Here in Atlanta, we take our food pretty seriously. We line up at 4:30 PM to get a taste of Chef Scott Peacock’s world-famous fried chicken. We beam with pride when our mighty burgers (from Ann’s Snack Bar or the Vortex) are featured in the national media. We have very strong personal feelings about where to get the best “meat and three.” And now, we must choose sides in the war of the Neopolitan pizza.
The fiery battle between Fritti (in Inman Park) and Varasano’s (newly opened in Buckhead) was stoked by Mr. Varasano himself, who not only claimed to be “the creator of the internet’s #1 pizza recipe,” but also ruffled some feathers when he referred to Fritti’s pizza as “tasteless cardboard.” Now that he has opened up shop in town, my mission was clear: taste both pizzas, and report back with findings. Lather, rinse, repeat.
First, Fritti. We visited on a Friday night while one of my DC girlfriends was in town, and we showed up around 8 PM. There was a short wait for a table, so we enjoyed a couple of rounds in the bar area. There were plenty of beers and wines to choose from, which always makes me happy. We were seated outside, which allowed us to enjoy the beautiful evening and the sights and sounds of Highland Avenue. So far, so good! The menu is quite extensive, so after some debate, we ordered the arancini (risotto croquettes, these with sausage) and the bresaola (thin-sliced beef with arugula and parm) as appetizers. The arancini were perfectly fried and pratically grease-less, but they were a bit bland overall. Perhaps some more salt or some kickier fillings would be good. The bresaola was nice and balanced, and a very light and tasty start to the meal.
On to the pizza! I ordered the calamari fritti pizza, which contained (duh) fried calamari, fresh tomatoes, and mozzarella. My friend had a pizza with lamb, mint, red onion, and mozzarella, and fiance ordered the salame piccante (with spicy salami and black olives). I really loved my pie–the toppings were flavorful and high-quality, the sauce had a nice sweetness, and the crust had the right amount of chewiness and crunch. There was some char present, but it didn’t overpower all of the other flavors. The pizza did get a bit soggy towards the middle, but that upset my dining companions far more than it did me (after all, I was born in NY, so properly folding a slice is in my DNA). Service was prompt and very friendly, and I definitely liked the scene.
A week later, we headed to Varasano’s to see if it was worth the hype. This time it was just Jason and me, and we again chose to sit out on the patio. Sadly, Buckhead just isn’t as interesting to look at–but that’s not the restaurant’s fault. What IS the restaurant’s fault is that the options–in terms of both beverages and food–are a bit limited. The only appetizers available were three different kinds of salads and a cured meat platter. None of those really spoke to me, so we passed on the first course altogether. In terms of drinks, there was a small selection of wine and a fairly decent bottled beer roster, but other than a glass of prosecco (which always hits the spot), I really didn’t get excited about anything on the list.
The options for pizzas were somewhat limited as well, so I ordered a classic: the margherita pizza (with an upgrade to buffalo mozzarella). My fiance went for the salumi (cured meat, mozzarella, and spiced olives). The toppings were delicious, and the crust actually stayed crispy throughout the pie. BUT, unfortunately, the char that accompanied that crisp crust was a very overpowering flavor. I actually lost a lot of the taste of the mozzarella due to the bitter bite of the char. Even though the flavors of Jason’s cured meats were more robust and could stand up to the char, he agreed that it was a little too much for his liking as well. Service was very good–the restaurant almost seemed overstaffed, as many different people came to check in on us at various times throughout our brief meal (which is better than the alternative, don’t get me wrong). I really wanted to try the Italian doughnuts, but I was too full to justify them.
Since service and pricing were so similar, the pizza stands as the sole point of comparison (which is probably how it should be). So where did I come out in the great ‘za debate?
I’m definitely in the Fritti camp.
Certainly, Varasano’s pizza was tasty. And perhaps it truly was a perfect example of real Neopolitan pizza (I wouldn’t know). But, between the heaviness of the char and the surprisingly small number of choices, I left Varasano’s with much less of a desire to return than I did when I left Fritti.
