Trouble With Toast

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.


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.

Everyone deserves a second chance

February 9, 2009

This past weekend, for the first time in a LONG time, my fiance and I were both a) in town, and b) not sick.  We already had reservations for Saturday night, but we wanted to add a dinner date on Friday night, too.  When I started brainstorming about places we could try, my mind kept going back to Craft.  I wanted to revisit the restaurant, but I didn’t want the formality and expense of the upstairs dining room.  Instead, I wanted to put on my nicest pair of jeans, walk into the downstairs area, and see what the experience would be like at the bar.  So, that’s exactly what we did.

We got there at about 7:30 PM, and most of the Craftbar tables were empty.  The bar was full, though, presumably of people waiting for their upstairs reservations.  We hung out behind the stools until seats became available, and then we bellied up.  Casey was the main bartender who was taking care of us, but his partner in crime (whose name I cannot recall, sadly) was also available to help us out.  They were both amazing–incredibly knowledgable and passionate about the food and drink offerings, honest about what they loved and what they didn’t, and friendly without being phony or overbearing.  Really, they were a great team.

There was a lot to choose from on the starters menu, so we chose one ourselves (lamb sausages with saffron pickled cauliflower and a yogurt sauce) and went with one of Casey’s recommendations (grilled quail with turnips, apples, and smoked bacon).  The former was very tasty, with a great salty kick and a nice cool finish thanks to the yogurt.  I believe my fiance actually said, “I would have this sausage’s baby.”  The saffron pickled cauliflower made me so very happy–I think I’m going to have to experiment in the kitchen to see if I can recreate that part of the dish.  The quail was a little less punchy in terms of flavor (it had a sweeter tinge), but it was cooked absolutely perfectly and had a lot of meat for a little bitty birdie.

For entrees, I opted for the veal ricotta meatballs over papardelle and tomato sauce.  This was comfort food in a bowl, people.  The simple, rustic preparation was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten over the past six months.  The pasta was flavorful and impeccably cooked, the sauce was tangy (and not over portioned), and the meatballs were substantial without being heavy.  I mean, I wish I could convey to you how this dish smelled–it was so fantastically homey and happy that it attracted the attention of the diners to our right AND left.  Bravo.  Jason ordered the pulled pork, country ham, and swiss cheese panini (with house made mustard and pickles).  Casey approached us after we ordered and said the panini had been taken off the menu for the night (I guess they were saving stock, as it is one of their popular lunch items), but that chef was making it for us anyway.  Good thing, because it was quite tasty–stuffed with piggy goodness, it reminded us of a Cuban, especially since the bread was pressed nicely and had a great crunch.

We were almost too stuffed for dessert, but it was a highlight of our meal upstairs, so we wanted to try one more thing from the sweets menu.  We decided to order the s’mores, but Casey saw Jason’s disappointment at not being able to order the carrot cake (because I hate it) and decided to bring him a slice on the house (and in the interest of full disclosure, he had already bought him a round earlier in the evening).  The s’mores were messy and yummy, just the way s’mores should be.  My only complaint was that the marshmallows were a little heavy on the char, but that was a minor quibble.  Jason loved the carrot cake, and I even tried it because it didn’t have raisins in it (one of my main objections to the dessert).  I still didn’t like the flavor (too spicy for me), but the texture of the cake was lovely and the cream cheese icing was great.  The toasted pecan ice cream that accomanied the dish was amazing–ice creams are definitely one of the strong suits of Craft’s pastry chef.

For all of that food and drink (three cocktails and two beers in all), the pre-tip total was just over $90.  So, while our Craftbar experience wasn’t cheap, I walked out feeling like our money was well spent and that the experience, both food- and service-wise, had lived up to its pricetag.  We may still be hesitant to return to Craft (unless someone else is paying), but Craftbar definitely made up for its sibling’s missteps and created two loyal fans in the process.

Aria Makes Music

January 8, 2009

For Jason’s second birthday dinner, my parents took us out to Aria, a relative old-timer in the Atlanta dining scene (having opened in Spring of 2000, it has lasted longer than many a Buckhead hotspot).  Mom and dad visited for the first time a few months ago, when a California vinyard they buy from hosted a wine tasting and dinner.  They were so impressed with the experience that they brought us along to try out the regular menu.

I have to admit, my first (visual) impression of the restaurant wasn’t glowingly positive.  There was a beaded curtain separating the small entryway from the bar, and the lounge-y area was rife with velour seating and candlelight.  Then, the main dining room brightened significantly with white-trimmed walls, bejeweled animal sculptures (one reminded me of the infamous mirrored lynx from my uncle’s Nascar wedding, if that tells you anything about its tackiness), and a light fixture that was described by my mother as phallic but that reminded me more of a cross between a mosquito and a giant squid.  The whole ambiance just screamed 1990s to me–plus, I appeared to be the youngest diner in the place, by a good 20-30 years.

