's, Chili's, Firehouse Subs, Moe's, Shane's BBQ, and Beef O'Brady's. Throw in your obligatory pizza joints, American-Chinese take-out haunts, and Americanized Mexican restaurants (you won't see nachos or fajitas in the authentic places), and you have a crowded restaurant scene with very few truly tasty options. Chick Fil-A and Waffle House are both Atlanta-based chains (and my two guilty pleasures), so they're not in the "bad" category. But still, the lack of a truly unique dining spot can be a little frustrating sometimes; so I was most thrilled when I first discovered the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago served at Tassa Roti Shop. Big thanks go to my former executive chef Dean Dupuis for turning me on to this little pink house on Johnson's Ferry Road in Marietta, just down the way from Harry's Farmer's Market.

Owned by Trini couple Shaddick and Ria, Tassa Roti Shop specializes in filled rotis, but offers up a number of full plate meals, plus a lunch buffet (all day on weekends). A roti is basically a large, thin flatbread that is filled with your choice of meat (chicken, beef, duck, goat, and shrimp), a curried potato mixture, then you get to choose from a selection of hot sauces and chutneys before it is all rolled up like a burrito. If you get one of the hot sauces, I implore you to get the apple chutney as well. The sweetness really helps to mellow out the intense heat of the scotch bonnet peppers. Also, as a word of warning, I would recommend all first-timers starting with a shrimp roti. I've had the goat and duck as well, and they contain an alarming amount of bones. Everything is just hacked up with a cleaver and then stuffed inside your roti. Not that it isn't delicious--I just don't enjoy eating with an impending sense of dental peril.

The entree options are also incredibly delicious. Two nights ago, I had the oxtail plate, which featured meltingly tender braised or stewed oxtails served in their own sauce. The plate also offered up rice with peas, fried plantains, stir-fried cabbage, callaloo (which is essentially greens cooked down in chicken stock and coconut milk until smooth and creamy), and something called macaroni pie--which more resembled a sweet corn pudding with raisins than anything involving pasta. Washed down by a Jamaican ginger beer, the whole plate was the perfect balance of richness, sweetness, and spice. Really remarkable.

But the single best item on the menu at Tassa is something called "doubles." Often part of an island breakfast, this appetizer consists of a curried chickpea mixture stuffed between two (roughly 3") soft flatbreads, topped with your choice of hot sauces and chutneys, then wrapped in paper. I'm having great difficulty coming up with the words to describe how delicious this is, but a trip to Tassa isn't complete without one or two of these. And at only $1.50 apiece, they're a steal!

I have a certain fondness for ethnic restaurants where I am the only white person to be found--I just know the food will be better in these places. But one of my favorite aspects about Tassa is just how friendly everyone is. All of the diners seem thrilled to be there, and Shaddick and Ria couldn't be more hospitable hosts. And as with any place that specializes in an authentic cuisine, there's not a bit of kitsch to the whole place. It doesn't seem like you've walked into a storage unit for "Cool Runnings" memorabilia. Just really nice people serving the local food that they are so proud of. And I couldn't be more happy to indulge!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The McGangBang

When I first heard the title of this sandwich, I was aghast. Is McDonald's in the porno industry now? Are they referring to a graphic sex scene thought up by some PCP-addled marketing exec involving Grimace, Birdie, the Hamburglar, Ronald McDonald, and Mayor McCheese? What kinds of horror are taking place under the Golden Arches?

As it turns out, this is a customer-created sandwich that originated around 2006. Spreading purely via word of mouth, the McGangBang is taking on cult popularity around the country. This super-sandwich consists of an entire Spicy McChicken in between a double cheeseburger--bun and all. It looks hideous, but since both items come from the Dollar Menu, it will only set you back $2 plus tax--a true recession special! McDonald's employees are gradually becoming aware of this sandwich's underground popularity. The corporate office even issued a statement supporting their customers' creativity, though they neglected to mention the sandwich by name. Can't have the tweens asking for a McGangBang in their Mighty Kids Meals now, can we? There are even YouTube videos documenting people attempting to order the McGangBang via drive-thru, and the poor employees are completely befuddled. A few happen to know about the phenomenon, especially once they consult the shift manager.

In the name of providing you, my dear readers, with an fully accurate depiction, I ordered one of these bad boys the other day. Umm...not really anything earth-shattering. It is what it is. But just the uncomfortable look on an employee's face when a customer mentions "gang bang" with a straight face is worth the experience. Besides, you can always disassemble it when you get home, right?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Eating Out: Tasty China

Despite the generic-sounding name, this Marietta Chinese paradise is anything but generic. Lauded as one of the only (and quite possibly the only) authentic Szechuan (or Sichuan) restaurant in the Atlanta area, Tasty China offers up some of the most flavorful and spicy Chinese food I have ever eaten.

A few quick notes before I get into my actual meals here. Tasty China offers the usual American "Chinese" suspects, such as sesame chicken, beef w/ broccoli, General Tso's chicken, etc. You're in a palace of authentic Chinese cuisine--don't order things that you can get at your local City Wok (or "shitty wok" for you South Park fans out there). And in case you were wondering, General Tso is about as relevant to Chinese military lore as Colonel Sanders is to ours. Also, you might not hear me say this too often, but I would steer clear of the offal here. Ever since my first experience with chitlins--in Hattiesburg, MS no less--I can't bring myself to tackle intestines, which make a few appearances on the Tasty China menu. I am, however, a fan of kidneys. When I asked a couple of the staff members what they thought of the kidneys, they replied something along the lines of, "They're okay." *nervous laughter* "They taste kind of strong." This led me to believe that they didn't soak them--or at least not long enough. No piss-flavored meat for me, thank you! If I wanted to experience urine with my meal, I'd hang out with R. Kelly. BA-ZING!!!

