Trouble With Toast

Farm Burger: Clash of the Concepts?

May 24, 2010

Remember when life was simple?  When restaurants were just restaurants, and they didn’t have to have a theme or a mantra or a code of ethics?  When a burger was just meat (of a regular ol’ cow) between two slices of bread, possibly with a slice of (non-artisan) cheese?

I don’t think we can ever go back to those days, now that phrases like “farm to table” and “locavore” and “burger boutique” have entered our lexicon.  And hey, I’m not necessarily arguing that we SHOULD go back to those days – I’ll save that debate for another day.  However, after three visits to Farm Burger in Decatur, I can’t help but wondering if complicating the simple things only distracts us from old school, pure, unadulterated deliciousness.

All of my visits were on Wednesdays at about 5:30 PM (gotta fuel up before my evening swim workouts).  However, I ordered different things each time and had three unique experiences.

Visit #1: Found a parking space up front, woo hoo!  The line was long, so my first impression was, “One register?!?!?!”  I ordered a #1 (smoked white cheddar, caramelized onions, and FB sauce) with fries, and I took it to go.  I ate the fries right away, but they were UNGODLY salty.  As in, if I hadn’t been so hungry, I wouldn’t have eaten them.  And even though I ate them shortly after ordering, they seemed a little limp and soggy.  The burger, on the other hand, seemed to benefit from the travel time – the cheese had melted beautifully, the patty was juicy and flavorful, and the onions and FB sauce (which seems to be spicy Thousand Island) were tasty without masking the flavor of the beef.  The bun had sopped up some moisture during the ride to the pool, but it still managed to hold everything together.  I enjoyed it enough to vow a return visit.

Visit #2: Found a parking spot in back, woo hoo!  This time, instead of waiting in line, I saddled up to the counter/bar.  There, I ordered some chicken croquettes while I decided on my to-go order.  They were really nicely fried and not greasy at all, though I found the breading a tad bit thick and heavy for my liking.  For my pre-swim meal, I opted for a #4 (pickled beets, green garlic, arugula, goat cheese, and mayo) and an order of onion rings.  I knew the rings would suffer a bit in a take-out situation, but they were surprisingly tasty (the beer batter is really nice).  However, they were also surprisingly greasy.  The burger this time was even more kickass than the first one – I could still taste the delicious grass-fed beef, but the beets added a subtle sweetness, the goat cheese added nice creaminess, and the arugula kept everything from being way too rich.  I don’t think I tasted the green garlic, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t there.  Again, the burger seemed to actually improve from being packed away during my drive, and I was able to eat it without anything falling apart (which shocked me, given the amount of toppings).

Visit #3: No parking in the lot, boo!  Circled for a while and then gave up and parked on the street.  I figured I needed a completely eat-in experience before I could formulate an opinion on the joint, so I sat at the counter and ordered a build-your-own burger (pepper jack, fresh jalapenos, lettuce, tomato, red onion) and onion rings.  I thought I would be blown away by the rings, since I had enjoyed their flavor when I took them to go, but I was pretty disappointed.  They were still crazy greasy, and the batter didn’t have the nice beery taste that I remembered from the previous order.  The burger was also a disappointment.  The flavor of the beef was still excellent, but everything – even the patty itself – fell apart as soon as I picked it up.  At first I wanted to kick myself for choosing too many toppings, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the issue.  Instead, I believe the fact that the meat was RARE was causing the structural problems.  Now, please don’t misunderstand – I love rare beef as much as the next person.  However, a restaurant that makes a big production about how all of their burgers are cooked to medium for optimum results (which I believe is the right call, for what it’s worth) should make sure that all of the burgers are, in fact, cooked to medium.  And yes, I did bring the temperature of my burger to the attention of the staff – I didn’t ask for it to be re-done, but I wanted them to know that they should do some extra QC.

So, what’s the bottom line?  I totally respect what the Farm Burger folks are trying to do in terms of sustainability and supporting all things local.  I also get that they’ve only been open about a month and are probably still ironing out the kinks.  I think they’re bringing in quality ingredients, though sometimes the execution seemed to fall a little short.  Is it better than Five Guys?  Yes.  Is it better than H&F or other “gourmet” burgers in town?  No.  I feel like Farm Burger hovers in that burger middle ground, where it’s not fast food, but it’s not high-end, either.  Perhaps some streamlining and simplifying could benefit the concept.