Our server greeted us warmly, and we were off to the races with appetizers.  Since we were ravenous, and since all of the starters looked so good, we ordered 5 of them.  I opted for a creamless celery root soup, with black truffles and parmigiano reggiano.  Yum!  The texture and flavor were both great, and it was a light yet comforting way to start the meal.  Mom went with warm lobster cocktail, butter braised with broccoli and truffled potatoes.  The lobster was rich and flavorful, but I wasn’t sure I loved the presentation as a whole (the potatoes seemed out of place in the dish, though they were tasty on their own).  Jason’s beet salad with goat cheese and tangerines was lovely and well-balanced.  Dad’s tempura crisped prawns with spicy Asian slaw were perfectly cooked and had a nice kick to them.  The whole table split an order of seared foie gras with Fuji apples and shallots, and oh. My. GAWD.  So decadent.  So delicious.

For entrees, I went with the pan roasted striped bass with leeks, sugar snaps, and fingerlings.  The server indicated that the dish was very light, and he was spot on–almost to the point of blandness.  Still, the fish was cooked perfectly, and there was just enough tarragon to keep things interesting.  Mom’s seared sea scallops with lobster risotto and ginger were also cooked perfectly, and the scallops on their own were lovely, but there was something about the risotto that made it overpowering and a little unpleasant.  I thought it was too much butter, but dad thought maybe it was the ginger.  Speaking of dad, his zinfandel braised short ribs with celery whipped potatoes and parsnips was falling off the bone; however, in terms of flavor, it wasn’t my favorite version of the dish.  Jason got the best thing at the table, in my opinion: pan roasted breast of duck with a crispy potato cake and braised cabbage.  The duck was cooked to an impeccable rare-medium rare, and it had the most wonderful smoky flavor.  There was some applewood bacon in the dish, so it tasted just porky enough without overpowering the duck and the cabbage.  Fantastic.

I was too stuffed for dessert, but mom and Jason split the upside down caramel nut cake with walnuts, pecans, almonds, golden raisins, and malt ice cream.  It disappeared fairly quickly, so I assume it was good.  The server also brought some sorbets, and they were fine (but nothing to write home about, in my opinion).

Service continued to be friendly and accessible all night, and our waiter was right on when we asked him to bring us glasses of something white and dry from the wine list (a Sancerre is what he delivered, and it worked nicely with everything).  With after dinner drinks and tip and all of the forementioned goodies, the total wound up to be approximately $100-110 per head.

Aria certainly didn’t elicit any culinary epiphanies from those at our table.  It didn’t present us with any incredibly innovative dishes, dishes that we couldn’t get anywhere else.  But I still walked out of the restaurant with a warm and fuzzy feeling.  Why?  Because quality ingredients plus thoughtful flavor combinations plus impeccable cooking plus attentive service equals an excellent dining experience.

Tom Colicchio is a Craft-y Bastard

January 5, 2009

No, really, he is.  Not only did he convince a restaurant full of people to pay New York prices in Atlanta, but he also managed to trick me into eating head cheese.  For the record, it is not actually cheese, but it is as disgusting as it sounds.

Okay, enough joking around.  Fiance’s birthday is this week, so I told him to pick any restaurant in Atlanta for dinner on me.  After perusing menus and online reviews, he chose Craft Atlanta, the newest of Tom Colicchio’s chain of restaurants where “simple doesn’t have to mean simplistic.”  Located in a building adjacent to The Mansion on Peachtree, Craft boasts a fine dining experience upstairs and a more casual restaurant (Craftbar) downstairs.  The atmosphere as a whole is lovely–lots of wood, warm lighting, and a vibe that is inviting in an accessible yet luxurious way.  My only minor complaint is that the tables are a little close together, but we ended up sitting next to some great folks, so it was a minor offense.

We arrived about 20 minutes early and decided to have a cocktail at the bar.  A “Tom’s Collins” (oh, that clever Colicchio), consisting of Hendricks gin, bitter lemon soda, and cucumber, was refreshing and tasty.  Jason’s “Sunshine Squeeze,” which had vodka, citrus, and ginger, was sweet and tart and well-balanced.  The bartendress was very friendly and knew her stuff.  After our first round, Jason had a beer and I had a glass of rose brut, and then we settled out our approximately $40 bar tab and journeyed upstairs for the main event.

