Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Peep the new banner!

That's right, Kins made a new banner!

"I don't know what you heard about me
But a bitch can't get a dollar out of me
No Cadillac, no perms, you can't see
Kins makes the best PNG's!"

Truly an acrobat on Adobe Illustrator. Thanks Kins!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Picnic Nitpick - Atlanta Street Food Coalition's Urban Picnic

There's been a large petition circulating around the web to allow and show support for street vendors in Atlanta. While I'd love to have delectable, cheap and fast eats on every corner, I question the feasibility for such an endeavor in a city that's hardly walkable. However, I'd rather see some places try and perhaps fail, than not try at all. After getting word of the "Urban Picnic" being thrown by the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, I penciled it in for my Friday lunch spot.

I showed up at 12 on the dot and there was a moderate crowd (appeared to mainly be GSU students) gathered outside of Sweet Auburn Curb Market. 4 food trucks were curbed next to the market and a few other assorted vendors selling everything from candles to dog biscuits.
After perusing the trucks, I ran into some folks I knew and asked them what were the best offerings. They assured me they had heard good things about the house made sausage by the FarmCart. After waiting in line for a good 10 minutes and not moving, the sausages were sold out... Disappointing that within and hour of opening, the best item was completely sold out. I might have understood had the vendors been bum-rushed, but it wasn't terribly crowded. I guess they didn't anticipate much of a showing at all? With soup and salad being the only other offerings at the FarmCart, the line diminished quickly.
I guess my mind was locked into tubed-meat because I hurried over to the Good Food truck for what they referred to as the "Poodle." The Poodle involved a french toast bun and a hot dog topped with maple apple slaw. Honestly, it worked. It wasn't astounding but it was better than my initial kitschy impression. Given the choice between a Nathan's frank and the Poodle, I'd have to yield to the classic. But for Atlanta street food, not a bad showing Good Food.
My next stop, was Souper Jennie's truck. Souper Jennie is kind of an Atlanta/Buckhead staple and extremely popular with the lunch crowd. Honestly, I've never been because of their hours, location and the crowds. Additionally, I'm not crazy about soup. I sampled their tomato basil with goat cheese.
It was OK. I detected no basil or goat cheese and the soup could have been a little creamier, if anything. It was certainly more of a home-style soup and I felt it could have used some more cream (if there was any to start with) and seasoning.
My last stop at the Urban Picnic was H&M Pizza. They had a trailer hitch with an actual wood burning oven on the back of their truck. I was impressed, but suprisingly this was one of the least crowded vendors there? While waiting in line, I overheard the pizza prep guy tell the owner that the dough had dried out... I took a gander and it didn't appear too bad but when the prep guy took more flour to work the dough, I cringed a bit. Why would you add more flour to dry dough? In any case, I got one slice of the coppa and mozzarella. It was a nice touch that they threw some fresh rosemary and olive oil over the pizza right as it came out of the oven. The first thing I noticed - after walking away was this:
The second problem lied in the flour addition I mentioned earlier. The pizza was completely coated in a dense layer of flour on the bottom.
I took one bite and I was transformed into Tyrone Biggums of crackheadom:
I wish I had photos of the reactions I received by some of the locals under the bridge of Jesse-Hill Jr. Drive.
Two fatal flaws aside, the pizza was actually really good. But if that slice was delivered to me in a restaurant, I would have sent it back.
While I totally support the Atlanta Street Food movement, this fair showed some potential problems for the businesses involved. The service was slooooooooow. The product was good but I felt the pricing was on the high side. The slice of pizza was just slightly larger than a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut, yet cost me 3 bucks. The poodle was the same price and the soup was $5. Demand is an unpredictable factor, but here was a fair devoted to street food, and a lot of the food was sold out within an hour - the crowds weren't enormous either. I can't imagine the amount of disappointment in one of these food trucks posting a new location to their twitter, a customer travelling far out of their way for some grub, and the truck being sold out. I don't know how many sausages they started with, but that FarmCart's line was not moving and they sold out quick.

Atlanta is not quite metropolitan. We need more tourists, more revenue, safer and walkable streets, and even more food options. This movement could really help propel Atlanta into seeming like the big city that it actually is.
Souper Jenny on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 22, 2010

All the Young Dudes - Young Augustine's

How do you not think about that song when you hear "Young Augustine's?"

I had really high hopes for this new "gastro-pub" in Grant Park. Why? It's under the radar, the menu sounds great, and it's really close to home. Sigh. It's a nice bar and a step up from the Standard (especially the beer list) but in terms of food, doesn't hold a candle to the other more popular gastropubs of Atlanta.