After all, at the end of the day, it’s just a burger.

Holeman & Finch

February 22, 2010

Over Presidents’/Valentine’s Day weekend, one of my DC gal pals was scheduled to come to Atlanta and party it up.  Alas, the shit-tastic winter weather screwed everything up, and she was unable to make the trip.  Since we had already sent our pup to “camp” for a couple of days, Jason and I decided to take advantage of the lack of responsibility and head into the city for a dinner date.  We bounced a lot of ideas around, but we settled on taking our inaugural trip to Holeman & Finch.

Why did it take us so long to visit this happenin’ Buckhead spot?  Well, for starters, we had a pretty lousy experience at Restaurant Eugene, and both restaurants are owned and run by the same chef (Linton Hopkins).  Yes, I know they are two separate concepts, and yes, I know that I could have easily hit RE on an off night, but there you have it – I was gun-shy after dropping triple-digits on a disappointing meal at Chef Hopkins’ other establishment, whether that was fair or not.  Also, our “must-try” list has been seriously languishing since we moved to Gwinnett County, for obvious reasons.  But I had finally heard enough wondrous and magical things about H&F – and its mysterious and much-discussed burger – to give it a go.  And on Valentine’s weekend, no less!

We arrived at about 8 PM on Saturday night, and we only had to wait for a few minutes to snag a table in the bar area.  The space is much smaller than I imagined, but the vibe is pretty comfortable.  Our server was attentive and helpful from the start, and he brought me a great French white by the glass that was surprisingly affordable.  The spirits list is creative yet accessible, so it should be fairly easy for folks to find something to suit them.  As for the food, the plates are smaller so you can try a lot of things without breaking the bank.  We started with the bread and salted butter, the deviled eggs three ways, and the crisp B&B pickles.  The bread “box” consisted of Parker House rolls, a slice of pumpernickel, a slice of crusty baguette-type bread, and a slice of rye.  The rolls and the pumpernickel were definitely the standouts – and the butter would have been as well, had it not been inconsistently salted (some bites were bland, and some were SUPER salty).  I loved the deviled eggs, though I can’t for the life of me remember the “three ways.”  I’m not normally a huge fan of bread and butter pickles, but these fried babies were absolutely delicious, especially when paired with the spicy mayo.  Round one, overall, was a pretty resounding success.

Round two started with a perfectly-crafted Aviation cocktail for me, and a gin cocktail called the “Cloak and Swagger” for Jason.  Delicious, both.  As for food, we decided to do a fish course, ordering the pan-seared black bass with braised Vidalia onions and the fish and chips.  The former was somewhat underwhelming – the fish was cooked perfectly and the overall flavor was nice, but I suspect that there were leeks accompanying the dish rather than Vidalias, and they were quite stringy and tough.  The latter, however, was frickin’ fantastic.  The fish was tender and flaky, and the batter was flavorful and just the right thickness.  It was fried perfectly, with just the right amount of grease (come on, you gotta have SOME).  The potato wedges were fine, but they needed some kind of sauce (besides the malt vinegar served with the fish).  So round two was good, but we wanted to move on to something really special.

After ordering more drinks, Jason and I decided that round three would be all about offal (or, what is labeled on the H&F menu as “Parts”).  We knew we wanted to try the gratin of marrow, but we were torn between the sweetbreads and one of the less commonly found choices.  In the end, we let our server decide for us, and he brought us the peppercorn crusted veal hearts, served with a parsnip puree and a blood orange marmelade.  I was quite hesitant at first, because as much as I love “parts,” some organ meat has that very metallic taste, like sucking on a penny (and clearly that doesn’t make me happy).  Thankfully, the heart was rich and tender and not organy at all, kind of like eating a really high-quality steak.  The star of the dish, though, was the parsnip puree – not only was it delicious, but it was the smoothest, lightest, most velvety puree I’ve ever encountered.  I didn’t care for the blood orange marmelade (I found it bitter and overpowering), but Jason loved it.  As for the marrow, I’m not sure I have the words to describe it.  It was so ridiculously decadent and over the top, and it was just as good on its own as it was spread on bread and topped with a parsley and onion salad.  Round three for the win!

