I’m gonna try a new format. When I’m on the hunt for the best or most unique eateries a city has to offer, outside of the tri-state area, I’m going to deliver up in one post called Sole-On-Patrol. Hey, I want to keep it fresh and pithy.
Last year, I was tracking down one of my favorite singer songwriters Patty Griffin to see her in concert. At the time she had not toured in quite a while so when I saw she was doing a mini tour to promote some new material I knew I had to jump on the chance to see her. Of course it was also an opportunity to check out another unexplored food city. Looking at the list of cities she was hitting, Athens, GA jumped right off the page. It seems as of late, Atlanta and her outlying municipalities have made quite a stir In the culinary scene. With farm to table cuisine taking center stage I guess the south has risen again. So it was clear to me that it was time to take out my Bat-James Beard restaurant detector and find some worthy pit stops on my way to see Patty (we’re tight like that).
The list came together quickly. Winner of James Beard Best Chef of the Southwest 2012, Linton Hopkins and Restaurant Eugene was highly touted. This upscale special occasion locale was a sure thing with the multitude of accolades it had racked up. I have a soft spot for the show Top Chef and my personal favorite top chef is Richard Blais. His neurotic, family man, entrepreneurial spirit only adds to his unquestionable skills in the kitchen. I realized Atlanta was his home base with 4 restaurants in his wake. The most interesting of these is his chain of burger boutiques called Flip Burger. Then I had to put “Mr. Personality” Hugh Acheson to the test. So much hype surrounding this guy and not a bit of humility in sight. He had to earn my respect and it was going to be an uphill climb. His signature restaurant 5 & 10 was located in Athens, so the scene was set for a culinary show down… or more like a tasting showdown… well, he doesn’t even know I exist so perhaps I’m over exaggerating a bit. To round it out I decided to take in some local eats. I had just watched an expose on the Varsity Drive-In, known for their renowned hot dogs, and decided it was a perfect fit. Wow! That’s lots of food, lets hope I can fit into the venue at the end to see Patty.
First up is Flip burger. This place is high concept food meets Ruby’s… or Jonny Rockets depending on where you live. Its fun, visually stimulating (all the furnishings are duplicated on the ceiling so you feel like there’s a mirror above you) and on the money. Once I perused the menu I know I had to have the steak tartare burger with a foie gras milkshake.
Lets dissect the milkshake. At first I was scared then excited… much like going on Space Mountain. Foie gras in a milkshake…not sure that’s going to work… but leave it to Blais to make it not only work but be decadent and delicious. If I did not tell you it was foie gras you would never really know. It is the perfect milkshake consistency, not too thick, cold as hell (he freezes the top with liquid nitrogen – so cool) and creamy as in good ice cream creamy. The taste is that of egg nog with some woody tones… as I would say like a cream of mushroom soup. I’m not talking Campbell’s (not that Campbell’s mushroom soup doesn’t rule), I mean luscious german cream of mushroom soup… with wild woody tasting mushrooms. This milkshake was a 10.
The Steak Tartar burger was all I could have dreamed up in my sleep. Excellent bun, hand chopped tenderloin in cubed chunks, garlic, capers, shallots, frisee, smoked mayo… and a FRIED EGG (great minds…). Lets say he had me at raw beef, but now he was just showing off. Mixed to perfection the meat knocked me on my butt however when the “liquid gold (I trademarked that)” yolk of the perfectly fried egg burst forth I was headed for cloud 9. Now the kicker is these two things were great but what was as good if not better were the fries. I have gone on and on about good french fries, Jewish deli/Nathans style etc…. The brilliance of Blais is he gets that one sub par element could down the whole ship and he refuses to yield. From “Tip to Tail” this burger experience was as good at some fine restaurants I have gushed about.
Now the reveal is that it was so good, heading home on the way to the airport I went back to try another location to see if the quality was as good. I can report that it is. This time I had a Korean Kim Chee Pork Burger, a Classic burger, and a Nutella Burnt Marshmallow shake. It was all good, not quite as good as the Steak Tartar burger and Foie Gras but how could it be. So I think you get the point… YOU IN ATLANTA… NOT VEGETARIAN (although he has that stuff too) …GO FLIPBURGER…CHOP CHOP!!!