Wrigley Dog - Definitely the best item we had. They even had it down to the celery salt. It's not quite authentic, but it's tasty nonetheless. Two steps to make it authentic - steam the poppy seed bun and use Vienna Beef. At $3 a pop, they're a steal.

Short Rib Grilled Cheese - Sounds amazing, right? Imagine braised short rib, beneath a layer of melted cheese, sandwiched between two thick slices Texas toast. Would that not be amazing? They had to fancify and destroy a promising update to a classic. The thing came out on a baguette with arugula and tomato! The short rib was flavorless, the cheese was minimal and while the bread was fresh, it didn't belong with this combination.

Duck fat fries - Highly disappointing. I just don't get it. What restaurant makes the effort of getting duck fat for fries, and then doesn't hand cut the fries. Could you taste the duck fat twang? Yes. Could you sense that these fries were beyond ordinary and frozen aside from that? Hell yes. Hand cut fries cooked in peanut oil taste better than frozen ones in duck fat. Please upgrade to hand cut - it will make all the difference!

I'm kind of tired of seeing Benton's bacon on every menu in the city. Yes it's good, but so is Oscar Mayer bacon. Focus on getting the basics first. I realize a dish is only as good as the sum of its products, but to me, fresh fries are more important than farm-raised bacon. People are going to like that pig no matter what.

So aside from the food, Young Augustine's should make a great neighborhood speakeasy, with passable snacks. The menu is surely inspired, but the execution is not up to snuff. I just think a little more thought needs to be put into the ingredients and flavors when a menu has such unique and delicious sounding items. Sometimes it's OK to only slightly change a classic, not give it a complete and unwarranted overhaul. Apologies for my pictures, it was kind of dark in there.

Young Augustine's on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 15, 2010

Shaun with the Wind - Shaun's

Shaun's is like a Lamborghini that pulls up next to you at a red light revving its engine. You already know that your Honda Accord doesn't stand a chance, so you choose to exercise respect and sense and let the Lambo pass. But when the light turns green, that fine Italian sports car putters off at a snail's pace. Those Lamborghini replicas with 95 horsepower Geo Storm engines can be quite deceptive, can't they? This Italian supercar replica could hardly take a moped.

I have been to Shaun's a total of three times now and find it safe to say that it reminds me of Wisteria's older, well traveled, and more mature brother. Unfortunately, this is a backhanded compliment. They're both overrated in my book, but at least Shaun's menu is always interesting and the flavor pairings are uniquely complimentary and uncommon - and this is why I've come back 3 times without ever leaving wowed.

I attribute Shaun's success and popularity to two factors - Credentialism and neighborhood support. Doty has created quite the name for himself or rather his former employers' names have helped push him to respectable chefdom. Working under Guenter Seger (Ritz-Carlton) and in FIVE (you read correctly) Michelin star receiving restaurants, you can't help but think his food will be world class. When one reads the menu, the food's maturity is readily apparent. However, the taste (on 3 separate visits) always falls a little flat for a restaurant of this caliber.

The first time I visited I sampled a number of things including the schnitzel, a venison special, and the hyped-up burger. The schnitzel was great and perfectly rounded out by grilled onions, arugula and peanuts. Bambi was also delicious and featured a melt-in-your-mouth wine poached pear. The burger was a laughable spongy mess. Not good and not worth close to $16. By the way, I'm beginning to think that White Oak pastures beef is just spongy in general (see Leon's Burger). The duck fat fries were also boring and bland. Service on this visit was terrible and slow. When we arrived the putrid odor of turpentine took over the entire front of house. While the restaurant was empty, they sat us right in the front instead of seating us in the odorless back and we had to move ourselves after toxic inhalation. Seems like seating us in the back of the restaurant from the start was a no brainer and I still remember it a few years later.

My second visit was for Pasta Night. Every Sunday, Shaun's offers salad, a choice of three pastas and gelato for $12. Great idea on paper, right? Nothing like eating in a restaurant where one course will set you back $20-$30 for nearly half the price. The pasta dishes just didn't come close to being great- I'm not exaggerating that while the quality of ingredients may be better and pricier at Shaun's, you can get more memorable pasta dishes at Figo. Service, again, was slow.

My last visit was for Inman Park Restaurant Week and we were enticed by their prix fixe menu. Many of their regular menu items were available (with some new items snuck in there) with choice of appetizer (real ones, not just salad) and dessert for $25.

For the first course I ordered the pork belly salad. This dish could have been one of the best salads I've ever had, but heavy hands in the kitchen led to the over salting of the dressing, which manhandled the rest of the dish. Perfectly tender and buttery winter-greens were topped with pork belly, an actual egg fritter, and granny smith apple. The pork belly, expectedly, was salty. The egg fritter (amazing idea) was salty. And the dressing was the finishing touch on Saltfest. The bits of masterfully sliced apple were ingeniously included to off-set the savory components of the dish, but even when I took an entire forkful of just the apples, their sweetness was masked completely by the salt. Great idea, but poorly executed.