So, chalk one up for Fritti–I’ll definitely be back for more.
Over the past few months, I have used a company called The Vegetable Husband in order to procure fresh, local, organic produce. Each week, I get a basket of whatever has been recently harvested–and then I get to figure out how to incorporate everything into our weekly meals! I feel good that I’m supporting local agriculture and business while also expanding my veggie horizons. I’ve definitely eaten more greens this winter than ever before!
Last week, the basket included some absolutely beautiful mint. If I was a rum drinker, there would have been some VERY delicious mojitos consumed! Instead, I decided to throw together a homemade mint pesto. Into the blender went the mint (two decent-sized bunches), 4 cloves of garlic, the zest and juice of one lemon, some kosher salt, and enough olive oil to bind things together. I tossed the pesto with some whole wheat spaghetti, sauteed shrimp, tomatoes, and goat cheese–and it was delicious! No recipe, no measurements, just quality ingredients and a very small amount of imagination.
As spring and summer roll on, I encourage all of you to throw caution to the wind and play around in the kitchen. Make the most of your locally available produce, and let the flavors of the season shine through!
When one of my best gal pals was in town a couple of weeks ago, we knew we had to cook a meal together. Both avid home cooks, we were thrilled at the opportunity to make magic (and a big mess) in my parents’ large kitchen. After tossing around some ideas for what to prepare, we settled on this recipe, courtesy of the lovely Giada. I handled the proteins and my partner in crime worked the veg, and the whole dish came together beautifully (we served it over saffron rice, but any sort of carb will do–you could even use crusty bread to sop up the delicious juices).
I’ve posted the recipe as-is, but we did make a few changes. For some reason, Giada called for boneless, skin-on chicken breasts, but I went for the bone-in version. So much more flavor! And you health nuts out there, PLEASE don’t get skinless chicken–you don’t have to actually eat the skin, but you really need it while cooking to allow the herb mixture to settle in and to impart more fabulous flavor. Of course, where any recipe calls for chicken broth, I use homemade stock–which I also used to cook the rice, giving the whole meal a deeper, richer taste. Finally, while I adore morels, my fiance doesn’t like mushrooms, AND I wasn’t about to spent $16 for a pint of the damn things (not yet, anyway…I suspect my imminent return to the farmers’ market will yield some shroomy goodness). So, I just sauteed some baby bellas in a separate skillet and then added them to the dish at the end.
This dish was incredibly satisfying while still seeming light and springy. I highly recommend it–enjoy!
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
In a small bowl combine the thyme, parsley, garlic, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Place the chicken pieces on a work surface. Gently loosen the skin of the chicken and push the herb mixture under the skin. Season the chicken all over with salt and pepper.
Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place the chicken in the pan, skin side down, when the oil is hot. Cook until the skin is crispy and golden, about 5 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook the same way on the other side. Turn the heat off the pan and reserve. Transfer the chicken to a baking dish, skin side up again, and finish cooking in the oven, about 15-20 minutes.
Meanwhile return the same pan to medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter. When the butter has melted add the cipollini onions and carrots. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until tender and golden in places, about 7 minutes. Add the chicken broth and scrape any brown bits off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the snap peas and mushrooms. Simmer over low heat until the vegetables are tender and the liquid has reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary.
Remove the chicken from the oven. Spoon the vegetables onto a serving platter along with the chicken. Spoon the sauce over the chicken. Serve immediately.
Apologies for the recent lack of posting–I had company in town, and then I was on the road for work for a number of days.
I’ll be back with shiny new material soon, including both recipes AND restaurant reviews. I may even have an exciting interview on the horizon!
Have a great weekend, folks–enjoy that springy weather!
Don’t you hate it when an otherwise promising evening ends up in disappointment? Maybe it’s because your blind date, while smokin’ hot, turned out to be mind-numbingly boring. Maybe it’s because the hip new club you got passes to wound up being nothing more than a skeezy cougar hunting ground. Maybe it’s because you took your new girlfriend on the best date ever, and she STILL didn’t put out. In my case, it was because Repast (a restaurant in the Old Fourth Ward) had promise when we entered and delivered disappointment as we left.
