During my jaunt to Athens, Georgia, last week, I decided to treat myself to one nice solo dinner. Being a college town, the Classic City isn’t exactly chock-full of haute cuisine options. However, 5 & 10–a restaurant that I had visited once before, right after it opened, about eight years ago–garnered the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Restaurant of the Year” title in 2007. What better reason to give it another taste?
I decided to take my chances at the bar instead of securing a reservation, so I got there early (about 5:30) to make sure I could snag a stool. There were about 4-5 older folks at the bar already, and they looked to be regulars, so I immediately thought I’d be neglected by the bartender (bad to assume, I know, but past precedent weighs heavily, especially when you dine alone as much as I do). Not so–he was very attentive and knowledgeable. I asked for a glass of something white and dry, and he came up with a chenin blanc that was on the wine specials list for the day. Hit the spot.
I had a hard time deciding how to proceed food-wise. Nearly all of the entrees looked delicious, but I wanted to try as many varied things as possible. So, in the end, I had three appetizers and a dessert. First, I chose the cauliflower soup with butter poached Maine lobster and chive cream ($9). It was creamier and a little thinner than the version I recently had at Proof (which I loved), but the flavor was really good. The lobster didn’t really add or subtract from the dish, which causes me to conclude that chefs should just leave their cauliflower soups alone and stop adding seafood (Proof’s version had cornmeal-crusted fried oysters, and I thought they were superfluous as well).
Next, I ordered a half dozen oysters on the half-shell. Now, you may not think that’s the best dish by which to test a chef’s mettle, but as an oyster-lover, I pay great attention to the care that is taken in selecting and presenting raw bar items. In this case, the oysters (which were Kumamotos–small, but briny and somewhat sweet, and absolutely fantastic) were served with a homemade cocktail sauce and a mignonette, and it was a wonderful middle course (especially when paired with an insanely reasonably priced $6 glass of cava).
Earlier in the evening, the bartender had raved about the ahi tuna tartare with cornichons, shallots, lemon, parsley, ponzu, citrus salad, and haricots vert ($14). It sounded fabulous, so I decided to end my appetizer tour with the dish, and the presentation was certainly gorgeous (and the quality of the fish was top-notch). However, it seemed to me that the chef was rather heavy-handed with the ponzu, as the sauce often overpowered the flavor of the tuna (especially near the bottom of the mold, where the fish was sitting in a puddle of the liquid). I’ve had a lot of tuna tartare, and this one was certainly good, but I didn’t think it deserved all of the praise it received.
For dessert, I noticed a bourbon pecan pie on the specials menu, and I had to go for it–after all, I make a mean bourbon pecan pie myself, and I wanted to see how 5 & 10 would stack up against my baking prowess (intense sarcasm intended). Shockingly enough, I really and truly thought that my pecan pie was the superior dessert–this version was rather uninspiring. The Coca-Cola ice cream that came with the pie, however, was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Amazing. And I don’t even like ice cream all that much.
Three appetizers, a dessert, two glasses of wine, a beer (a Victory Prima Pils that was on special), tax, and tip added up to $82. The service was very good, and the atmosphere was energetic and casual (except for the primped up sorority girls who got busted for having fake IDs–ah, college). But I walked out of the restaurant with a furrowed brow–was that REALLY the best restaurant in Atlanta?
I applaud the AJC’s food editors for realizing that there exist great culinary possibilities outside of the perimeter (or OTP, as we ATLiens would say–haha). However, it is hard for me to believe that there isn’t a single restaurant in the metro Atlanta area that can beat 5 & 10 in terms of a total dining experience. To say that the best restaurant in Atlanta resides in Athens (which is a good hour and a half outside the city) is, in my mind, to severely denigrate the many great dining options that one can find right downtown.
Last week, I voyaged to Georgia for some job-hunting and some reliving of my college years (note to self: you are NOT 20 anymore). Since I’ll be moving to Atlanta in about three months, I was excited to start living and learning the culinary scene in and around the city. Here’s the report:
In Atlanta proper, I didn’t get a chance to do TOO much exploring (since I was staying with my parents in Lawrenceville). However, I did confirm that the best burger in the city is still at The Vortex. When I was a teenager, going to the Vortex was a rare treat usually reserved for pre-concert fun (I distinctly meeting a bunch of fellow Sarah McLachlan fans at the midtown location prior to Lilith Fair one year–don’t you dare judge me). The atmosphere has sort of a kitschy-with-an-attitude kind of vibe, and the food is awesome. I had a bison burger with swiss and mushrooms, cooked medium rare, and I absolutely inhaled it. I was tempted to go for the tots, but I remembered that the Vortex was famous for its creamy, bacony potato salad–and I was glad I opted for that particular side item. So much deliciousness on one plate! The kicker, though, was that I was able to order a Sweetwater 420 (quite possibly my favorite beer ever) on draft. Heaven. Some tourists saw my deliriously happy post-feasting face and said, “You look like you know what’s good here!” Tee.
In Lawrenceville, it’s easy for a food fiend to be discouraged by the sea of chain restaurants on nearly every corner. There are some real gems, though, if you have the patience to look for them. One of my favorites is the Kirin House, a little hole-in-the-wall Japanese place near my parents’ house. They have some hibachi tables, but I have no idea if their cooked food is any good–I always get sidetracked by the sushi bar. It’s teeny tiny, with only about 8 seats and one sushi chef, but the fish is incredibly fresh and the “special” rolls are all really tasty, creative, and beautifully presented. It’s always a highlight of a trip home (along with Chick-fil-a, which is a sacred and yummy Southern tradition)!
In Athens, I’m never sure whether my affinity for certain places has to do more with truly good food or just college nostalgia. Either way, I ate pretty well while I was visiting my alma mater. At the Five Star Day Cafe, I had a great breakfast of a “scramble” (eggs with cheese, veggies, and ham), a potato cake with sour cream and corn relish, a chocolate chip muffin, and coffee–all for less than $10. I enjoyed another great breakfast (and a killer chocolate milkshake) at the Grill, which is a campus landmark. The only disappointment was Uncle Otto’s, which used to be called Achim’s, where I got a chicken “k-bob” and fries. It was passable, but it was nowhere near as good as I remembered it–the chicken was dry, the sandwich was oversauced, and the fries didn’t taste delicious and fresh-cut like they once did. Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.
I also visited Athens’ culinary pride and joy, 5 & 10. However, due to the buzz surrounding that particular establishment, it probably deserves its own post. Look for that sometime within the next couple of days.
All in all, though I’m excited about moving back home, I’m torn in my feelings about the food. I don’t doubt that there are great places to eat in Atlanta, but after living in DC for three years, I have to admit that I’m pretty spoiled. Hopefully, with enough persistence, I’ll be able to find the folks who are devoted to making the Atlanta culinary scene as diverse and dynamic as the city itself.