I've been here 4 or 5 times, and I will handily go again. On the appetizer side, I recommend the Dan Dan noodles with beef. Here, ground beef is cooked in a spicy peanut sauce with chilies and Szechuan peppercorns and tossed with long, thin pasta. An interesting creation would have to be the Hot and Numbing Beef Rolls. In a bit of cultural cross-pollination, this flavorful cooked beef is tossed with chilies and Szechuan peppercorns (noticing a theme here?), then rolled with iceberg lettuce and rolled in a flour tortilla. Confused? I am. The chilies are pure burn, and the peppercorns are pure freeze; leaving your mouth burning and numb at the same time. Very aptly titled. The fish coriander rolls were also excellent, as fish (not sure which) and cilantro were very simply seasoned and rolled very thinly in a wonton, then fried until crispy. Oddly enough, they tasted just like...FISH AND CILANTRO! No sauce was necessary, as these were just plain delicious. Most recently, I opted for the Dry Fried Eggplant. Again, this dish is so well-seasoned that your Western palate won't miss the ubiquitous dipping sauce for a fried food item. The eggplant was amazingly crispy and I had a hard time saying "no" to another one. Unfortunately, I couldn't delve too deeply because the combination of homemade five-spice (very heavy on the fenugreek) and dried chilies created somewhat of an off-putting metallic flavor in an otherwise extraordinary dish.

If you're in the mood for a full entree, I recommend the braised fish with homemade soft tofu. The broth is spicy and flavorful, and when served over steamed rice, is a brilliant study in textures. I would pass on the twice-braised pork, unless they upgrade it to four times-braised pork. Under-braised pork belly is quite rubbery, and the whole dish was a little one-note, and I was not willing to start consuming whole dried chilies to alter that.

The Shan City Chicken is the hottest dish I have ever tried to eat. As exotic as it may sound, it's little more than 65% fried chicken chunks and 35% dried chilies. Too proud and stubborn to ask for milk or something to combat the heat that was severely kicking my ass, I was struggling to muscle this whole thing down. I have a very high tolerance for chile heat...but holy shit! This was insane!

The hot pot offers a great variety of meats, seafood, and vegetables with glass noodles in a simmering mini-cauldron of hot broth, chilies, Szechuan peppercorns, and a veneer of bubbling dende oil. They have a little device which keeps the dish hot (read: still simmering with a relative degree of volatility). I would advise wearing something that would not show the effects of an orange, oily stain; because regardless of what you eat, you're going to be wearing it. Absolutely delicious, though.

Perhaps my favorite dish was the one I was least expecting to blow me away. The green beans with minced pork and olives reminded me of the green beans I used to eat as a kid--cooked to death and seasoned with pork. These were different in that they were blanched fresh beans that were cooked with a neutral minced pork, but practically seasoned by the finely chopped olives. I will be getting this on each visit from now on. Tasty China is a wonderful reason to venture north of the perimeter, and a must if you live in the area. This place will change your entire views on Chinese cuisine for the better. Check it out!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Meat Madness

I was looking at one of my favorite food sites earlier today, and I found an NCAA March Madness-style bracket, except the tournament brackets involved various types of meats and seafood. The premise is very simple. Look at each match-up, then decide whichever you enjoy eating or cooking the most, and move that particular meat/seafood to the next round. Then decide on a winner! Feel free to share your results. My Final Four involved veal, duck, lobster, and sausage; and sausage beat out veal to claim the top prize. Gotta love meat that can also improve vegetables!

And since I can't upload the photo, here is a link to the brackets.

Go Meat!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eating Out: Jackson, MS

That’s right, I’m taking this show on the road! Earlier this week, I spent 4 days visiting some dear friends back in my old stomping grounds of Jackson, MS. Sadly for me, Jackson is not exactly teeming with great restaurants. It is overrun with those crappy chain restaurants that we all know and occasionally tolerate, but that none of us exactly enjoy going to. Once we’ve narrowed it down to just the local establishments, then we have to weed through those lumbering warhorses that have somehow survived despite putting out bland, often prepackaged food. So much of downtown’s dining is out of the question, as is any place on County Line, Lakeland (save for Saigon Noodle House), or east of the city—Pearl, Brandon, etc. Then there are these new, misguided ventures to contend with--those with menus rooted in 90s cuisine at the latest; or those who attempt to be cutting edge, but fail in concept or execution. So I offer my apologies to Nick’s, Schimmel’s, Shapley’s, Pan-Asia, Julep, Char, and Amerigo’s; but restaurant evolution has passed you by. Fortunately, once you get past all of this, there are a few fantastic dining establishments worth raving about.

For those in the mood for BBQ, do yourselves a favor and check out the Pig Out Inn. Started in my former home of Natchez, MS, the POI now operates a second location on Old Canton Rd, just a few yards north of the County Line/Old Canton intersection. For those of you in college and eating on a budget—and for those of us braving the recession and eating on a budget—this place is quite easy on the wallet. Their house special of any sandwich, 2 sides, and a drink will only set you back about $8 and change. Unlike many of these chain bbq joints that litter the state of Georgia, you can actually taste the smoke in the food at the POI. The chopped brisket, chopped pork, and smoked hot sausage are all fantastic; and I believe that some of the random trimmings of these find their way into the mustard seed-studded baked beans. But somewhat surprisingly, the most exquisite item at POI has to be the smoked turkey. Turkey is one of my favorite sandwich meats, but once it takes on a heavy amount of smoke, it becomes a completely different animal. Any of their meats are well-complemented by their sweet and smoky bbq sauce that evokes the experience of good Kansas City bbq.