Kins ordered the cumbersome Chopped Liver appetizer. It's not my thing, so I can't comment too much on the flavor, but the dish was stacked obnoxiously high. It literally towered 4 or 5 inches off the plate atop two tiny slices of very stale bread. It had to be eaten with fork and knife which sort of misses the mark when it's on two tiny slices of bread.

The mains were both quite good. Having already tried the schnitzel, I went for the steak frites. Cooked perfectly and seasoned well, the steak was excellent and I would even say that flat iron is a smart cut for this dish. The fries were perfect and much better than I remember on my first visit. The plate was also adorned with a tiny wedge of lettuce with delicious green goddess dressing.

Kins got the grilled Loch Duart Scottish Salmon. While slightly overcooked, the salmon was tasty and the mustard mashed potatoes were the most delightful update to a normally tasty, but typically boring side.

Desserts included the fried organic sweet potato pie and Tahitian vanilla bean cheesecake. The pie was good, but the cinnamon and sugar it was tossed in, while delicious, overpowered the sweet potato filling. The honey ice cream included on the dish, didn't taste of honey at all.

I don't like cheesecake, but the vanilla bean cheesecake was divine. It was light and airy and the vanilla was showcased beautifully. The top was even bruleed! I can't describe it any more eloquently than that but it's probably the best cheesecake I've ever tried.

Service again was on the slow side. Reservation for 8:15. Flighty hostess sat us at 8:35. When we first ordered a carafe of wine, the waitress disappeared for ten long minutes only to come back and inform us that they had run out of the Malbec. I don't think she was searching the cellar.

Since it was the last night of Restauarant Week, it wasn't surprising that Shaun's was running out of items on the menu. When we arrived our waitress told us the cheesecake had been eighty sixed. Throughout the course of our dinner however, we watched slices of cheesecake being delivered throughout the restaurant. Our neighboring diners managed to ask a member of the kitchen staff about this and they said there was still cheesecake available. She made sure our two tables got a slice, which was wonderfully caring. This act of kindness totally balanced out the slow service from our waitress.

I give credit where credit is due. Props to Shaun for sourcing his ingredients conscientiously. The menu is filled with all sorts of locally farmed, organic, and/or exotic original components. Shaun's menu, on paper, is incredible - it's upscale bistro food with clean components. However, when that food is put on the table, it often falls short of being delicious. If they could just tighten up their execution on dishes and focus on better service this restaurant would easily be one of Atlanta's best but after 3 visits (with three separate menus) I have to call it quits for now.

Shaun's on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 8, 2010

Burn Baby Burn, Cuban Inferno - Havana Restaurant

Once an Atlanta institution, Havana Restaurant burned down in 2008. That with the closing of another Cuban staple, Kool Korners, left a rather bleak future for Atlanta's Cuban cuisine. I sought comfort in Papi's for many years because of it's great in-town location and their delicious and slightly nontraditional take on the Cuban Sandwich. I fear that in the past year, Papi's has really taken a nosedive and it is no longer in my weekly rotation. So what's that leave me with?

The answer is Havana Restaurant. How you ask? Well like a Phoenix rising from the proverbial and literal ashes, Havana Restaurant has been reopened in a more northern location on Buford Highway. It had been on my list to try since it's reopening, but whenever I was on Buford Highway, it never came to mind - I usually headed further north for Asian eats. But it was on one fateful day, after a dentist appointment (on Buford Highway), that I headed towards the I-85 to return to the city, that I passed the charred remains of Havana Restaurant. On the property was a man with a sandwich board advertising their new location, further up the road. To pull from Rage Against the Machine, "What better place than here? What better time than now?"

Apologies for the photos - done with a camera phone

So off I went. On a weekday at about 1 PM, Havana was slammed with office workers and locals alike. The line extended clear to the back of the restaurant but because of their swift and extremely friendly workers, it moved rapidly. Seats were being fought over, so I chose to eat on the trunk of my car in the parking lot on a rare warm day. The food, particularly the empanada, was very good and I left back to work in a minor food coma. Yesterday, Kins and I returned to chow down on some Cuban grub. I unfortunately forgot my camera, so I employed my phone for my pictures on my first visit.

The Cuban Sandwich - I felt it was a darned good rendition of what is arguablly one of the most satisfying sandwiches. They slice/shave all of their meat so it kind of comes off like an overgrown cold cut sandwich. I tend to prefer Papis, chopped, roasted pork, but this shaved variety is a close second. The tenderness of the meat provides a strikingly wonderful contrast to the crispness of the pressed Cuban bread. The pickles are wonderfully mild and perfectly crispy. Kins managed to order the Medianoche which is a Cuban with sweet egg bread. The bread was essentially a combination between challah and Cuban bread and really took the sandwich to another level.

