Thursday, August 26, 2010
For nearly two decades Bacchanalia has served as the Gold Standard of Atlanta fine dining (with the exception of the glorious, but brief reign of Seeger’s). Atlanta fine dining has largely been rather traditional, if not to say stodgy (e.g. Panos and Paul’s), but Bacchanalia introduced Atlanta to some of the canons of modern cuisine. Granted this was not a restaurant that should be compared with the true temples of haute cuisine – and the main restaurant is more formal than dining establishments on the coasts – but it was and is a regional highpoint.
Once (or twice) a week Bacchanalia under chef David Carson and pastry chef Carla Tomasko ventures into the world of degustation, serving a nine course tasting menu (plus amuse) in a separate dining room in the Star Provisions restaurant complex. And how is it? In its own terms it is very pleasurable. If it falters a bit in ambition or starry brilliance, perhaps feeling just a bit like modern cuisine with training wheels (seemingly no more than five ingredients per dish), that does not detract from the soundness of the plates. Atlanta will not be a fine dining mecca, but if one resides in Hotlanta, Bacchanalia is as warm as it gets.
The dishes served the night of August 14, 2010 (they change on a weekly basis) were:
1) An amuse of Sweet Vidalia Onion Soup with Chicharrones: a wonderful sip of soup, a paean to local terroir – onion and pork skin.
2) Kumamoto Oysters, Hawaiian Ahi Tuna, Caviar, Heirloom Melons, and Chervil – a smart and well presented dish, perhaps the flavors were too sweet to be truly challenging, but it provided a cool punch of summer pleasure from the oyster, tuna and melon.
3) Nantucket Diver Scallop with White Gazpacho, and Melon. The scallop, fresh enough, was not as sweet and tender as one might expect, but the gazpacho, tiny though it was, proved delightful.
4) Foie Gras Terrine, Pickled Blueberries, Spiced Cocoa Nibs, and Wild Arugula. A nicely composed dish, but well within expectations of how foie is presented.
5) Loup de mer with Melted Spring Onion, Local Squash, and Crispy Fingerling Potatoes. Simple and elegant. Perfectly cooked fish with thin potato scales. A real treat in its minimalist presentation.
6) Crispy Veal Sweetbreads with Oyster Mushrooms, Pole Beans and Young Carrots. A straight-ahead preparation of sweetbreads. It was well-made without being uniquely memorable.
7) Colorado Lamb Loin, Stewed Field Peas, Butter Beans, Zipper Peas, and Summerland Farm Herbs. This was the least compelling dish of the evening. It was not poorly prepared, just rather dull, although capturing some of the farm-grown beans that dot Southern tables.
8) Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill Cheese, Georgia June Peaches, and some more Arugula. A small bit of nice cheese on a pretty plate.
9) Lemon Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Local Blueberries, and Blueberry Sorbet. Well-done, but what one would expect given the ingredients.
10) Skipping the chocolate dessert, I was served four scoops of sorbet: peach, melon, blueberry, and blackberry, each a straightforward flavor.
Of the dishes it was the Loup de Mer – awash in simplicity – and the Vidalia amuse – simple in its own cunning way – that captured my affection. Chef Carson hasn’t quite developed a distinctive gastronomic style, other than attempting to build on Southern farm produce (beans, leaves, and herbs), admirable to be sure. Still, there is no doubt but that he is surely a very capable chef, probably the best around. I will surely continue to dine at Bacchanalia when I get to Atlanta, but, as yet, I don’t plan to travel to Atlanta in order to dine at Bacchanalia.
Quinones at Bacchanalia
1198 Howell Mill Road
Atlanta, GA 30318
I had not dined at Avenues in the years since Graham Elliott Bowles decamped for Graham Elliott, and as I will leave Chicago for a year, the time had arrived (or even long passed). I was a fan of GEB’s zany cuisine, and I worried that the magic could not be sustained. But I was wrong. In fact, if anything, Chef Curtis Duffy cuisine is uber-magical if not quite as charmingly goofy.
I selected the eight-course garden (vegetable) chef’s menu served at the kitchen bar: switching out a tofu dish and a chocolate dessert, neither of which sit well with me. My short ribs were the only meat of the evening, but surely a splendid protein.