And no weekday trip to Jackson would be complete for me without paying a visit to one of the greatest lunch dives in the history of mankind: CS's. This was perhaps my favorite place to eat when in college, and a Friday afternoon jaunt was Jackson's magical answer to a hangover. Ideally located for me back then, CS's is on West Street, behind Millsaps College--and more importantly, directly behind the Kappa Alpha Mansion. The dining room is split into two sections, and over time, the seating appeared to me as something of a caste system. The more well-to-do businessmen and elder citizens would dine in the front section, while the college miscreants and the like would congregate in the rear of the restaurant. Two servers, including the venerable Miss Inez, plus Joe the food runner took care of the entire restaurant. The decor of the place is something to behold, as there are antique beer cans of every variety on the shelves; and pictures of various phrases using the word "ass" in lieu of donkey. Somehow, this doesn't come off as either fake or ironic, as it just seems to suit owner Pat McDaniel's personality. CS's offers plate lunches, but I've never ordered one. They offer classic cheeseburgers and sandwiches, but I've never ordered one. They apparently have good desserts, like cobbler and peanut butter pie, but I've never ordered one. In fact, I ate at CS's almost weekly for two years before I even knew that they had menus. No, dear readers, the primary reason to go to CS's is for the Inez Burger. A typical order would go like this--Miss Inez: "Whatchoo gon' have, baby?" Me: "Medium Inez, cheese fries, sweet tea." This delicious concoction comes in sizes small (4 oz), medium (8 oz), and large (too goddamn big for anyone under 250 lbs), but I've found that medium seems to be the perfect size that will fill you up, but not leave you wanting a nap for the next 3 hours. The Inez is a regular hamburger topped with chili, cheese, pickles, and jalapenos; and comes alongside a pile of steak fries covered in nacho cheese. Because tea provides the opportunity for free refills--unlike soft drinks--it is the preferred option. You pay your bill on the honor system by going up to Mr. Pat behind the register and telling him what you ate. It's such a friendly place, that I don't know of anyone who hasn't been completely honest with him. I am frequently asked about my favorite burgers, and CS's always finds its way into the top 3.

Since we're in Mississippi, we've got to have some southern food, right? Well again, we're limited to weekday lunch, as the best place to go is Two Sisters Kitchen on Congress Street. Inside this old two-story house is comfort food at its finest, as Two Sisters is just a buffet brimming with southern lovin'. There are no frills to the food--just OUTSTANDING fried chicken, baked chicken, some form of chopped steak, grits, rice and gravy, a whole mess o' vegetables, plus yeast rolls and cornbread. Not a damn thing to sneer at. And for some reason, I find the critical part of me blessedly absent every time I eat here. The food speaks to the soul, and there is always enough to fill up said soul. Just save room for the banana pudding or bread pudding.

And for a place that offers an upscale dining option, but feels comfortable enough for a casual lunch or a quick pizza, you've got to hit up BRAVO! Judging on overall quality of food and technique, I firmly believe that BRAVO! is the best restaurant in the city. And I am not just saying that because I spent the first year of my career working there; I thought it was the best before I applied there--in fact, that IS why I applied to work there. BRAVO! specializes in California-inspired Italian cuisine with a good bit of local flair thrown in there. Unlike many of the ubiquitous Italian-American restaurants, you can actually pinpoint regions here. A glazed duck breast with balsamic, pine nuts, and golden raisins recall a saor from Sicily. A grilled veal chop over pesto risotto embodies the homey rusticity of Tuscany. A capellini with shrimp, asparagus, and lots of fresh herbs is Rome's version of a scampi. The whole experience is just great, as the servers are incredibly knowledgeable and the wine list offers some gems at great value.

Finally, I can't leave without giving a brief mention of the nightlife. While the hotspots come and go, Fenian's Pub still remains a favorite for people of all ages and backgrounds. Outside of the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta, there is no bar I would rather be drunk in than Fenian's. No cover charge is necessary, and they offer live entertainment Monday-Saturday. Now let me clarify--Wednesday-Saturday offers hired entertainment. Monday is karaoke night, and Tuesday is open mic night. And with Harp on draft and Irish whiskey aplenty, what's not to love?

See y'all back in Atlanta

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Eating Out: Holeman & Finch

Every so often a place comes around that breaks the mold of the traditional restaurant. While most restaurants operate under a theme of a particular style of cuisine or do the whole “new American” thing under the guise of a sexy d├ęcor, Holeman & Finch eschews all of the norms and favors a more celebratory approach to food. A celebration of meat. Holeman and Finch is the brainchild of the supremely talented Linton Hopkins. Once a stalwart of famed New Orleans haunts like Mr. B’s Bistro and the Grill Room at Windsor Court, Hopkins has made a big name for himself in Atlanta with Restaurant Eugene: one of the city’s premiere fine dining locales.