Next meal please…Restaurant Eugene. Just in the name it says it all. Restaurant… Eugene, obviously this restaurant has a chip on its shoulder. The fact that it has to remind me it’s a …a restaurant says it all. So pretentious, you best beware its not just Eugene’s or Eugene’s place…its Restaurant Eugene…hey, it’s not called City Atlanta. Well the story only starts there. Very dark and velvety chocolate tones baste the walls for this upscale showroom of a restaurant. Imagine me, table for one, in a restaurant reserved for a 50th anniversary or a secret dinner with your significant other, other. I felt like the scene in Steve Martin’s Lonely Guy (must see)… the spotlight is shining on me as I am led to the table and then they noisily swoop in to remove any piece of extra tableware in sight. I am kind of exaggerating as they were nothing but professional, in fact almost too much so. Great dining should not feel like a wedding or a wake.
The first thing they bring to the table is salt and pepper. With that they then take 10 minutes to explain how Gandhi himself mined the salt and it was brought back to america on the backs of several fallen messengers. Very entertaining but ridiculous, it’s salt for Christ sake. I get that there are special salts, I know I use many of them but just leave the salt and let me order. The bread was another dissertation. The bread was made by this one bakery on the other side of a black hole in the delta quadrant only for Restaurant Eugene. I was trying so hard not to laugh in their faces. By this point I was really hoping the food was good because I was not impressed with all the pomp and circumstance.
I ordered a pork belly with spiced apples, onion, mustard greens, pickled beet puree and peanut powder, a white shrimp and red pea hoppin’ john (rice), shrimp aspic, chives, and shrimp puff, pumpkin soup with roasted porcini’s, fried sage, and bacon lardons, and duck breast served with foie gras butter, herb salad, radishes and duck jus. Can they write a menu or can they. I just hope I enjoy dishes where they list which pans they used to cook with.
The pork belly was good, restrained but competent… a bit of BBQ like glaze made it interesting but reminded me too much of Heinz ketchup. The peanut powder was interesting but did not really compliment the dish. As far as pork belly goes just average. This shrimp better get in there and save this dining experience and quick.
The white shrimp and Cajun rice dish came out in a Creuset like ramequin. I was not impressed as it looked like a pot of porridge, all goopy and I could not see any shrimp in the dish. Well that was all about to change. I was magically realigned when the maitre de sprinkled some freshly fried and ground up shrimp shells with five spice powder over the dish… Bam (sorry Emeril). It was then I also realized there was a shrimp puff on top of the dish. As I went in for the first bite I was intoxicated by the scent of the shrimp spice that they had so smartly crafted. The crunch of the puff on top was fooling my mind into thinking I was eating salt & pepper prawns, a staple of my chinese fav list. Immediately I struck a shrimp that was hiding in the rice. As that shrimp was consumed the skill the chef was artfully revealed. This was hands down one of the top 3 shrimp I had ever tasted. It was a white shrimp from the Gulf. It was tender and cooked right up to the line… almost raw but just cooked. He had achieved the ultimate balance with great seafood, to boot he cooked it in a terrine. Only a master could have achieved such results. Things only got better from there.
The pumpkin soup brought another bounty of great flavors. The soup was good but nothing extraordinary, however what they added to the top was what got my applause. They deep-fried sage leaves and put 3 atop the soup. This fried sage leaf was so amazing… texturally empowering with a deep smokey flavor. Best I could describe is smoked broccoli with a crunch. I really loved it. So much so, I made my own crispy sage leaves when I returned home. This was shear genius.
The duck dish was solid. They understood how to prepare the duck competently. Foie gras butter didn’t hurt. I will say just for the record that I think chef’s prepare duck a bit under done. I know dry duck is a crime but really the true medium rare is the way to go. Not unlike a good piece of fatty beef you need a bit of heat to penetrate and get those fats moving. Not over cooked just on the cusp. Ok. Nuff said. I only mention because the restaurant I will be reviewing in my next post knows how to do this (look out for my write up of the Old Inn on the Green in Massachusetts).
Restaurant Eugene in conclusion was pretentious, cold, but masterful in its food. I liken it to Terminator 2, constructed to leave nothing to chance, so any success is wonderful but not magical. It’s no diamond in the rough. I recommend it for special occasions or if your trying to impress your date.
Lets take a break from the hoity toity world of haute cuisine and hit the good old American drive-in. That’s what the Varsity in Atlanta and Athens delivers in spades. I am not going to beleaguer the point. These guys mean business and business is good. No nonsense, you know what you want or you get out-of-the-way, hot dogs, fries and sodas. Like the fast food equivalent of Peter Lugers… you don’t stray from the basics. The dog was wonderful. Garlicy but not offensive. The chili was a basic variety with just enough bite to enhance the dog but not water it down. Just the lunch time fair one craves while trekking from one comic book store to another in Athens GA (let me say the have a great one, Wuxtry’s). So take it to the Varsity for a solid meat rocket to straight to the gut. I meant that in a good way.