We could have easily stopped at this point and been completely satisfied.  That would have been the mature/smart/healthy thing to do.  So, clearly, we did exactly the opposite and stayed for a burger.

The H&F burger is a mysterious, mythical creature.  From the official website:   Around 9:30 each night at Holeman & Finch Public House, the energy shifts from the constant mirth that seems to shroud this establishment to a sort of jubilant tension.  More folks start streaming into the place and by 9:50, it’s full—teeming with those eager for the stroke of ten o’clock followed by the squawk of a portable bullhorn announcing, “it’s burger time!”     Each night, 24 exquisite, double patty cheeseburgers are assembled on house-made buns and served alongside hand-cut fries and homemade ketchup, mustard and pickles—only 24.  Some nights they sell out in under a minute.  The thought behind the minimal number and the 10:00 serving is not a gimmick; it’s just the opposite.  A handcrafted burger takes a lot of time to prepare correctly.  In order to pay the proper respect to this iconic American food, Linton Hopkins and company decided that only a handful would be made and served each night.  This way, the burger is done right; and because generally, a burger on any menu tends to trump other items, it allows the rest of Holeman and Finch’s menu to take its place with due respect.

Could a burger possibly live up to such fanfare?  Such top-billing?  Such cult-like following and devotion?  We were gonna find out, gosh darnit.  Originally, we reserved two burgers, but when we flagged our server down post-marrow to cut it down to one, he winked and said knowingly, “Yeah, I was waiting for that.”  We were such amateurs, but when that bullhorn sounded, we didn’t care.  The whole place started to smell like a diner, and I mean that in the best possible way – the meat, the fries, the buns, all of their aromas began wafting into my nose and making me drool (even though I was pretty darn full at that point).  Finally, the beautiful creation was placed on our table, and all of the people who were too late to reserve burgers, or who didn’t know you HAD to reserve them, were staring at my meaty monstrosity with lustful envy.  Yeah, I said it.

Was it worth the hype?  Abso-frickin’-lutely.  The meat, while cooked medium throughout, was tender and juicy and flavorful (I’m not sure what the mix is, but it’s good stuff).  The bun was fresh and light, but it still stood up to the burger and toppings.  Speaking of toppings, the meaty, cheesy, melty goodness was perfectly salty, so the homemade bread and butter pickles were a welcome change from the usual dill.  Of course, the mustard and ketchup were homemade, and of course, they were top-notch.  The fries were really awesome – I just wish I had room to eat more of them.

While we dealt with the meat sweats and waited for the check, we started playing the “what did that meal cost?” guessing game.  Jason thought it would be $170, and I picked $150.  The actual total?  With tax, all of that food, and three rounds of drinks apiece, the final number came to $129.  Not an inexpensive meal, of course, but we felt that it was a fantastic value, considering the atmosphere, the service, and the quality and variety of food and drink.

I may never return to Restaurant Eugene.  But I can tell you with certainty that I cannot wait to go back to Holeman & Finch.

The Iberian Pig

November 13, 2009
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I travel a fair amount for work, and when I leave for more than a day or two, I do the good wifely thing and cook some meals for my husband to eat while I’m away.  While he certainly appreciates my efforts (let’s face it, otherwise, he’d be eating fast food for every meal–or just not eating), he is happy to STOP eating out of Tupperware containers when I return.  After one of my recent homecomings, we decided to go on a date and try the new Iberian Pig in Decatur.  I had heard some decent buzz about it, and I certainly enjoy Spanish food (having lived in Spain for a spell in college), but I was a little wary due to the fact that Atlanta has not really sustained an authentic, successful Spanish restaurant.