Our server greeted us fairly quickly and gave us the menu rundown (note: the selections change daily, so this is not the same one that we had).  He mentioned a few items that the restaurant is known for, and highlighted an item or two from each category that he personally recommended.  Bread arrived, and it was pretty good, but the butter was rich, flavorful, AND served at the proper temperature (just a touch colder than room temp).  I asked for a bottle of Sancerre, but that prompted the server to make a different recommendation in the same flavor and price range; we trusted him and were quite happy with the result, an Italian white that was dry and acidic while still maintaining a fruity quality.  I wish I could remember what it was.  I also wish that hadn’t been the height of the server’s usefulness.

When he returned to take our appetizer orders, we opted for sweetbreads ($17, roasted and served with candied kumquats) and slices of Wagyu tongue torchon,  served with pickled jalapenos ($16, I believe).  I also asked for one each of the three oysters available that night ($3 per).  The oysters came out first, with a lovely mignonette, a few lemon slices, and an adorably teensy tiny bottle of Tabasco (Jason said that when he was in the military, each MRE came with one of those same bottles).  The hot appetizers came next, and I recognized the Wagyu, but on the other plate were a few fried dumpling-esque bites and a gelatinous mass.  Thinking that I had maybe misunderstood the preparation of the sweetbreads, I took a bite of the jelly.  DEFINITELY not sweetbreads–somehow, the waiter heard me order “head cheese.”  Even though the mistake gave us a chuckle and enabled us to bond with our neighboring table (they were an awesome couple, and we ended up chatting and sharing bites throughout the remainder of the meal), it really was an awful error.  I mean, I am STILL talking about how nasty that one bite was.  In terms of the other appetizers, the Wagyu was good but not terribly memorable.  The sweetbreads, however, were quite possibly the best I’ve ever had.  The outside was perfectly caramelized, and the inside was firm yet tender.  And the flavor?  Out of this world, especially with the nice touch of sweetness at the end from the fruit.  Delicious.

For entrees, Jason ordered the roasted swordfish ($27).  He expressed some concern about its preparation to the server, since he wanted to make sure the fish would keep its firm texture without drying out.  The server said that they were actually poaching it in olive oil, which sounded like the perfect way to get the desired result.  Unfortunately, the server must have misled us a bit, because the dish was quite dry and really didn’t seem like it had been poached.  It still tasted fine, but I could tell that Jason was a bit disappointed.  I opted for the braised beef short ribs with root vegetables ($28), which were absolutely delicious.  The meat was tender and flavorful, and it reminded us of the best pot roast we’ve ever had.  Everything at Craft is done a la carte, so we also ordered side dishes of cauliflower gratin ($7) and roasted Jerusalem artichokes ($8), both of which were superb.

Sometime in the middle of our meal, we were visited by a favorite waiter from another restaurant, who is now working at Craft and loving it.  He gave us recommendations for dessert, and we trusted him wholeheartedly.  So, we ordered glazed chocolate cake donuts ($11), roasted bananas ($4), and brown sugar ice cream ($4).  The individual items were amazing, but the combination just knocked everything out of the park.  It was insanely good, and it managed to be rich and decadent without feeling oppressively so.  We tried our neighbor’s Valrhona chocolate cake, which was good, but I would order our dessert trio again any day of the week and twice on Sunday.  Jason had a glass of 20-year tawny port ($16), and I had coffee with a shot (read: magnum) of Bailey’s.  Sadly, our server had pretty much abandoned us by then, so when I needed a refill on the coffee he was nowhere to be found.  Jason actually had to get up and find a servers assistant to fill my cup.

The server did eventually return to present the check, which I perused only to find that the head cheese was still on the bill.  I flagged our server down to alert him to the error, and he fixed it when asked, but I thought it was a pretty careless mistake.  It was as if that disgusting stuff was destined to stay in my memory forever, as it just kept inserting itself into our experience.  After all was said and done, the total dinner tab, with tip, was $290.  So, with our previous rounds at the bar, the whole evening rounded out for just under $350.

I knew Craft was going to be expensive.  I have paid similar amounts for other dinners, and I truly believe that an amazing meal is worth that kind of money, as it is an experience for all of the senses.  But did Craft live up to its billing?  There were some incredibly high points, but there were also some significant flaws, specifically with the service.  Craft touts itself as specializing in simple food, but forming an overall opinion has been anything but simple.  I think, in the end, that I liked Craft–but I didn’t love it.  Perhaps with a different waiter, I could have loved it.  Unfortunately, without a hefty expense account, I don’t think I’ll be able to find out anytime soon.