In 2008, he opened a more casual spot in the same building. Named after his grandfather, Eugene Holeman, Holeman & Finch Public House offers a wide variety of tasty tapas-style dishes that are simple, but oh-so-good. Sharing the stage with the food are is a very decent array of bottled and draft beers, an approachable wine list, and a battery of specialty cocktails designed by award-winning mixologists Greg Best and Andy Minchow (both of Restaurant Eugene and the now-defunct Emeril’s Atlanta). Since the beer, wine, and cocktails are all designed to compliment the food, I guess we can call this place a true gastropub. I’m a little hesitant to brand such a great place with that label, as the term “gastropub” has been abused and misused with such culinary terms like “fusion” and “molecular gastronomy.” But with Hopkins’ vision being overseen by chef Adam Biderman, H&F seems to be striking the right chord with Atlantans.

By definition, a public house was one of the first types of restaurants in existence, dating back several centuries. The public house was a place where people could gather for a meal or a drink after working hours, and where the social class system did not apply. Everyone was treated as an equal. Holeman & Finch has taken a similar approach, as it does not offer reservations. Seating (both in the dining area and in the bar area) is completely on a first-come, first-served basis. The stools in the bar area are very uncomfortable and packed very closely together. One quibble I have with the place is that unless you snag a seat directly at the bar, you might be stuck on the two remaining walls where the plank provided as a table apparatus is only about a foot wide. For an unabashed glutton like myself who gleefully orders multiple dishes, this is not enough room. Even the dining room tables are small. When I took my friend Kate in the fall, we were putting plates on the windowsill to accommodate the lack of space.

Aside from that, the food is usually nothing less than stellar. As this is one of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta, I’ve experienced nearly every dish on the menu, and many are total home runs. A temple of cured meats, H&F not only offers a nice variety of cured hams, salumi, and sausages, but you can also witness the magic before your very eyes, as the meats are proudly hung in a clear cabinet adjacent to their bar and wine rack. In recent months, they have begun to expand on this effort, offering more old-world style charcuterie, such as terrines, galantines, and ballotines. My favorite of these has to be their souse. For the unfamiliar, souse is also known as head cheese. Unlike most head cheese that I’ve eaten, this is not some stiff, gelatinous mass; rather, it is very loose, with delicious bits of meat scattered among bread crumbs, capers, and amazing house-made yellow mustard.

The main section of small plates could essentially be called “The Southerner’s Perfect Bar Snacks.” They offer up classics like deviled eggs 3-ways, a crunchy gentleman (croque monsieur), fried oysters, and griddled hen-of-the-woods mushrooms on polenta. Their farm egg and pancetta carbonara with guitar-cut pasta is possibly the best carbonara I’ve ever had. While incredibly rich, each flavor (cured pork, shallots, black pepper) is very distinct, and I love that the star of the show is the pasta itself. Perfect texture! Another dish that I can’t seem to stop ordering is their chicken liver pate. The pate is rich and creamy, and the Jenny Jack honey/apple cider jelly and green tomato pickles really make it pop. Served with toasted country bread from their nearby bakery, the pate (for me, at least) invokes a memory of spreading butter and jelly on toast as a child. If you’re squeamish about chicken livers, this is a good introduction to them.

Speaking of squeamish, the main reason I adore Holeman & Finch is that they showcase around 5 dishes featuring “parts.” Some have been a nice gateway to parts, such as the pork belly with grits, chow chow, and charred onions; or "the whole duck," featuring duck breast, leg confit, and cracklin'. Others (my favorites) are in the more extreme category. My first dish I ever ordered at H&F was the crispy pig's ears and tails. I hope you all realize that both of these are essentially nothing but cartilage, and take some serious finesse to turn into something edible. They arrived sliced thinly and were very crispy. The sauce was sweet--something akin to a General Tso's sauce; and it was cheekily called "General Lee sauce." Next up came the roasted bone marrow. These were veal femur bones, split lengthwise with a bone saw; then seasoned and roasted. Sometimes the best dishes are steeped in simplicity, as this one arrived with nothing more than a parsley salad and some country bread. Now, I realize some of you are cringing at the thought of eating bone marrow, but come on: I know we've all gotten way too engrossed in eating our BBQ ribs, only to turn the bone lengthwise to suck out that extra flavor. Well, this dish just amplifies the amount and flavor of the delicious marrow, and simply resembles a meat-flavored butter. Sorry, I almost drooled on my computer just then.

My visit this week was prompted by a menu change featuring even more offal. First, I ordered the veal fries, which are the testicles for you non-chefs out there. They were prepared just like schnitzel--cut into 3-inch portions, breaded and pan-fried. No sauce was required, as a little gremolata of orange zest, lemon zest, and parsley provided plenty of contrast in flavor. Feeling a little more hardcore than usual, I decided to order the veal brains grenobloise. This was my first experience with brains as a main component (I've had lamb's brains in ravioli before), so I was curious what to expect. They arrived in a shallow skillet, nicely crisped on the outside. Served with crispy capers, croutons, and a lemon brown butter, the brains were incredibly hot when they arrived. Not only did they arrive hot, they remained hot (almost like tar) down to the last bite. The texture was meaty and tender, pretty typical of other cuts of veal. They had a slight aftertaste that I still can't put my finger on, but it was slightly metallic. I wouldn't have minded that, except that the dish was very heavy on the salt; so it only accentuated the aftertaste. Finally, I ordered my favorite food in the entire world--veal sweetbreads. Sweetbreads are typically the thymus gland, but can also be the pancreas. When cooked properly, they have a taste resembling a really good Chicken McNugget--remember the old ones when they used to have dark meat in them...yeah, I miss those. Anyways, they were served with soft grits, microgreens, hog jowl bacon, and brown butter. The first time I ever had this dish, it nearly knocked me on the floor; but it's been slightly disappointing since then. I think that in their first attempt, they paired it with cooked greens, which provided a subtle sweet and acidic quality. The food is so rich here, that it really needs an acid to help if from falling flat. Even a drop or two of good vinegar would elevate this already-good food to other-worldly.