My first impression of the restaurant, other than “Holy crap, it is CROWDED in here,” was that I liked the space and the feel of the interior.  There is a lot of rich wood and some interesting furniture pieces, but nothing that obnoxiously screams Spain.  I found it tasteful and comfortable, if slightly lacking in “personalidad.”  The entrance/bar area is pretty tight, but we found a bit of space by the host stand and a very friendly bartender/manager came and took our cocktail order.  I must say, it was nice to have someone come to us, rather than having to lean over the people who were actually dining at the bar in order to get a pre-dinner libation.  We had a little bit of an issue with the hostess (she pronounced my name horribly wrong, causing us to wait an additional 10-15 minutes to be seated, after we’d already had to wait for our reservation), but we finally wound up at a cozy table toward the rear of the restaurant.

We wanted to think about strategy, so we ordered the obvious first: a plate of meat and cheese.  We opted for manchego, idiazabal, and the famous jamon iberico for which the restaurant is named.  The portions were fair for the prices, and the plate came with some bread (already “seasoned” with a tasty olive oil), sausage, and olives.  It also came with a sauce that turned out to be espresso aioli, but it truthfully reminded me of honey mustard more than anything else.  We didn’t need it, since the meat and cheese selections were delicious on their own.  In particular, the jamon iberico was buttery, tender, and rich, with an occasional, well-placed wallop of saltiness.  When combined with my lovely glass of Rioja, that ham transported me right back to Madrid.  We also ordered some tapanade (which came on the same crusty bread), but I’m not an olive lover so it wasn’t my favorite.

The menu has a LOT going on, and it was hard for us to choose where to go from there.  We decided to stick with the smaller plates (even though some of the “entrees” looked intriguing), and our next round included a pork belly special and the stuffed piquillo peppers.  I cannot exactly remember the presentation of the former, but there were some thinly-sliced apples and a reduction sauce.  The flavors were nice, especially when you got a bit of everything all in one bite, but I found the meat to be somewhat overcooked.  The peppers were very tasty (filled with delicious soft cheeses) and reminded me a great deal of dishes I ate in Spain.

Despite being “tapas,” the portions were quite large.  We found ourselves nearing full capacity, but I really wanted to see if the churros were like the ones I would devour after dancing the night away at a Madrid discoteca.  The pastries were hot and fresh, and they were correctly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.  Unfortunately, they were VERY heavily dusted with cinnamon, to the point that I couldn’t taste anything else.  Additionally, the thick chocolate that accompanied the churros, while authentic in terms of texture, had a spicy, chili-flavored element that again masked the comforting taste of the fried dough itself.  With a lighter hand, the dessert would have been perfectly successful.

I found the prices to be reasonable and the wine list to be worthwhile, though I will say that the beer and cocktail offerings didn’t really speak to us.  Service was good in the beginning, but as our waiter got busier, he grew less and less attentive and we had to flag him down fairly frequently.  The owner came by to say hello, and he seems genuinely enthusiastic about what he’s trying to do.  My final (for now) verdict?  I would like to return to the Iberian Pig, though I will temper my expectations somewhat when I do.  I think if you go with a hankering for truly authentic Spanish cuisine, you’ll be a little disappointed.  However, if you are openminded, and if the restaurant can work out some of its service and flow issues, then there are many good meals to be had.

Be Like the Bluebird

October 6, 2009

Many weekends, my hubby and I go out for breakfast.  Highland Bakery is always a favorite, as we can bring the pup and eat outdoors (and they have a very respectable eggs Benedict and some darn good home fries).  Gato Bizco is also a winner, with its yummy buttery biscuits and HUGE omelets.  During a recent weekend, however, Jason convinced me to try something new.  That’s how we found ourselves at Ria’s Bluebird on a sunny Sunday morning.

We got there around 11 AM, and there was a sizeable group waiting outside.  It was a beautiful day, though, so the 45-minute wait was much more pleasant than I anticipated.  As we were perusing the menu, I noticed that Ria’s claimed to have the “world’s best pancakes” (a claim that was further authenticated by the New York Times, apparently).  Anytime a restaurant (or any other business, for that matter) says that it has the best of something, I am immediately skeptical.  It is bold to claim to be superlative in ANY sense, so I’m always waiting for the letdown.  Hey, I can’t be an optimist ALL the time.

