Trouble With Toast

The Four Coursemen

February 19, 2010
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Supper clubs – especially those of the secret or underground variety – seem to be all the rage these days.  The AJC recently published an article on a couple of local versions, and their reasons for being range from testing out the beginning phases of restaurant ownership, to creating a more socially focused dining experience, to highlighting celebrity chefs and making money.  Heck, my future brother-in-law runs a pretty darn successful “underground restaurant” out of a teeny tiny San Francisco apartment (you can check out some of his menus here).  My first true supper club experience came last month in Athens, Georgia, when my husband and I were fortunate enough to eat with the Four Coursemen.

I first heard of “T4C” when Food and Wine magazine published a short piece about the group’s concept and featured some of their recipes.  Further Googling also showed another mention, this time in Garden and Gun magazine, and a host of random photos and blog posts about previous dinners.  The idea was certainly intriguing – a bunch of buddies who love food and cooking, inviting strangers into their home and experimenting (both socially and culinarily).  So simple, yet so compelling.  I quickly signed up for their email list, so that I would be notified of upcoming events.

It wasn’t until the end of January that our calendars were empty enough to attempt to RSVP for a dinner.  An email went out, indicating that the website would be open at a certain time on a certain date, and only at that exact moment would people be able to try to reserve seats (of which there are only 24).  Luckily for me, I was able to have my hand on the ol’ buzzer at the precise time, and I scored two coveted spots at the table.  I learned later that this particular dinner, on January 23, 2010, sold out in about 2 minutes.  Jason and I were really stoked as we drove up Highway 316 to Athens, dressed up and ready to experience something special.

We arrived at the secret location (only disclosed once the RSVP was accepted and confirmed) and milled around for a bit, chatting with other guests and sipping on pre-dinner drinks (wine pairings are included with the meal, but folks brought their own libations for before and after); there seemed to be a good mix of return customers and first-timers.  When the proverbial dinner bell rang, we all sat down at two large, communal tables and began the feast.  Every course was explained and every wine pairing discussed, but not in a pretentious or intrusive way.  Instead, the guests really got to hear and understand where the ideas for the dishes came from, and why certain wines were meaningful to the sommelier, and why particular ingredients were favorites of the cooks – that sort of thing.  Here’s what we ate and drank…

“Oyster Po’Boy on a Half Shell” – served with a demi sec sparkling wine.  These were Blue Point oysters, which I love, and my only complaint was that the cornmeal batter was a bit heavy.  The slaw underneath the oysters was really tasty and added a nice crunch to the dish.  Very refreshing, particularly when paired with the selected wine.

“Slow-cooked Salmon with Apple and Grana Padano Ravioli, Thyme, Saffron Beurre Blanc, Celery Leaves” – served with an Italian Sauvignon blanc.  This was by far my favorite dish of the night.  The salmon was stunning, both in quality and presentation (my crummy camera doesn’t begin to capture the beautiful color of the fish), and the ravioli was tender and intensely flavorful.  The dry white wine was a perfect complement to the buttery notes of this course – it was an absolutely beautiful pairing.  Even my husband, who is normally somewhat picky about fish, ate the entire thing, even the skin (which he usually avoids like the plague). 

“Butternut Squash Soup with Bacon Lardons, Vanilla Brown Butter, Brazil Nuts” – served with a California Pinot noir.  The flavors of this soup were nice, but the texture was a bit off for me (first, I prefer something a bit thicker and smoother, and second, the soup was separating a bit, as you can see from the photo).  The Brazil nuts were an unexpected but pleasant surprise, and the smoky bacon stood up nicely to the wine.  Overall, I’ve definitely had better-executed butternut squash soups, but I appreciated the thought that went into the dish.

“Roasted Tri-Tip Beef with Red Wine Poached Egg, Arugula” – served with a Ridge (California) Zinfandel.  You don’t see tri-tip on too many high-end menus, but if it was prepared like this, it would be a best-seller.  What a delicious play on steak and eggs!  I was a little worried about my husband during this course as well, since the only way he’ll usually eat eggs is scrambled with cheese (LOTS of cheese, so he can’t taste any egginess).  But, he surprised me again and devoured the dish, poached egg and all.  With the richness of the egg, I definitely appreciated both the leaner cut of meat and the bitter arugula.  Having visited the Ridge winery before, I was really looking forward to the pairing, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

“Orange and Lavender Steamed Pudding with Honey Creme Anglaise” – served with a French blanc de blanc.  Lately, I have been much less interested in dessert, usually preferring an additional savory course to something sweet.  This evening was no exception, though I definitely appreciated the effort.  The flavors were appropriately delicate, and I loved the creme anglaise, but I found the pudding itself to be way too dense.  Jason really enjoyed it, though, so perhaps I was just hoping that they’d bring out another portion of the salmon dish.  Hey, a girl can dream!

After dinner, once everyone had paid (the requested minimum donation was $60, which I thought was MORE than fair, given the amount and quality of food and wine we were served), the atmosphere in the house turned into one of great joy and celebration.  The guests were able to talk to the chefs and the sommelier – and, more importantly, to each other – about the meal and the experience.  The feeling of camaraderie was truly amazing – people were sharing stories, sharing wine (and even some homemade infused spirits), and sharing a very special experience.  If we didn’t have an hour-long drive home, we could have stayed and partied all night.  Maybe it was just because I was back in Athens, but something about the evening with the Four Coursemen brought back all the youthful exuberance of my college days.  I’m sad to report, however, that it did not bring back the alcohol tolerance of my college days.  Live and learn.

T4C is a special group of people, and I wish them much success in all of their endeavors.  If you ever get the chance to dine with them, dive in and don’t look back – I think you’ll really cherish the experience.


5 & 10: Best restaurant in Atlanta?

March 1, 2008

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.

Thoughts from the South

February 29, 2008

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.