Ok… here it is the Main Event! (Barbara is singing in the background). Mr. Hugh Acheson I’ve watched you glare at chefs from under you formidable unibrow and now I will judge you. Yes. Me, the Chinese man from Dobbs Ferry, NY is going to go to the center of your culinary empire, 5 & 10, and see if you make the cut.
Located in a very quaint suburban shopping area of Athen’s, 5 & 10 has a comfortable neighborhood atmosphere. I enjoy that as it allows one to judge the food on it merits without distraction. Most say neighborhood restaurants have to deliver great food more consistently to stay alive as opposed to the weekend eateries with bigger names. The staff was professional but inviting. You could tell they had a passion for serving the great food they are supposedly known for. I read the menu and it was typical farm to table sustainable blah blah blah… but was it going to make me go MMMMM! We were about to find out. I ordered my standard assault… seared scallop with something… in this case grapefruit and charred eggplant puree, crisp veal sweetbreads with succotash, pickled green tomatoes, and hot pepper jus, and then the special fresh local leg of lamb from some special farm.
The meal started with several wonderful surprises. The bread at 5 & 10 was amazing and wouldn’t you know it was just bread … no special bakery or butter churned by Tibetan monks. I was also introduced to a zesty and refreshing local Ginger Ale called Blenheim. Its’ subtl spicy but sweet effervescence (is that even a real word?) was a real pleasure . Totally recommend it however it’s only sold by a few places across the U.S. and online.
I was already really liking this place when the scallops hit the table. Cooked perfectly served with mixed baby green salad and grapefruit vinaigrette. The eggplant puree was really delicious but the grapefruit made the dish. I would never in a million years have paired grapefruit with scallops. Both are colorless and rather lacking in-depth. Well sign me up for Reese’s Scallop Grapefruit cups, cause I am sold. There is something about scallops and grapefruit I can’t figure out. I guess it could be likened to lemon and seafood, but the grapefruit some how heightens the clean briny notes of the scallops sweet flesh. They are a true compliment to each other.
Going into the veal sweetbreads I was curious as to how these would be done down south. Usually I have had my sweetbreads served french style or as I call it wet with heavy cream sauce or Argentinian style, grilled crispy with Chimichurri. These came out lightly coated and deep fried. They were amazing. They were mild and rich. Pickled green tomatoes were the right taste to blunt the richness of these veal glands or what some still think are brains (for all you gourmet zombies). Round 2 to Hugh. I was already very pleased but I am a connoisseur of lamb so the bar was already set very high lets see if this place can put me down for the count.
The leg of lamb came to the table in a way I had never expected…as a steak? Somehow they had butchered a steak from the leg. Served with fried kale this lamb steak was awesome. I know my lamb, having earned my Keene’s Mutton badge at the tender age of 7, and this was very delicious. I would have taken the classic thin slices of lamb but this was a whole new animal. Cooked perfectly and lets not go into my feelings of the fried kale. The kale was a great accompaniment to the lamb. Strong in flavor and able to cut the fattiness of the lamb just right. Somehow I had missed the proliferation of Kale and Grapefruit on restaurant menus, but Atcheson was taking me to school.
I am no desert person but I was having such a wonderful meal and I had an extra 15 min before Patty was going on that I decided to partake in one of the confections of the evening. I settled on something small and simple… salt caramel ice cream with a homemade candy brittle. Well let me tell you the chefs at 5 and 10 were now just showing off. That ice cream was utterly devastating. From the unmistakably decadent brittle to the gold fleck accents all over the dish and not withstanding the shear genius of salt and caramel (at the time of this meal salt caramel had not become as common as spicy tuna rolls). I was enthralled.
Hats off to you Mr. Acheson. I admit when I am bested and you surely know your craft. Go on and belittle any would be chef who dare show his face on television. You’ve earned your unibrow, wear it with pride. I can’t wait to go back someday.
To conclude Patty Griffin was amazing, topping off an amazing 2 day trip of food, folks and fun. If your into American singer song writers with a blues style, she just release a new album “American Kid”. Personally, I’m exhausted from recounting this culinary adventure to the south, but then again I am also getting really hungry. If your ever in the Atlanta/Athens area I highly recommend eating at one of these places. I believe I covered all the price ranges so you have not excuses.
P.S. Just so you know I am not full of it, I just recently attempted to head to Flip Burger on a 4 hr stop over in Atlanta on the way to New Orleans. I planned it 1 hour too early and they weren’t open yet… oh Steak Tartare Burger…my heart cries out. It’s really that good.
P.S.S. If you think I loved Atlanta, Georgia… wait to you see what I thought of New Orleans food during JazzFest…post coming soon. Oh… lordy!