Once we were seated at the bar, we decided on a plan of attack.  Jason would order “today’s omelette” (which was filled with tomatoes and blue cheese) and I would order the breakfast burrito (with eggs, black beans, salsa verde, and sour cream), and then we would split a short stack of the pancakes with caramelized bananas.  Hey, don’t judge, waiting made us hungry.  Because of the blue cheese component, I wouldn’t touch Jason’s omelette, but he scarfed it down and said it was tasty.  The burrito was HUGE and quite good, with the beans being cooked nicely and the salsa having a very refreshing flavor (though it could have used a bit more kick for my liking).  Opinions were split on the accompanying biscuits–Jason really liked them, but they were definitely not my style (these were more like bread or cake than true biscuits).

Then…there were the pancakes.  As skeptical as I was, and as much as I wanted to prove Ria’s menu (and the NYT) wrong, I have to eat crow and tell the truth.  These pancakes were absolutely, positively, without fail THE BEST I HAVE EVER HAD.  Period, end of story.  The pancakes themselves were delicately sweet but not too sugary, so the addition of maple syrup and caramelized bananas was decadent without being cloying.  The part that amazed me more, though, was the texture.  The pancakes were so light and so fluffy that I asked our server in amazement, “How do they MAKE them like that???”  Utterly fabulous, and worth every sinful calorie.

Service was fine, though it was very busy so there wasn’t as much checking in as I’d usually prefer.  Prices were in line with other breakfasts in the area.  The menu is somewhat small, but with those pancakes on the list of available items, I’m not sure you need a litany of other choices.  The wait was really the only downside, so I wonder if taking some pancakes to go would be a decent option if one was really starving.  Overall, I’d say our first trip to Ria’s was a sweet success, and I will continue to dream about those pancakes until I can plan a return trip.

Grindhouse Burgers: I Can Haz Franchise? Kthxbai!

October 2, 2009
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Every time my sister and her fiance come to the East Coast, they can’t wait to get to Five Guys.  I have never understood this.  Five Guys is just okay.  I find other burger chains (In ‘N Out and Whataburger come immediately to mind) to be vastly superior.  And now, Five Guys has even more competition in the Atlanta area with the opening of Grindhouse Killer Burgers in the Sweet Auburn Market.

My husband and I decided to try Grindhouse in celebration of our doggie passing the Canine Good Citizen test (truthfully, we should have given the DOG a hamburger, since he did all of the hard work, but he seemed to be content with a bone and a belly rub).  We showed up at the market at about 1 PM, and there was a nice line in front of the counter.  We waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  It probably took about 20 minutes to actually get to the register to order, which was due in equal part to a large to-go order and a VERY slow and confused cashier.  Hopefully such service issues will be worked out quickly.

The menu is set up so that you can order a la carte or go with certain pre-fab combos called burger “styles.”  Single-patty styles range from $4.99 to $6.25, doubles range from $6.99 to $8.25, and adding sides/drinks generally runs $2.50 or $3.00.  The a la carte starting prices for singles and doubles are $3.99 and $5.99 respectively, but their relative cheapness is deceptive once you start adding toppings and extras.  So, hubby and I each went for a different “style” combo.  I opted for the traditional Grindhouse style (single), which had lettuce, sauteed onions, pickles, American cheese, and Grindhouse sauce (which I found very similar to the sauce on the In ‘N Out Animal Style).  For my side, I started with the basics–fries.  Jason went with the single Cowboy style, with bacon, fried onion strings, cheddar cheese, and BBQ sauce, and he chose the sweet potato chips for his side.

In terms of seating…well, there isn’t much.  There’s a counter that surrounds the relatively small space, and in an ideal world, people wouldn’t sit there until they had ordered their food (so that the cycle would basically work itself out).  However, there was a large and inconsiderate group of girls who were gathering for some sort of celebration, and they draped their gifts and raincoats and umbrellas all over about 6 of the maybe 16-20 seats.  Luckily, after waiting for a few more minutes, we found two seats together, and our food found us shortly after that.