Time prevents a full recitation, but my dishes were:
1) Heirloom tomatoes with golden watermelon, elixir, and garden herbs
2) Sweet corn with charred husk, finger limes, and coriander blooms
3) Grains, seeds and nuts: Amaranth veil, puffed sunflower seeds
4) Acquerello risotto, black figs, chanterelle, and oxalis
5) Beef short ribs with lime, pinenuts, and cilantro flowers
6) Chilled passion fruit with tapioca, rose, and lemon balm
7) Spring cucumber, olio verde jam, Buddha’s hand, and African blue basil
8 ) Strawberry ice with Thai black pepper, mascarpone, and opal basil blossoms
Over the years I have become less enamored by those deconstructed dishes in which chefs place an array of disorganized (if prettily arranged) “things” on the plate, and let diners “have at it.” They often seem lacking in a conception of combination. They can be lovely but thoughtless. Chef Duffy is notably thoughtful, high praise indeed. The dish most characteristic of the strains of modern cuisine was most notably true of the first appetizer that was an appealing array of heirloom cherry tomatoes, watermelon, and herbs, although not a dish in which the ingredients truly locked together. Dishes can be deconstructed, but can they be reconstructed again? Still, there was no dish that I did not enjoy (I didn’t care for my cocktail, a Thai Kick Boxer, which was a soupy mess of basil, coconut water, and not much alcohol).
I particularly admired the sweet corn dish, a mix of fascinating flavors and textures – an upside down icy bowl. I was particularly impressed with the range of temperatures that were embedded in that single dish with the multiple textures of corn and the appealing lime and coriander. It was surely not the most beautiful dish of the evening, but the best conceptualized and most memorable.
The mix of grains, seeds, and nuts – a tribute to sunflower seeds and amaranth - was also an astonishingly delightful dish with its lovely mixture of textures and tastes (including, as I recall, raisins). It was served at the right time, in the right place, and was still fully unexpected in its joy and its terroir.
The third dish that I especially loved was the spring cucumber dessert which was herbal and sweet in equal measures. This was perhaps the most beautiful dish of the evening (although the strawberry and the risotto came close). The cucumber plate succeeded in every way that I could imagine a dessert to work. It was a triumph. Desserts often are anticlimaxes. This magnificent sweet was a star.
It was because of this trio that the dinner itself was a triumph. The dinner had no missteps (aside from the cocktail). Service was graceful and congenial (although sitting on high stools at the bar made service a bit difficult for a few height-challenged staff. Even though we sat at the kitchen bar, the food was not served by the cooks from the front (a la Minibar or Momofuku Ko), but from behind, a slightly awkward arrangement. I assume that the rationale was that the chefs were cooking for the entire restaurant and not simply for the eight of us at the bar.
Of all of the high-end restaurants in Chicago, setting aside Alinea (for Achatz’s genius) and Schwa (for Carlson’s commitment), there is no local restaurant that is comparable to Avenues for providing truly remarkable food. For travelers who select their hotel based upon cuisine, the only choice is the Peninsula. I loved Avenues under Bowles, thinking that it could not be improved. I waited too long to discover that I was wrong.
The Peninsula Hotel
108 E. Superior Street
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
For a period of some twenty years – from the early 1970s until the early 1990s – one of America’s great restaurants was located on an isolated backroad in the mountains of western North Carolina. The Frog & Owl was beautifully situated beside a little stream by a watermill along what was, when it opened, a gravel road. The Chef Jerri Broyles (now Jerri Fifer) turned out food that could turn heads in Berkeley or Manhattan. Along with Alice Waters and Anne Rosenzweig, she was in the triumvirate of great female chefs of the 1970s (today there are so many women in toques that the category “female chef” seems a dusty relic). Perhaps being situated on a dusty road made her celebrity less glossy, but those who dined at the Frog and Owl realized that here was a restaurant that deserved a place on any “ten best list,” and perhaps not at the bottom. Her cooking was pure, it was clean, it was precise, but it was subtle as well. Her use of fruit was ahead of her time; her use of local ingredients was not as showy as Ms. Waters, but her farms were closer to her table and not run by Ph.D. wannabees. Each year I made a pilgrimage to the F&O, watching as Chef Fifer became more accomplished.
And then a thunderbolt. Because of family issues (coupled with a persnickety septic tank – as important as a stove), Chef Fifer chose to shut her rural Chartres, and move to Franklin, the county seat of Macon County, where she opened the less ambitious Frog & Owl Bistro. She eventually sold her share in the Bistro, and the restaurant, which had become a shadow of itself, is now shuttered. Every so often there were Fifer-sightings. She cooked at a small bistro in Highlands, North Carolina for awhile, but she also nursed an aging mother, as well as raised her son.