Empanadas - I have had the chicken and cheese and plain beef ones. They are phenomenal, not greasy and large. The beef is seasoned perfectly, lean and moist. The chicken and cheese is also extremely flavorful and the cheese achieves the perfect melted consistency from the deep fryer.

Plantains - Better than most I've had and every single one had that rich, dark, caramelized coloring.

Rice and beans - with combos, one receives "black bean soup" and yellow rice. The black bean soup is essentially black beans with onions - nothing particularly special about it. The rice is quite good but a little dry and they throw some red sauce with onions on top of each order. There was a little room for improvement on these two side staples.

Materva - I ordered a Materva on my first visit which was described as a Cuban cream soda. While it was creamy it had a strong licorice/root vegetable flavor (most likely yerba mate) but was still moderately enjoyable.

Havana Restaurant is really doing things right - they have a wide variety of items on their menu, and from what I can see, it's all executed excellently. I highly recommend it for those jonesin' for a Cuban sandwich or any ethnic eats on Buford Highway.

Havana Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 1, 2010

Spellcheck - Top Flr (No Pictures)

Finally, made it to Top Flr last night. It had been a long, tumultuous journey between whether or not to go at all. I first went to Top Flr close to their opening and thought perhaps it was a bit too trendy for it's own good. I had tried their highly touted Duck Confit Pizza and enjoyed it back then, but I wasn't particularly comfortable in their black and white, highly polished digs with a DJ. Shortly after that, it started to receive some very positive praise, beckoning us to return. We were all ready to go when a few trustworthy reviews came pouring in about Top Flr's racist practices. Needless to say, we won't support a business that displays or exercises any prejudices or outright racism but enough time had passed with no other supporting reviews. So we took our chances and braved it last night. The eatery is located right on the south border of Midtown, nearly two blocks from home.

It's still like I remember it (there has been an expansion since), but it's small, dark (hence no photos), and black and white. Trendy with the potential to get loud in the late evenings I imagine. It is, with most certainty, a date spot.

The menu is covered in interesting and enticing options with epicurean twists within each selection. Fancy reductions, spices, and herbs stud the menu and it was fairly difficult to choose what to order.

We started out with the tuna tartare flatbread. This appetizer is a masterpiece featuring tender tuna, lime aioli, and a thai miso pesto. One thing: I HATE cilantro! And the flatbread tasted very heavily of it but there was none in sight. After deducing the flavor was coming from a rosemary looking item draped across the top, I asked the waiter what this unfamiliar herb was. He went to the kitch and returned with the answer - Rainbow Spouts. I can't find anything about them online but cilantro haters, avoid them at all costs!

Kins went the route of the duck confit flatbread and it was even better than I remembered. Well, the crust was burned, but the tender, fat-cooked duck was succulent, beautiful, and abundant. This is another good one to share as an appetizer if you aren't feeling the tuna tartare.

I ordered the fennel crusted salmon with blood orange reduction. The dish was O.K. The salmon didn't taste particularly fresh, but it was cooked very well and served atop some roasted fennel. The blood orange reduction however, was a masterpiece. Portion size was my main qualm with this dish and I'll get to that in a bit.

I also had to order the mac and cheese. The reviews I've read about this item are such a mixed-bag that I had to try it myself to dispel or confirm the rumors. I remember that it used to have jalapenos in it, but obviously their rendition of the southern favorite has changed. This version featured some spinach, three cheeses, and a panko bread-crumb topping. I thought it was very good and the only room for improvement was a need for more creaminess. Still, it was excellent.

Here is my problem with Top Flr (besides the spelling of their name) - Pricing. I think they sucker you in with delightful sounding items and fair looking prices. When you factor in that none of the entrees come with sides, it begins to get pricey. If the portions were an adequate size, the pricing could still be deemed fair. However, my piece of salmon was half of a fillet. Literally about 3 1/2" by 3 1/2". With no side, for 15 dollars. That's pushing it. To further prove my point, if you go to Agave and order their Salmon entree, you get a piece of fish that's twice the size and a side for $16.50. It's also better prepared, but I did enjoy the one at Top Flr.

The bottom line is that I love the menu at Top Flr (it's always a good sign when I have a tough time deciding), the atmosphere can be really nice/romantic if it isn't crowded, and their food is actually really good. I let the trendiness/pretentiousness slide at that point but the pricing should really be adjusted, or better yet, they should pair their entrees with their sides.
Top Flr on Urbanspoon