The crinkle-cut fries were hot and well-seasoned, if a bit pedestrian and unexciting.  The burger, however?  AWESOME.  The bun was of the potato variety, and it was simultaneously fluffy and sturdy (being toasted helped with the latter).  The meat was very tasty and stood up flavor-wise to the cheese and the sauce.  The ingredients tasted fresh, and the whole package was satisfyingly messy without spilling all over my lap.  Jason’s burger was similarly yummy, though I felt like his stronger toppings overpowered the meat just a bit.  The sweet potato chips were good, though I felt like they needed a tad more salt.

Next time, I will skip the side item and get a double burger and a milkshake.  In fact, when the owner came over to ask us if we wanted refills, I said, “Yes, please…of my burger.”  They’re not small, but they could definitely be bigger, especially if you work up an appetite waiting in line.  All in all, though, I think Grindhouse is a wonderful addition to the Sweet Auburn area and a great, local alternative to the myriad of fast food burgers out there.

Tomo Arigato, Mister Naito

September 28, 2009
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When my sister asked me what I wanted in terms of a bachelorette party, I knew the answer right away.  “I want sushi!” I begged.  “No penis paraphernalia, no veils, no creepy bar games, no drunken idiocy–just a nice sushi dinner with my sis, followed by classy cocktails with a small group of girlfriends.”  But where to get sushi worthy of my wedding weekend?  Clearly, not just anyplace would do, so I asked the expert (this very knowledgeable gentleman), and my sister and I wound up at Tomo.

The place itself is somewhat unassuming, lodged in the middle of a Kroger shopping center off Cobb Parkway.  The interior decor, however, is subtle and soothing (I forgot very quickly that we were at a strip mall).  We sat at the sushi bar, which is always my preference, and settled in for a feast.  We ordered wine, and I must say that the pours were quite generous.  The beverage selections were also fairly varied, which is good for someone like me who doesn’t really dig sake (blasphemy, I know).

Sis and I were debating appetizers when we heard one of the chefs say that there was only one diver scallop left.  Our ears perked up and we practically yelled, “DIBS!!!”  A few moments later, we had a beautiful plate of live scallop sashimi in front of us, served in its own lovely shell and garnished with little dots of hot sauce and flecks of micro cilantro.  It was somehow light and rich at the same time, and absolute perfection in terms of presentation.  Fantastic.

For our entree, we decided to share some sashimi and a couple of sushi rolls.  The dinner sashimi platter included shrimp, scallops, tuna, salmon, and yellowtail belly, and it was all extremely fresh and well-presented.  In terms of rolls, we kept it pretty simple and opted for eel and cucumber (my absolute favorite) and yellowtail and scallion, both of which were really good.  The rice was the perfect stickiness, and the ingredients were top-notch.  When the HUGE plate of food came out initially, we thought we’d be there all night…but we were finished with all of the deliciousness far sooner than we anticipated.  Funny how that works.

I was contemplating ordering some uni for “dessert,” because let’s face it, dessert at most sushi restaurants leaves something to be desired.  I’d much rather have more raw fish than eat one more bowl of green tea ice cream, ya know?  But Chef Naito assured us that dessert at his restaurant was not to be missed (even though he also said that the uni was a great choice as well).  We trusted him and told him to pick his two best desserts for us, so we ended up with the “chocolate plant” and the “mango sunny-side up.”  The former was a rich, decadent chocolate creation that was thicker than a mousse but every bit as smooth and velvety.  It was in a little glass, covered in some crushed chocolate that was meant to look like dirt, and there was a beautiful sprig of fresh mint that appeared just like it was growing out of the dish.  It reminded me of a grown-up version of a “dirt dessert,” with gummy worms and Oreos.  Ah, childhood.  The mango dessert…well, the picture below is better than any description I could offer.


The “egg white” was actually a coconut panna cotta, the “yolk” was a mango jelly, and the “bacon” was crepe strips.  Very creative, and very tasty.

I cannot wait for another excuse to go to Tomo.  All of that food was about $100 (before tip), so it’s not everyday sushi, but it is definitely worth the wait and the price tag.  Thanks to Chef Naito and my sissy for a wonderful dinner.

