Monday, August 06, 2012

Postcard from Atlanta


I am lucky enough to travel almost every week. My work and my friends take me to some pretty spectacular places. But rather than write about each restaurant individually I’d like to offer them to you, dear reader, as a “postcard”- when you find yourself in one of these cities, consult this list and you’ll have several options… I promise I won’t steer you wrong!

Atlanta is in the throes of a modern Southern movement: restaurants are reinterpreting and reinventing old Southern classics, but with fresher ingredients, modern spicing, and totally hip architectural venues. If you’ve been perusing food magazines – or even the Food Network or Bravo – many of the chefs working in the A-T-L will be familiar to you. And you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Bone Marrow at The Spence
The Spence. Top Chef contestant Richard Blais is cheffing up a largely small plates menu here; rich Southern and nose-to-tail cooking with a modernist bent. Oysters and spherical horseradish “pearls”. Uni pasta. Corn crème brulee with a topping so crisp you need to shatter it with a spoon. And an appetizer of roasted bone marrow, topped with tuna tartar, crowned with 2 tiny little over easy quail eggs. How does the marrow stay hot, while the tartar remains cool? Who cares? Dig in.

You are in front of the bar. Yes. The front is also the back.
You’ll also enjoy watching the bartenders and cooks navigate the VERY open bar and kitchens. There is NOTHING dividing the customers from their food and beverage. Only a handful of cocktails are on the menu but look up – there’s a fully stocked, well executed bar here.

The Spence
75 5th St NW
Atlanta, GA 30308
(404) 892-9111

Holeman and Finch's pretzel
Holeman and Finch Public House.  Holeman and Finch is not a pub. Let’s just get that straight. It’s a fabulous restaurant that just happens to serve many beers and some fine cocktails.  But aside from relatively few misses (why were those green beans cooked within an inch of their little stringy lives?) this place is a phenomenal leader in the Atlanta dining scene.  Many of the chefs, bartenders and waiters shining in local restaurants are transplants from Holeman… which is why you’ll notice exposed wood, speakeasy libations, and house-cured meat around town. It’s a formula but it’s one that works.

Clams and excellent, excellent bread
At Holeman and Finch you can start with the best ballpark pretzel I’ve ever had, buttery, shiny, and salty. Or a box full of house-made bread. Or a bowl of pimento cheese surrounded by housemade crackers. You can move onto wonderfully dense steak tartare crowned with fried onions; or clams steamed in tarragon and cream (hint: order extra grilled bread on the side to sop it all up). You can pair these reasonably priced flavor-bombs with skillet fried corn, or peaches with buttermilk dressing. You can stop there, but don’t. Not much on the menu is over $14… go crazy.

Holeman and Finch Public House
2277 Peachtree Rd NE
Atlanta, GA 30309
(404) 948-1175

Scallop schnitzel with quail egg
Watershed. This is the second incarnation of Watershed - rebuilt in a very large, bright white space with a bar in the center of the room. Here you'll find modern twists on southern classics - a deconstructed jambalaya, skillet cornbread, oysters broiled with anchovy butter, pork belly and chicken fried steak. The scallop schnitzel appetizer is a uniquely delicious preparation - the scallop is halved, breaded, and pan fried, topped with a teeny quail egg, anchovies and capers. Price points are a little steeper than other comparable restaurants, but the place also skews a little older (there were lots of couples taking their PARENTS to dinner) and feels a little more formal - this is where you go for a nice night out.

Deconstructed Jambalaya
The kitchen is a little too heavy-handed with salt... luckily the drinks are poured with an equally heavy hand to help you get it all down. And for dessert? Hot milk cake. What is it? I don't know, but it tastes like a cross between tres leches and caramel cake; I don't care how they do it, but I want more.

Watershed Restaurant
1820 Peachtree Rd NW
Atlanta, GA 30309
(404) 809-3561

Empire State South.  If I were to find myself in Atlanta, hungry but not starving, I would march myself straight to the bar at Hugh Acheson's Empire State South, and order "In Jars".  I would pair it with one of the crafted cocktails - bartenders using flasks and eyedroppers as handily as bottle openers - and I would shmear and dip the piles of grilled bread into deviled ham, trout mousse, boiled peanut hummus, pimento and bacon dip, and pickles. I would leave a happy, happy camper.

I understand not everyone eats like I do. For those who want to actually, ahem, SHARE with others, they may want to order more - a great housemade charcuterie plate with blood sausage the consistency of chocolate cake, crisp pork belly with corn kimchi, a perfectly cooked farm egg with crispy rice.  There are a handful of large entrees here too, but everything on this menu is so rich there's really no need to overdo it. Skip dessert and take your artisan coffee (they take this so seriously their barista has a bio on the restaurant website) out to the grass bocce ball court just outside the restaurant. Pull up an Adirondack chair and sip your espresso by the light of Georgia fireflies.

Empire State South
999 Peachtree Street
Atlanta, GA 30309 
(404) 541-1105 

That's a lot of meat
Heirloom Market BBQ.  And no trip to the South is complete without a BBQ joint.  You can throw a rock and hit any number of roadside rib joints, and you will probably leave full and sticky and smiling... but none will likely compare to Heirloom Market BBQHeirloom is what happens when a Southern chef marries a Korean one - a happy pairing of perfectly smoked American meat with delicately flavored Asian sides. The yin and yang of fatty, smoky, and tender pork/chicken/brisket with crisp, crunchy, sweet radish coleslaw dusted with black sesame seeds.

Asian-influenced side dishes
Many would never imagine (particularly in the South) that spicy kimchee would highlight the vinegar in bbq sauce - or that delicately fried tofu and tempura onion rings would complement smoked turkey. But here they do. You can feed an army for under $10... and tame the heat not with sweet tea - but with iced jasmine green tea.  This place feels like a secret, and it's easy to drive right by (sharing a small strip mall with a liquor store and hidden down below the main road).  Go with friends. Try everything. Just cause it's fingerlickin' good doesn't mean it ain't gourmet.

Heirloom Market BBQ
2243 Akers Mill Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30339
(770) 612-2502

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