We arrived a little early for a cocktail and made our way to the small bar. Drinks before dinner were fantastic–I had something with sparkling wine and yuzu sorbet in it, and the flavors changed with every sip as the sorbet melted. Genius. Jason had something very gingery that I didn’t care for, but he seemed to enjoy it. As we were led to our table, we commented about how much we enjoyed the space.
For a starter, I had the warm spinach and wild mushroom salad. It really was tasty, with the flavors of bacon, apples, mustard, and mushrooms all playing quite nicely together. The salad boasted a poached egg, which is part of why I ordered it, but it actually came with a fried egg (over easy). It still added a nice richness to the salad, but it also added extra oiliness. I would have loved to sop up the egg yolk with some good bread, but that is something that is NOT found at Repast. The “Wonderbread” was soft and fresh, but it didn’t have any interesting texture or flavor, and it wouldn’t have stood up to any sopping. Jason had octopus carpaccio, which I tasted and felt rather “meh” about–but, then again, I’m not a huge fan of octopus to begin with (I find it to be very tough).
I went with the tuna burger for my entree, cooked rare. It was actually delicious, and clearly made with quality tuna. The bun was a little greasy, so I ended up ditching it halfway through. The onion rings and fries were yummy (and NOT greasy), but the sauces that accompanied them were mediocre at best. The “aioli” tasted like plain mayo, the ketchup was bland, and the wasabi mayo was WAY too spicy for me. Jason ordered a chorizo-crusted pork chop, which was, to the restaurant’s credit, cooked very nicely so it was moist and tender. The sides that came with it (one was some sort of squash gratin) were utterly forgettable.
We tried three desserts (not full ones, as a nice feature of the menu is that you can do a dessert tasting): the banana pecan bread pudding, which I really enjoyed, the lemon chiffon, which had good flavor but bad texture, and the dark chocolate terrine, which was good. Service was a little unpredictable; sometimes three separate people would ask us if we needed anything, and sometimes we were left alone for long stretches. Beer and wine lists didn’t really jazz me (not by the glass, anyway), and the prices were a bit steep. Actually, I found the prices to be a bit steep for everything, including the food. Had we not had a gift certificate, the meal would have been too expensive for just a random Friday date night.
If we had left with only the above information, I probably would have still had a decent impression of Repast. However, as we were waiting to settle up, we noticed some troubling disparate treatment. Even though we had not received an amuse bouche (which we found odd, given that we had read and heard about them from other diners), the table next to us was being served one. Additionally, the chef/owner came out and visited with a number of guests (including the ones seated next to us), but he didn’t check in with everyone in the dining room (including us). And it’s a small dining room. My fiance was so upset that he tried to talk to the owner, but he disappeared. He sent an email the next day, outlining why he felt like he had been snubbed, but never received any response of any kind. I can assure you that we didn’t want any freebies–just an acknowledgement of our feedback and some kind of statement confirming our value as customers. But we got nada.
I still feel pretty whiny writing this up, but the more I thought about things, the more the situation bothered me. I don’t expect perfection, but in this day and age, and in this economic climate, diners who are paying $20-$30 for an entree should expect to feel welcome. A favorite dining critic of mine always says that less-than-stellar food can be overlooked if the service/experience is excellent, but no amount of culinary wowing can overcome poor interpersonal interactions. After dining at Repast, I really think he’s right.
I don’t know how I missed this yesterday, but Bill Addison (Covered Dish) and Cliff Bostock (Omnivore Atlanta) are reporting that John Kessler has been reassigned. He’s still with the AJC, but the paper has taken him off the food beat–now, instead, he will be writing personality profiles for the Sunday edition. It is unclear whether John will keep blogging, either via his current “Food and More” site or a yet-to-be-determined non-AJC-affiliated venture.
I understand that times are tough for newspapers across the country, but this decision really bums me out. Not to disparage anyone else who writes about food for the AJC, but John was my primary reason for reading. As you can tell from my recent interview with Mr. Kessler himself, his intelligence and sense of humor brought a really unique voice to the Atlanta food and dining scene. His perspective will definitely be missed.