Alon’s: Pricey, but Pretty

September 1, 2009
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On our way back from doggie obedience class this past Saturday, Jason and I were hungry for lunch but not interested in our usual Subway (the limited options of this diet are starting to get to me).  I decided that it would be the perfect time to try Alon’s, a bakery/restaurant I’d heard about for quite some time.  Nestled in the Morningside neighborhood (past Virginia Highlands), Alon’s sells a variety of salads, sandwiches, and prepared foods that you can eat there or take to-go.  They also offer various breads, cheese, chocolates, and gift baskets.  Think of a gourmet market (like Dean & Deluca or something), but then make it local, and you’ll have the vibe of Alon’s.

I ordered a portobello sandwich, which came on rosemary focaccia with spinach, swiss cheese, and Thai basil pesto.  Jason opted for the French Connection salad (field greens, Anjou pears, spiced pecans, and a port vinaigrette) with grilled chicken.  We also added a small container of curried Israeli couscous, which had peppers, sun dried tomatoes, and apricots.  We also grabbed a Diet Dr. Brown’s cream soda (my fave) and a Pellegrino to drink.  The staff was friendly and efficient, despite the place being packed with people (the space is a bit cramped, and the only seating is outdoors).

The first thing we noticed was that the portions were larger than anticipated.  My sandwich was chock full of shroomy goodness, and there was no shortage of spinach or cheese.  The bread was very fresh and tasty, the ingredients were high quality, and the flavors worked well together.  My only complaint was that I would have preferred a hot version–the cold spinach took on a bit of a slimy consistency that wasn’t the most appealing.  Jason’s salad was absolutely lovely, with a healthy helping of grilled chicken on top.  The pears were crisp and refreshing, and the pecans contributed a spicy crunch, but my favorite part of the dish was the delicious dressing.  The couscous salad was good, but not great–it was a bit too sweet for my liking.

Our lunch cost just over $25, which is definitely on the higher side of what I prefer to pay for sandwiches and salads.  Next time, we’ll skip the fancy drinks and bring our own bottled water, and we’ll know not to order a side dish (we were too full to really enjoy it anyway).  We’ll definitely be back, though, as Alon’s is a nice change of pace from standard lunch fare.

What to order at the Porter

June 18, 2009
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First, sorry for the lapse in posting.  Triathlons, work, dog training, wedding planning, blah blah blah.

Second, I am oh so pleased with myself for coming up with a quasi-rhyming post title.  I may or may not have giggled out loud as I typed it.

Moving on…

Jason had been bugging me to try the Porter Beer Bar (in Little Five Points) for quite some time, but I kept looking at the food menu and having a “meh” kind of reaction.  Their beer selection is HUGE, though, and last Friday evening was one of those times when beer needs definitely trumped everything else.  We got there around 7:30 PM, and I anticipated a long wait, but the only part of the place that was packed was the patio.  We grabbed two seats at the large bar and were helped immediately by the bartenders (who were knowledgeable but not particularly friendly).  My first beer was a He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A., a fantastically hoppy beer that was brewed in honor of the late Lenny Bruce.  Jason opted for a Moylan’s Hopsickle, which both of us found a little too sweet, particularly on the nose.

We were starving, so we ordered an appetizer right away–one of the specials, goat cheese fritters, with cracked black pepper and clover honey.  This really was a delicious dish, with a crisp, non-greasy coating over the soft cheese filling.  There was a wonderful flavor duel between the spice of the pepper and the sweetness of the honey.  They smelled and looked so good that our neighbors at the bar offered their assistance in cleaning the plate.  A clearly unnecessary gesture.

For our meals, I ordered the homemade black bean and quinoa burger, and Jason opted for the Reuben.  Both came with HUGE piles of herbed fries, which smelled more flavorful than they actually were.  They were fried beautifully, however, and they had a great non-greasy crunch.  My black bean burger had good flavor, but the texture was very soggy and the patty, bun, and toppings all sort of mushed together unappealingly.  The pickled red onions that came on the burger tasted great–but the sandwich needed crunch, so I feel like raw red onions would have been a better choice.  I could only finish half the burger and maybe a third of the fries before I was stuffed; I blame that partially on the obscenely large portions and partially on the Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA that I was guzzling while trying to eat.