But the bottom line here is that this is probably my favorite place to eat in Atlanta. Chefs all over the city come here to enjoy the food that we all love--food that just doesn't feel like "restaurant food." Bring a friend, bring an appetite, and order multiple items. And be adventurous--you won't regret it.

Don't worry, I'll talk about the burger another time.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Nectar of the Gods: The Perfect Sweet Tea

Well...not quite. You see, perfection in food is really only an ideal. And something as dear to every one of your hearts (at least for the southerners out there) as sweet tea can be a very subjective matter. In that case, I will give you at least a few tips to get you on the right track to sweet tea nirvana.

Before I get started, I need to share with you a quote that I just found:

"It's rough. It's been rough on that food. It's different eating here than it is at the house. Ain't got no sweet tea, and ain't got no fried chicken."

—Boo Weekley, PGA golfer from Milton, Fla., interviewed by the BBC on Day 2 of the British Open, 7/20/2007

I'm sure that good sweet tea is something that most of us take for granted, but once you are deprived of it for any extended period of time, its glories cannot be extolled enough. My unofficial rule for finding restaurants that serve sweet tea is very easy: If the state doesn't include a member of the South Eastern Conference, you will likely have a hard time finding sweet tea (the two exceptions being East Texas and parts of North Carolina). States with two teams in the SEC--Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee--make the best sweet tea. Shockingly, sweet tea is not found in New Orleans. I am happy to forgive this otherwise cardinal sin, because while in NOLA, pickling your liver in any alcoholic beverage is both accepted and encouraged. Iced tea drinkers only cost restaurants money and delay the inevitable party.

By "sweet tea," we mean "sweet." According to one food technologist, some of the sweetest glasses can hit 22 Brix of sugar. That means that 22 percent of the liquid consists of dissolved sugar solids, or, to put it in more meaningful terms: close to twice what you'd find in a can of Coke. Still, there's a balance to the flavor—the tea is brewed long and strong, so it gets an astringency that can only be countered by lots of the sweet stuff.

Southerners, of course, have a taste for sugar that is demonstrably stronger than what you find up North. We like our pecan pie and pralines sweet enough to make the dentist cringe. All of the major soda companies—the Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Dr Pepper—started in the South. Bourbon, that sweetest of whiskies, is from Kentucky. A mint julep, that classic Southern cocktail, is basically a whiskey'd up sweet tea, with mint, ice, simple syrup, and booze.

Excessive use of ice is also encouraged, if anything, to combat our sweltering temperatures here in the South. In an early essay about Southern cuisine published by the American Philosophical Society called Hog Meat and Cornpone: Food Habits in the Ante-Bellum South, Sam Hilliard wrote that a container of cool—not even cold—water, pulled from a nearby spring, was a delicacy at the table. Tea was mostly a drink for the upper class, and early on, it was the rich who had access to the ice that came down on ships or in wagons, at least until icehouses were built in cities. If ice was a luxury, then putting out a pitcher of ice-cold tea must have been quite a bit of hospitality.

For those of us who want to make it at home, we'll start with a few basic guidelines. Rule number 1: Tea should only come from good-quality tea bags that have been steeped in boiling water. Please avoid instant tea at all cost. It tastes like tea-flavored Kool-Aid, and has this incredibly funky aftertaste. Sun tea is equally deplorable. It's a scam, likely designed by the same person who marketed the Pet Rock in the 1970s or the official "Rachael Ray Garbage Bowl" of today. I prefer the Luzianne brand, purely for the fact that it's a more local product than Lipton. The directions on the box work alright, but I prefer to bring two cups of water to a boil, then steep 4-5 tea bags for about 5 minutes. Once this "starter" liquid has a nice mahogany color, remove the bags and pour into a pitcher. Fill with cold water and refrigerate until you're ready to drink.

Now, some of you might be a bit puzzled why I left out the sugar. I believe that the secret to the best sweet tea is to use a simple syrup. Simply take equal parts sugar and water (I'd recommend starting with a cup of each) and bring to a simmer on the stovetop. You don't have to leave it on the heat for a long time; just enough for the sugar to completely dissolve. If you want to get fancy, you can steep some thinly sliced lemons or mint leaves in the simple syrup. I'd avoid things like raspberries and mangoes--that's just blasphemous. Your syrup will keep in the fridge for a long time, and it makes a tremendous addition to any cocktails. Just pour yourself a glass of iced tea and stir in enough simple syrup for your liking. And that's it!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Taste of the Carolina Low Country

While it would betray any journalistic integrity for me to review any of the dishes at my own restaurant, I can certainly promote whatever special happenings I feel like. So as of last Wednesday, South City Kitchen Midtown (and Vinings as well) is celebrating a Taste of the Low Country, featuring both traditional and interpretive dishes from the South Carolina low country. So pick up a Pat Conroy novel and prepare yourselves for some of Gullah's finest.


Available a la carte or $29 prix fixe (plus tax and gratuity)

The Lowcountry waters abound with life: crabs and shrimp and oysters, oh my!
This limited-time-only menu celebrates the comforting flavors and cooking styles found exclusively in the jewel of the Southeast coast. Go ahead—relax, eat, drink, enjoy.