Yes, I know he didn’t DIE, and I know I can keep reading his non-food-related pieces, but I’m sad to see John’s focus shifted from the culinary to…well, I guess we’ll just have to see. In any case, I wish him the best of luck. John, if you need a place to blog, you can always guest post here!
UPDATE (4/17/09): Looks like John will still be writing his “Restaurant Stories” column for the AJC, in addition to his new feature. Yay!
“Mediterranean Scallops and Artichoke-Mushroom Pasta”–it sounded like the perfect recipe. Found on a Publix Apron’s Simple Meal card (and here), I decided to round out my taste test with this seafood dish, since the other two focused on pork. In terms of modifications, I think the recipe as written intended for the scallops and the pasta to be separate components of the meal, but I ended up just throwing everything together in combination. I also sauteed the mushrooms in a separate pan and adding them to my dish at the end, since my fiance is anti-fungus.
The finished product was just fine, and it’s certainly healthy (due to all the yummy veggies), but it just seemed kind of meh compared to the previous two dishes. The scallops were tasty, but they were a bit smaller than I’d prefer, and I found them to be a tad tough. The veggies were fresh and the flavors were nice, but I feel like maybe there was just too much going on. Ah, well–two out of three ain’t bad.
Preheat broiler. Remove ends from squash and zucchini; cut both into ¼-inch-thick slices (1 ½ cups each). Cut tomatoes into ¼-inch-thick slices; place all in medium bowl. Add wine, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, Italian seasoning, ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper; toss until blended. Arrange vegetables in an even layer in metal roasting pan; pour remaining oil mixture over vegetables. Combine in second medium bowl, scallops, and remaining each 1 tablespoon olive oil, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper until evenly coated. Arrange scallops on top of vegetables. Broil 8-10 minutes or just until scallops are opaque and firm, and beginning to brown on top. Remove from oven; spread scampi sauce over top of scallops. Toss to coat vegetables and scallops; serve immediately.
Preheat large sauté pan on medium-high 2-3 minutes. Cut pepper in half; remove seeds and membranes. Cut pepper into thin strips. Place oil in pan; swirl to coat. Add peppers and mushrooms; cook 2-3 minutes, stirring often, or until vegetables begin to soften. Stir in artichokes, water, wine, and contents of seasoning packet (from pasta mix). Bring to a boil. Stir in pasta; cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 8-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until pasta is tender. Sprinkle with cheese and serve.
The second test of the Publix Apron’s Simple Meal program was a recipe for “Pecan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin, Georgia Chutney, Green Beans and Potatoes,” which can be found here. I fiddled around with this one a little more than the previous; for example, I just browned some red potato wedges in butter instead of following the suggestions on the card. I also sauteed some collard greens and rainbow chard instead of making green beans (the beans in the stores have looked flat out pitiful lately, and I have been getting beautiful, local, organic greens from my produce delivery lady). Finally, the chutney was supposed to involve a can of this delicious Vidalia onion and pepper relish (found in Publix’s produce section), mixed and reduced with peaches and brown sugar. I thought that would be too sweet, so I just heated the relish down a bit and left it at that.
The results? Really yummy! All of the elements of the pork worked very well together–the toasted pecans and the fried onions added great crunch, and the relish kicked in a nice oniony sweetness. I undercooked the pork just a touch (which was intentional, as I like it less done than most), which meant that next-day leftovers were still tender. Ditching the green beans for the collards/chard was definitely the right call–their heartier flavor held up much better to the pork. I would definitely make this meal again, as it was easy and quite tasty. So far, I feel like the Publix Apron’s Simple Meals offer fantastic ideas for main proteins, but the sides seem to be somewhat lackluster.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Coat baking sheet with cooking spray. Place pecans, onions, and sugar in food processor; process until coarsely chopped. Place mixture on plate. Season pork with salt and pepper; roll in pecan mixture until well coated and place 1 inch apart on baking sheet. Bake 25–30 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 160°F (for medium). Use a meat thermometer to accurately ensure doneness. Let pork stand 5 minutes; then cut into 1-inch-thick slices. Top with relish/chutney and serve.