Last year I heard that she had opened a sandwich/salad stand – Jer’s Kitchen (her logo incorporates a frog) in a large antique mall in Franklin (just north of the Georgia town of Dillard on Highway 23), run with her confederate Nancy. Now a sandwich stand is not a four star restaurant and who knows how long antique malls will survive in the age of eBay? The “restaurant” is basically a dozen tables in an open area in the mall. However, despite its location (it is open approximately 11-2, Monday-Saturday), it deserves your attention. It is very, very good. (Chef Fifer also sells boxed suppers and does private catering and teaches the occasional class at the John Campbell Folk School). While the menu might seem fairly standard – although never too standard – the food is made with great care. I was particularly impressed by the toasted torta bread. Whether one wants Pimento Cheese (from Wisconsin white cheddar) or made-from-scratch hummus, homemade basil mustard, or two freshly made soups, they are here. One shouldn’t oversell the achievement, but as sandwiches go, they are first rate.
I ordered Chef Fifer’s “Black Mountain” – a lamb burger served on homemade torta with herb aioli, lettuce and tomato. It was totally satisfying. I believe that the technical term among food journalists is “nummy.” A juicy, well-cooked, straight-forward sandwich with enough interest for a gourmetish lunch.
Sandwiches are served with a side order, but I ordered three: Citrus Coleslaw, Fruit and Nut Orzo (not photo), and Corn Bread Salad (?!). Both of the first two were creative twists on standards: the citrus coleslaw was particularly good, and the orzo was a high-end pasta salad with almonds and cranberries (Chef Fifer still relies on the power of fruit). The corn bread salad, a recipe from the chef’s mother (an homage) is an acquired taste: mashed up cornbread with something like a cole slaw dressing. It is fair to say that one will not find a similar dish in Berkeley.
I am delighted to find Chef Fifer behind the stove, seemingly happy to be there. With her son to be launched in two years, she is thinking about the next step in her culinary journey and ours. For twenty years she was an American chef with vision and élan. Today with top-notch restaurants appearing in Chilhowie, Virginia, Frederick, Maryland, Peoria Heights, Illinois, and Findlay, Ohio, could the rebirth of Franklin, North Carolina be next? But even now, Jer’s Kitchen is worth a whistle stop.
Whistle Stop Mall
1281 Georgia Road
Franklin, NC 28734
Saturday, August 07, 2010
The Peach, the
Once upon a time in
Town House is not rural, nestled in comforting woods with neighborly owls and bears. It is found on a small town main street. Its environs are not impressive in themselves (no need for valet parking). The design of the restaurant, modern and sleek, would suit Park Slope Brooklyn. The restaurant seems plunked down: a gastronomic room that happens to be in Chilhowie, not particularly indigenous (although some ingredients are local).
Town House offers four menus: a short a la carte menu (one salad, three entrees, and a dessert); a four course prix fixe (two choices for each course); and a ten course tasting menu ($110). We selected the latter, and added two intriguing courses from the prix fixe, a blessing as these were among the best courses. We also had a mini-version of Charlie Berg’s excellent wine pairings (not staying in Chilhowie, value seemed the better part of valor). Although I do not cover wines, they were well-chosen and a creative match (only the Foggy Ridge Cider was from
I divide Chef Shields’ dishes into two: an ecstatic elegant minimalist style and the now-common modern cuisine, with busy plates covered with carefully shaped and processed ingredients. Chef Shields does busy food very well, but in a style that is often seen (this is also the style of Pastry Chef (Karen) Shields. What I will remember from here until hospice are the whispering dishes (Chilled Vegetable “Minestrone”; the
Soon there appeared a savory cookie of cocoa and black olive – a post-modern Oreo with Meyer lemon compote and parmesan cream. While I was impressed with the citrus cream filling, I found the cookie to be dry with a slightly oily mouthfeel. I should have revived my own oreo memories: removing the cookie and licking the cream.
It is dangerous to serve the best dish of the evening as the opening act. But at Town House this is surely the case. Chef Shields’ “Chilled Vegetable ‘Minestrone’” is an astonishing dish. It is a canonical creation, perhaps in the class of Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, or Michael Carlson’s Quail Egg Ravioli. Yet, Shields’ minestrone cannot truly be compared with this pair. Both are lush while Shields is restrained: Agnes Martin in a bowl. Like every goodly, godly stock the liquid is complex while appearing simple. This “soup” consists of 11 different (root) vegetables, rolled as small cylinders. We are served radish, beet, carrot, leek, and a chorus of others. Each has its color, creating a stunningly beautiful dish in a minimalist vein. Tasting each pipe, I realized that each had been cooked in its own herbal bath. The diner who ignores the vegetable consommé misses a
The second course seemed a scoop of orange sherbet sitting lonely on a plate: “The
The third dish – Soup of Cherries with “almond bread” (frozen almond milk), slow oven-roasted tomatoes, cucumber water, ginger, and sardines – was the most challenging dish of the evening, perhaps of the year. Some 35 years ago I was served a dish at Larry Forgione’s An American Place on
Scrambled egg mousse, a paean to breakfast, was fourth, and was another success. Although Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck places his breakfast dish – bacon and egg ice cream – at the end (perhaps to remind us how long we have been at table), this mousse is still an appetizer, and a lovely, quiet one. The scrambled egg mousse is served over smoked steelhead roe, sorghum, sweet spices, preserved ramp, and rye bread. I thought that the dish must contain bacon – it does not – but it captures most of the flavors that constitute bacon: sweetness, smokiness, saltiness. The texture is silky as one cuts into the mousse, hiding (as in the orange) complex deliciousness below.