Buttermilk Fried Oyster pickled sweet onion and corn salad, lemon-Tabasco aioli 10.75
Shrimp Purloo Carolina Gold rice, okra, smoked country ham, rosemary oil $9.75
Chilled Lump Crab & Cucumber Salad jumbo lump crab, baby arugula, shaved cucumbers, apple cider-molasses vinaigrette, green tomato fries $10.75
Bacon-Pimento Cheese Fritters spicy tomato cream $7

Country Captain curry-seared chicken thighs; roasted tomatoes, garlic and sweet onions; Carolina Gold rice with raisins and toasted almonds $16.95
Grilled Marinated Quail sweet potato fries, watercress salad, toasted peanuts, spiced cane syrup $17.95
Low Country Stew coastal shellfish, baby potatoes, smoked sausage, fresh corn, spicy tomato broth $18.95

Orange Buttermilk Pie tart citrus custard, cream cheese crust, rhubarb preserves $6.75
Carolina Plantation Rice Pudding macerated strawberries, cinnamon and vanilla whipped cream $6.75

To make reservations, call 770.435.0700 or click here

Saturday, February 7, 2009

BurgerQuest, Vol. 2: Ann's Snack Bar

Attention all burger enthusiasts:

We've all seen the local and national press lauding Ann's Snack Bar as the best burger in Atlanta, perhaps the nation. However, I'm sure that very few of us have summoned the intestinal fortitude (or sheer space for that matter) to venture into Sketchville--1615 Memorial Drive to be exact--for one of Miss Ann's burgers.

For the uninitiated, Ann's has rules, and you'd best abide by them. First and perhaps most importantly, Ann's is a lunch counter that only has eight stools. If you are not occupying one of those stools once all eight are filled, you are to wait on the porch until she summons you in. She seats the counter in waves, then cooks everyone's order at once. You are not to lean on any surfaces in the restaurant. Do not put a child on the counter. Do not speak to her unless she addresses you first. Cash only. Do not come up with special orders for her--one couple who wanted half iced tea and half lemonade were denied because Miss Ann said that it would have messed up her costing. Do not talk on your cell phone while indoors. And for your own sanity, bring a book or something, because you could be waiting for quite a while. Any violation of the above rules will transform you from an eager diner into hapless entertainment for the rest of the patrons. And finally, you will likely be hit up for money by someone wanting $2.32 to buy some crack, I mean, a kid's meal from the neighboring Checkers. Contribute at your own desire.

Now, the food at Ann's can be separated into two categories: burgers and hot dogs. Any of these can be served plain or with any combination of cheese, bacon, chili, and slaw. But the cornerstones of Ann's Snack Bar are the Hood Burger, and most famously, the Ghetto Burger. The Hood Burger is a double cheeseburger with bacon, chili, cheese, slaw, onions, mayo, mustard, and ketchup. The Ghetto Burger is also a double cheeseburger with chili, onions, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard, and ketchup. They cost $8.50 and $8.00, respectively; with combos (fries and drink) costing an additional $1.25.

When I arrived, there were only two people seated. I meekly took an empty stool, hoping I wouldn't be banished to the porch by the stoic Miss Ann. She immediately took my order--one Hood Burger combo and one Ghetto Burger--and went to work on it. In one of the greatest displays of excess I've seen in recent memory, Miss Ann procured a large pot full of loose meat and pressed four softball-sized mounds (for 2 burgers!!!) onto her tiny flattop griddle, manipulating half of its space. The meat had a pale pink hue, and was more than likely just ground beef--it certainly couldn't have been anything leaner than ground chuck. As she pressed the patties out, she liberally sprinkled them with her special seasoning "shake." And as with any proud fried chicken cook or BBQ cook, she will likely not be giving you her recipe. Asking her would probably violate one of the aforementioned rules. It seemed like something of a pumped-up seasoning salt (think cayenne and paprika, etc.) and tasted great on the fries as well. The first portion of my order to be ready and placed in front of me was the fries. They came from a frozen bag, but I really didn't care because they were just the opening act before the headlining burgers took the stage. As I was scarfing down my fries, I think I giggled a few times watching her assemble the burgers in all their ridiculous splendor. The men that had sat down next to me asked if I had planned on eating both of them in one sitting (I was sharing with others). Ann's doesn't even have a heated porch--I doubt that cardiac fibrillation would have been an option.

The two burgers themselves were simply scrumtralescent; however, in my opinion, I would give the nod of superiority to the Hood Burger. I think that the slaw provides that extra richness that carries all of the other flavors. But let's not kid ourselves here, the star of the show is the meat. There had to be a NET weight of at least 12 to 16 ounces of meat per burger. It was well seasoned, but ultimately tasted as it should--like meat! Each of the condiments were in a perfect proportion to the meat: much like the Commodores to Lionel Richie. The fact that she can make all of this magic happen on equipment and food that could easily be found in a supermarket is simply amazing.

So go to Ann's. Go soon. That is all.

DIY: Pasta Puttanesca

I was cooking dinner at home last night, and I just wanted something quick, easy, and flavorful. Instantly, spaghetti con sugo alla puttanesca entered my mind. Literally translated as spaghetti with "whore's sauce," puttanesca was created in the region of Italy from Naples to Calabria. As the legend has it, it was designed as something that the "ladies of the night" could create and eat while between "clients." While I firmly believe that some of the best foods in the world were inspired by poverty, I would dare suppose that there is another class of fabulous food designed by people just trying to get laid. Here is my recipe for pasta puttanesca.