Many devoted food fans–myself included–often find themselves lacking the time and motivation to really cook the way they want. Certainly, on the weekends it is possible (and fun!) to play around with elaborate recipes and time-consuming cooking methods. But what if you have to work late, then run to the grocery store, then pick up the dog from daycare, then throw dinner together, then get to bed at a reasonable hour so you can get to the gym before the sun comes up? That is a totally normal day for me. And it is VERY tempting to just order a pizza or grab a burrito, even though it is more expensive and less nutritious than cooking at home.
Recently, Publix (a grocery store chain here in the south, for those not in the knows) unveiled a program called Apron’s Simple Meals. Each week, they focus on a recipe that is “quick to prepare and wonderful to eat” (according to the website). There are in-store cooking demonstrations, complete with tastes of the finished dishes. The recipe cards are easy to read, complete with ingredient lists (divided by grocery store sections) and even necessary tools/utensils. And the featured recipe’s ingredients are right there, all in one place, toward the front of the store.
After listening to Publix’s aggressive radio campaign, I decided to see if it really delivered tasty meals in less time. I went to my local Publix and picked out three recipe cards. I shopped for ingredients, which was definitely easier using their organization system (note to self: try this when creating your own grocery lists). Then it was back home to test out recipe number one: “Blackberry Pork Chops, Horseradish Mashed Potatoes, and Green Beans.” The full recipe as it appears on the card can be found here.
In terms of the green beans, I totally deviated from the recipe and just popped a bag of Steamfresh green beans in the microwave. Shut up, they’re good. Otherwise, I followed the recipe to the letter. And?
Shockingly, the pork chops were really good. The meat ended up a perfect medium (there was very little pink, but they were still moist). The components of the blackberry sauce were really fragrant and interesting and took away from the sweetness of the fruit.
I had a lot of guilt about these potatoes, given that they were packaged. But, the horseradish gave them a good kick, and the sour cream and butter smoothed them out and added some richness. If you had more time on your hands, you could certainly whip up a batch of homemade mashed potatoes using the same flavors.
Overall, my fiance and I enjoyed the meal. The recipe card said that it would be ready in 30 minutes, and it was. Could I have come up with a similar meal on my own? Sure. Does a relatively experienced home cook need such uber-detailed instructions? Nope. But I feel like the Publix Apron’s Simple Meal card delivered exactly what it promised–the inspiration, ingredients, and instructions for a fast and easy dinner. I definitely enjoyed spending some extra time with my man and my critters as a result of being finished with cooking so quickly.
Here’s the pork chop recipe:
Preheat grill. Sprinkle both sides of pork with steak seasoning. Coat both sides of pork with cooking spray; place on grill. Close lid (or cover loosely with foil). Grill 4–5 minutes on each side or until internal temperature reaches 160°F (for medium). Use a meat thermometer to accurately ensure doneness.
Combine remaining ingredients (except blackberries) in small saucepan. Bring just to boiling on medium, stirring occasionally, to liquefy preserves. Cover and remove from heat.
Ladle sauce over pork chops and garnish with blackberries. Serve.
Note: This is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series of interviews with various food professionals. I really want to cover the entire spectrum of the industry, so if you have any suggestions for folks to talk to, I’m all ears!
I met John Kessler when he interviewed me for his recent piece on local food bloggers in the AJC. He was so much fun to talk to that I asked him if I could turn the tables. To give you some basic background, John has been writing for the AJC since 1997, spending the first seven years as the paper’s dining critic. Now he writes features for the Food & Drink section and maintains a blog called “Food and More.” He is a culinary school graduate (L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland), but he also holds a degree from Williams College in the History of Ideas. He’s lived and worked in DC, Denver, and Japan, but now he calls Decatur home, where he lives with his wife and three daughters.