All in all, I think we’ll go back to the Porter–after all, their beer selection is the best in the neighborhood.  If we’re hungry next time, I think we’ll just stick with appetizers and smaller noshes.

A Swift kick in the tastebuds

May 5, 2009

Last Friday was my birthday, which of course meant LOTS of celebratory eating.  There was a free burger from the Vortex, some late-night drunk food at Taco Cabana (after the worst games of bowling I’ve ever had), and a delicious meal at my parents’ house that included fried shrimp, twice-baked potatoes, and pickled cucumbers.  But before any of that, my fiance took me to a lovely dinner at 4th & Swift in the Old Fourth Ward.

The space is very similar to others in the area–in other words, it is a lofty/industrial look with lots of exposed brick and piping and high ceilings.  There’s a fair amount of patio seating, which was definitely appealing, but we stuck with our usual M.O. and sat at the bar.  The signature cocktails are really interesting, but the one I wanted involved house-infused pineapple vodka, and it wasn’t finished infusing quite yet.  So, I had a nice glass of cava instead.  Jason had a fruity cocktail that involved raspberry vodka and blackberry liqueur (he liked it, but I found it a little too sweet for an opening drink).

While we sipped, we muched on the fried pickles with red chile mayo.  What a tasty treat!  The pickles were piping hot and nicely fried, and the sauce provided a good kick.  We were also presented with a bread basket, which contained delicious cheddar biscuits and a house-made lavash.  They would have kept the bread coming all night long, but we finally had to ask them to stop–the carby goodies were excellent, but we wanted to save room.

There were two soups available, so rather than choose between them, we decided to try both.  One, from the “Market” menu, was a Vidalia onion soup with pancetta and watercress oil.  The other was a roasted garlic and cauliflower soup, with crawfish and braised celery.  The former had a great texture, but unless you got a big chunk of the pancetta, the overall flavor was way too sweet.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that Vidalias are naturally sugary, but the soup needed a little spice or kick or something in order to counteract that aggressive sweetness.  The cauliflower soup was absolutely fantastic, and held up surprisingly well to the strong flavor of the celery (which still added a nice crunch, even though it was braised and mellowed).

Next, Jason opted for the chicken livers, and I ordered “The Schnitzel” from the bar menu.  I am not really a huge fan of livers, so I anticipated that I wouldn’t really enjoy the dish–and I didn’t.  Brains and glands are great for me, but the liver/kidney/heart family just reminds me of sucking on a penny, and I have a high sensitivity level for that metallic, organy taste.  Jason liked their flavor, but he wished they would have turned out crispier (though they were served with little toasts, so there was an element of crunch to the dish).  The schnitzel, on the other hand, had lots of yummy elements.  The veal was nice and thin, and the breading was tasty, but I did feel like that part of the dish needed more salt.  The over-easy egg on top of the meat did add a bit of a saline punch, so when the bites overlapped, things tasted more balanced.  The herb spaetzle was tender and well-seasoned, and the two different kinds of apples (one was a sweeter sauce, and the other was more of a spicy relish) added some really interesting layers of flavor.

I was pretty full, but I wanted to take a look at the dessert menu, just to see what was available.  When I saw “doughnut holes,” it was all over–I had to have them.  There were three light, fluffy, steaming hot puffs of dough that arrived in front of me, each sitting atop a different sauce.  The Boston Cream was my definite favorite, causing me to abandon all class and use my finger to sop up what the pastry missed.  The chocolate and raspberry sauces were also very good.  I told the bartender that if they were open for breakfast, I’d eat a dozen of those doughnuts every morning and not think twice about it.  Instead of eating dessert, Jason indulged in a port flight (three 2 oz. pours), which he had never seen at a restaurant before and which he very much enjoyed.

Service was very friendly and knowledgeable–we were helped by a number of people, including the bartender, the manager, and a couple of food runners, and they were all wonderful.  We had a LOT of food (as you can clearly tell), and Jason had a beer in addition to the cocktail and port, and the total tab was right at $100.  I really feel like 4th & Swift is an incredible value for that price, and we’ll definitely be back to see what else Chef Swift and his staff have up their sleeves.

Pizza wars

April 30, 2009

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.

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