1 lb dried spaghetti or linguine (long pasta really works best for this)
2 T olive oil (twice around the pan)
4 large garlic cloves, minced
8 anchovies
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 jar pitted kalamata olives, drained and roughly chopped
1/2 jar capers, drained
Salt and black pepper to taste
Chopped Italian parsley and torn basil
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

In a large pot and at least one gallon of heavily salted water, cook the pasta until just al dente--about 6 minutes. Drain and hold.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, saute garlic, anchovies, and crushed red pepper in olive oil until the anchovies dissolve or the garlic is a light golden brown. Add tomatoes, olives, capers, salt, and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Cook for roughly 15 minutes. Toss with the hot pasta and finish with herbs and cheese. There should be just enough sauce to coat the pasta, but not so much that the pasta is swimming in sauce. Serve with hot crusty bread.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Trip Postponed: Icy Roads

So I was planning on going up to visit the Benton's smokehouse today to get an up-close look at the curing process of Allan Benton's bacon and country hams, but the roads were just too icy. So instead, in honor of my friend Rachael (who basically instructed me to start this blog), here is some pure goodness. Audio is NSFW.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Eating Out: Muss and Turner's

I pass Muss and Turner’s daily on my way home from work, so I have probably frequented there more than any other place that I’ll review. Just a brief overview: it’s kinda difficult to put a label on M&T. They seem to do a bang-up lunch business, serving quite delicious sandwiches and salads. There is a small specialty foods counter where chefs and foodies alike can find those items that Harry’s or the local Kroger might not carry; like smoked paprika, Den Chan soy sauce, Marcona almonds, or membrillo (quince paste). Also, there is a small deli, featuring a nice selection of cheeses and cured meats. If you’re lucky enough to catch them when they have porchetta behind the counter, consider yourself blessed. During the evenings, the place turns “bistro,” offering a six-pack of both appetizers and entrees that change every three weeks. There really are no boundaries to what they’ll piece together on a menu, so you’re likely to find Latin-inspired dishes alongside dishes with Italian or new American influence—all a reflection of the culinary journey of owner/chef Todd “Muss” Mussman. Last and certainly not least, M&T offers an impressive wine list, as well as an even more impressive beer list.

While admittedly I’ve had a mixed bag of experiences at Muss and Turner’s (mostly favorable), my dinner last night reminded me of why I keep coming back to this place. The bar was full when I sat down, and Jessica the bartender handed me a menu, saying that it had just changed earlier in the week. A quick word on Jessica: she pretty much has complete autonomy over the beer program and it is one of the best in the city. Her passion for brew (and wine and spirits) is unrivaled, and she's probably forgotten more than I'll ever know about beer. Oh, and she and Eric Aarons from Ecco are my two favorite bartenders in the city.

I quickly decided on the duck confit for my first course. This was pretty much a no-brainer as duck confit, along with veal or lamb sweetbreads and pork belly make up my "holy trinity" of delicious eats. With a perfectly crisped exterior and moist, succulent meat, this was one of the better legs of duck confit that I've had. The plate setup was very simple with sliced fingerling potatoes that gloriously tasted as if they were pan-fried in the rendered duck fat (insert Homer Simpson-like moan here), chopped dates, and Spanish chorizo. A touch of acid in the form of a small amount of sherry vinegar at the bottom of the plate gave a great depth and punch to such a rich and savory dish.

After much deliberation, I selected the berkshire pork chop as my entree. Cooked a perfect medium, the pork chop was served atop cauliflower, bacon, and leeks; and was topped with a sauce gribiche. This had all of the flavors of sauce gribiche--parsley, chervil, tarragon, pickles, and capers--but lacked the mayonnaise-like consistency of the traditional sauce. Were I not flanked by complete strangers, I might have attempted to lick the plate. I may have to come back within the next three weeks to get it again. If only their short rib dish didn't look so damn delicious...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

BurgerQuest, Vol. 1: Flip Burger Boutique

Since burgers in some capacity comprise the entire menu at Flip, I will be writing about multiple burgers here: this one just happens to be my most recent.

Located on Howell Mill Rd., Flip is the latest enterprise from Atlanta chef (and Top Chef alum) Richard Blais. After several forays in casual fine dining, Blais decided to open a burger joint, but one that incorporates some of his signature techniques. A quick word on this: yes, Blais uses foams, liquid nitrogen, and cool toys from Polyscience, but from my experience eating his food (Element, Home, and Flip); it's not just gimmicky. Because he is pretty much the only chef in Atlanta--for better or worse, a meat and potatoes town--using these techniques, it often goes overlooked that he puts out some damn tasty food.

Labeled "fine dining between two buns," those looking for a run-of-the-mill greasy spoon burger should look elsewhere. While I absolutely despise the term "gourmet" as an adjective or qualifier, Blais is taking burgers to another level. Whereas quite a few Atlanta restaurants are striving to produce the best possible classic cheeseburger, Blais is using the burger to showcase both high quality ingredients and different cuisines. The burgers are small, so as to allow you to sample more than one per sitting. Oh, and don't gripe about the price of the burgers. Good ingredients cost money. More on that at a later date.

During my last visit, I observed that Flip had just made some tweaks to the menu. I decided to sample two of the new burgers. One was a standard bacon cheeseburger with Benton's bacon, American cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, house-made pickles, and Flip sauce. The sauce was creamy with a nice sweetness and acidity. It kinda reminded me of a slightly spicy coleslaw dressing, and much like the Chinamen-kidnapped rug did for The Dude's living room, tied the burger together. The whole burger had a great balance of flavors and I would order it again without hesitation. And because it's almost un-American to order a burger without something fried and starchy, I opted for the standard French fries. They come with ketchup and an incredibly interesting smoked mayonnaise. All I will say about the fries is that when executed correctly, they are the best I've ever had in my life.