When I called to chat with John, the first thing I had to ask was…seriously, what the hell is a “History of Ideas” major??? I mean, it sounded to me like something an SEC football star would “study.” Well, turns out it’s a mix of religion and philosophy, focusing on the way ideas are transmitted from one age to the next. So how did John make the jump from the philosophical to the culinary? “As much as people were clamoring for historians of ideas,” he laughed. “I decided to be a little more esoteric.” After stints teaching English and working in marketing, John realized that it was his elaborate home cooking projects that were the most challenging and fun. He remembers reading an article by Phyllis Richman (the former Washington Post dining critic) about jobs in the food industry, and the trouble he had convincing his father (who was likely still paying for that History of Ideas degree) that he wasn’t going to be a line cook for the rest of his life.
John was 25 years old when he entered culinary school, and he says that a lot of growing up took place there. He wrote on his application that he was interested in a career in food writing, but his first job (his externship, really) was at a restaurant called Cities in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC. The chef was Yannick Cam, most recently of Le Paradou, and the menu was “very international” in nature. After graduating and meeting his wife, John headed to Denver to work at the more “modern-American” Rattlesnake Club. When asked which of his gigs prepared him the most for his current work with the AJC, he said, “Everything I’ve done!”
We chatted a bit about why it seems that people like reading about dining out more than they do about cooking in. “People like living vicariously,” John reasoned. He has noticed that his previous audience was larger and more diverse, but that now it is smaller “but more committed.” As a way to reach out to that audience and continue the dialogue, one of John’s recent projects was starting a blog. “I love it, I think it’s fun,” he said. “I like that it’s not edited and that I can get away with a bit more.” He also enjoys breaking news, and he is grateful for the audience that seems to have followed him from his earlier days in Atlanta. So far, he said, the discussion has been civil.
Of course, any conversation about blogging leads to the inevitable question of whether the phenomenon has been good or bad for the food industry. “Part of me feels like I’m turning into a grumpy old man,” John said. He hates the way everyone wants to get to a place first, and the hypocrisy that seems to be ever-present in online restaurant reviews. Still, he said, “I like the idea of the discussion being out there–everyone has their own insight and skill set they can bring to it.” So what does John notice when he dines out now? “I like to watch things,” he said. “How well things get communicated. How the staff works together. How they deal with problems.” Perhaps this observant nature is what made him such a memorable and beloved restaurant critic.
His critics at home are a totally different story. “They like it when I grill stuff,” John chuckled, when I asked him about his kitchen specialties. He also claims to make great salads, Japanese rice balls, and “mushy vegetables” (I think he meant Middle Eastern-style stewed veggies and the like). He says his oldest daughter has picked up the ability to just “throw things together,” and that his youngest has had a few scary projects (including cooking cat food–don’t ask). What about the middle one? “She likes to be fed,” said John. Amen, sister.
When asked about what items he always has in his pantry, John replied quickly: olive oil, lots of different vinegars, sriracha sauce, Worcestershire sauce, MSG, short-grain brown rice, and Greek yogurt. Some of these basic ingredients are building blocks for the dishes he thinks every home cook should master, such as eggs (“the way YOU like them”) and soup. He also thinks folks should know how to dress a salad by touch and how to pan-fry something.
As we wrapped up our call, I tried to get John to fess up to some horrible food-related sin, like mainlining Big Macs or eating Oreos ten at a time. What are his true guilty pleasures? “Cheap hard fruit candy,” he admitted. “I can’t walk past a can of Dum-Dums without snagging a few.” He says he’s not a big snacker but that he loves Fritos and Bugles. When no one’s looking, he can’t help dipping his finger into the peanut butter jar. And he eats Dibs, the bite-sized ice cream treats from the freezer case at the local megamart. “I wish my wife didn’t buy them!” he said.
We could have talked for another hour about how to perfectly roast a chicken or which Atlanta restaurant is the most overrated, but someone like John is pulled in many different directions each day. It was a pleasure to chat with him, just as it is to read his columns and keep up with his blog. Atlanta is lucky to have someone like John Kessler covering its ever-changing food scene–keep up the great work!