Peekytoe Crab in Brown Butter and Lime with “caramelized onions,” banana, curry, and cider vinegar was in the style of modern cuisine’s symphonic dishes. Here was perhaps the most typical modern dish of the night. Chef Shields works with three basic ingredients: crab, banana, and onions, and then shapes them in various forms, textures, tastes, using multiple cooking processes. It was a virtuoso combination, but my concern with this presentation is that one never gets the same bite twice: there is not enough time to think about taste and texture before other tastes and textures intrude. Like many of the dishes the colors on the plate were shades of off-white.
The sixth dish was, for me, the most troubling dish, although one that I am reassessing. It was the dish for which I registered a complaint to Chef Shields; perhaps I spoke too rapidly. I was served a “Risotto” of Squid. Whenever one finds quotation marks on a menu, anxiety is about. This dish appeared a petite risotto, but one absent rice. The rice was squid cut as rice (surely a labor-intensive task). My first reaction was not happy. I would have preferred risotto sans quote marks: real Arborio rice is heavenly starch. In terms of sheer enjoyment I have not changed my stance. Yet, a week later I still think about the dish. The squid was deliberately chewy (some might say rubbery), not the meaty grilled calamari of Greek cuisine. By leaving out the rice, the dish had a creamy, aquatic purity. It was still my least favorite dish, but I can appreciate the choice. Perhaps it had something of the let-us-do-it-because-we-can sensibility, but it had a textual punch.
Now I received the first “extra” course: Corn and Crispy Pig Tail with basil-infused buttermilk, toffee, popcorn, and cocoa nibs. Like the crab this was a dish that is very much in the register of modern cuisine: a focus on the possibilities of corn with a butt wag to Fergus Henderson’s snout-to-literally-tail cuisine. This presentation brought to mind a stalk of corn, and is stunning as this style gets. The textures – gelatinous, smooth, stringy, chewy, meaty, liquid – were showy. Here was something other than a mish-mash, but a set of ideas. Corn and Tail is dramatically different from the quieter dishes (Shields works with several distinctive cooking styles), but is a vivid composition.
The foie gras royale, confit and crisp chicken skin (covered with a patch of fresh berries – a batch of fresh perries?) was easily the most vibrant presentation of the evening (my photograph shamefully lacks justice). What is not to like about duck liver and blackberries? Nothing, of course. To say that it was nothing special seems to demean the dish, but only in contrast. It is a dish that makes diners happy in three-star cuisine.
And then naked came the peach (“A minimal preparation of peach roasted in beef fat and chanterelle mushroom bouillon”), a second extra dish. If the minestrone had been out of stock, the little peach would have stolen my heart. I would be raving about this roast slice of fruit. If peach were filet how would it taste? Shields is a consummate consommé master. This was almost as perfect a two-bite dish as could imagine, so beefy, so woodsy, so filled with the orchard. Astonishing!
The entrée was Lamb Cooked in Ash with Smoked Eggplant Cream Puree, Miso, Black Garlic, Bonito, and pulverized potato starch. Shields serve a meat dish that is textbook, so filled with paper-like ingredients it was. Much was thin, wrinkled, and crackly, the floor of an academic office. I was stunned in its play with textures and its reflection of ash. Perhaps its bustle was overshadowed by the peach, but I cannot deny my pleasure throughout.
The two desserts, created by Karen Urie Shields, formerly of
The second dessert was Blueberries and Lychee with Peony Sorbet (wonderful), goat yogurt, coriander berries (very distinctive), and crispy milk skin (the Shields could open a culinary paper mill). I love lychee and so I was pleased with the dessert, but it revealed the limits of modern cuisine, perhaps it was too impressive in its fireworks. If one preparation is astonishing, sometimes having five or six on the plate makes amazement routine.
My unasked-for advice for a brilliant ending is to create a dessert-equivalent of the minestrone. Choose eleven fruits, shape them beautifully, serve with a light, off-sweet consommé, and remind us again just how simple food can be complex. Or, if not, a nugget of veal served as a nectarine.
It took three hours to arrive at Town House and three hours to dine and three hours to return home. Three hours of expectation, three hours of reminiscences, and three hours of pure joy.
The restaurant has an associated guest house for those wishing a full wine tasting.