My second burger was a Cuban burger. Paying homage to the Cuban sandwich, the burger featured a spicy pork patty, pork belly, Benton's ham, Swiss cheese, smoked mayo, mojo, and two types of pickles. A part of me wanted the burger to be pressed like the sandwich traditionally is, but half of the fun was mashing this thing myself before voraciously tearing into it. This burger was a celebration of all things swine. The patty had great spice which was the finishing note to each bite. The rich pork belly and melted swiss were well matched with the mustard and the sweet/sour pickles. My only quibble was the ham. While I devoutly worship at the altar of Allan Benton (more on him at a later date), country ham can be very "toothy," and I think that it wasn't quite sliced thinly enough. Aside from that, the burger was amazing. Something about this flavor combination was truly addictive: I mean, I didn't want to put this thing down. Even when going for the fries, I was still clutching to that burger. I would order this in a heartbeat, and it has instantly become one of my favorites at Flip. Maybe next time I'll have the balls to plunk down $45 for a Japanese Kobe burger with foie gras, truffles, and red wine syrup. If it's anything like Daniel Boulud's, I'm in for a treat.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Eating Out: 4th and Swift

Since budget constrictions make revisiting most of these restaurants in a short period of time a little difficult, I will be recalling most of these experiences from my notes. I'll make certain to note the time of year, as most of the really good restaurants have seasonally-inspired menus.

4th and Swift is located in the old Southern Dairies building in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward. The interior space is both sleek and rustic, with exposed ventilation that pays homage to the building's industrial roots. The lighting and design is more contemporary. Heading the kitchen is veteran chef Jay Swift, formerly of South City Kitchen Midtown. Swifty has fashioned a menu that is seasonal and celebratory of our local produce, without being dyed-in-the-wool southern. When I came in to eat in late September (roughly 2 months after opening), the dining room looked full, but I was able to wrangle a seat at the bar. The added bonus of this seating was the availability of a bar menu of snacks in addition to the regular menu. Rather than ordering an entree, I decided to order several smaller items with the hope of getting a better feel of Swifty's cuisine. Upon my former executive chef's recommendation, I started with the Truffle and Parmesan Popcorn. The popcorn was very light, with the salt coming from the parmesan (which also contributed a nice nuttiness), and these earthy notes from the truffle oil. Next came parmesan beignets with marinara. The beignets were ethereally fluffy, with small chunks of cheese that melted once inside your mouth; and the marinara had a hint of sweetness and marjoram, and really held its own against the soft beignets.

My second pair of apps to arrive were the charcuterie plate with pretzel bread (on the regular bar menu), and the pan-fried chicken livers with country ham, shallots, and a sherry cream sauce from the market menu. The charcuterie plate offered a selection of proscuitto, sopressata, finocchiona, and salami toscano. Though not made in house, the meats were all delicious and their individual characteristics shone through. Arriving with the cured meats was a sweet plum mustard, various housemade pickles, and housemade pretzel bread. The only drawback to this dish was that the salt on the pretzel bread was not coarse enough, and there was too much of it. The chicken livers, appropriately enough, recalled ours at South City Kitchen Midtown: unctuous and popping with subtle sweetness from the fortified wine.

My final pairing was the sweet corn soup with oyster "rockefeller" and the braised lamb "lasagna." The soup tasted like taking a big bite of fresh late summer sweet corn, though a little more salt would have sent this into the stratosphere. The oyster "rockfeller" consisted of a crispy fried oyster floating atop the soup, garnished with Benton's bacon, watercress, and a Pernod oil. The briny oyster and smoky bacon were a great contrast to the sweet, rich soup. The "lasagna" was something of a freeform pasta dish with layers of fresh pasta, red wine-braised lamb, and ricotta cheese. While hearty, the dish was not at all heavy, and I still found myself wanting to pore over Swift's dessert menu.

By this point, Tessa the bartender was incredulous that I wanted to continue. Her look was both one of appreciation that someone in the industry was loving the food and was increasing her check average, and one of disgust--usually the kind I give when I see the contests where the people have to scarf down 147 Krystal burgers in 12 minutes. I didn't really mind, as the tapioca pudding with vanilla-macerated strawberries was a light way to end the meal. 4th and Swift has received some favorable press, and I can't help but agree with it. Can't wait to go back when the menu changes

Monday, January 26, 2009

Starting Up

Welcome everyone! In this initial posting, I want to give all of you a little background info on me, and what I hope to accomplish with this blog. First of all, my name is Jeffrey and I am a chef in Atlanta. I've lived in Mississippi for 22 years, moved to Charlotte, NC for one year to attend culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, and have since taken up residence in the Atlanta area. I have a passion for all cuisines Southern, but I will gladly venture anywhere in the city for a good meal, regardless of native cuisine.

I want to write about all of my great restaurant experiences both within the Atlanta area, and anywhere I may travel. As any true food nerd would, I still have menus and notes from previous dining experiences, so I can recall some of those more easily for you all. I just acquired a camera, so there will be pictures for any future restaurant adventures. The point of this is to serve as a celebratory sounding board for great Atlanta restaurants. While I may have (and have had) some lackluster meals, I will try to solely focus on the good ones. There will also be several postings entitled BurgerQuest. One of my colleagues and I are on a search for the best burger in Atlanta, and I will review all of them here. Any suggestions and feedback are both welcome and encouraged. Also, I will post random food musings and the occasional cooking technique, should there be a demand for it. Hope you all enjoy the site.

Happy eatings,