HOME | BOOKS | CONTACT
"The Great Gatsby" (2013)
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
IN THIS ISSUE
DINING OUT IN ATLANTA
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
BURKE & WILLS
By John Mariani
OUT AND ABOUT IN ATLANTA
By John Mariani
As the South's major hub city, Atlanta’s restaurateurs are in fierce competition among restaurateurs seeking to attract locals, tourists, and both national and international business. So for more than two decades, the city has been home to every kind of ethnic eatery, plenty of steakhouses, and a ballast of places that are part of Southern culinary tradition. Here are some of the new ones I like.
3455 Peachtree Road NE
Chef-restaurateur Ford Fry may have developed into Atlanta’s golden boy, having opened the bellwether seafood restaurant The Optimist, then the meat-centric King & Duke—he was also Justin Bieber’s personal chef for three months this year--and now an Italian seafood restaurant named, for no particular reason after Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians. All this in the last three years. That’s a lot of activity for a corporate chef (he also owns the Southern-style JCT.Kitchen and a place in nearby Decatur and is about to open a Mexican restaurant, too), so I wonder if all his enterprises have maintained their original quality.
When I visited St. Cecilia, it was pretty new, and the kitchen and service staff were clearly stretched and stressed. This used to be another wonderful seafood place named Bluepointe, and the bones of the soaring building are still there, with vast amounts of glass, hanging lamps, subway tiles, and wood, but nothing at all to tamp down the achingly loud noise level.
The room is huge and so is the menu—far too large to allow the kitchen to serve hundreds of guests beyond a “get-‘er-done” efficiency. Odd, then, the menu reports that it “changes daily,” meaning little or no time to perfect a dish. No surprise, then, that the crudo (right) seafood dishes ($11-$18) are the best way to go at the beginning because they need only slicing and seasoning rather than long, careful cooking time . So, too, the excellent salumi offerings ($14-$19) of meats and terrines.
Oversaucing and elaborating most of the eight pasta selections work against them. With the exception of a delicious agnolotti filled with braised short ribs and dusted with Parmigiano ($12), the rest I tried fell flat, including caramelle with smoked eggplant, tomato sauce, salsa verde and ricotta salata ($12) and corn-filled ravioli with polenta, lobster and mascarpone ($14). Only a chef unfamiliar with Italian pasta-making would marry polenta on a plate with ravioli, which in the South would be like putting grits on top of mac-and-cheese. Risotto ($15) with clams, always difficult to get to the right texture, was overcooked that evening.
As at The Optimist, the main seafood courses ring truest: a wonderful porgy with grilled lettuce, cucumber and capers ($47) and a whole loup de mer with Marcona almonds and acidic citrus ($29) were impeccably cooked. Swordfish was well rendered, simply combined with olives, tomato and garlic.
Clearly roast chicken dish and a strip steak are on the menu solely to please non-seafood eaters, and they taste that way. The chicken ($18) was not juicy but watery, perhaps from over-brining.
Desserts (all $8) need tweaking: I liked dark chocolate mousse ($8) and a crème brûlée tart, but raspberry crèmeux, chocolate budino and coconut milk panna cotta were bland, as if prepared in large batches to serve so many people.
It might be time for Fry and his group to slow down, collect their thoughts, make everything work smoothly, and focus in on their strength, which is clearly fine seafood. And think about some sound control.
Ink and Elm
1577 N Decatur Road
Located in the Emory University area of Druid Hills, Ink and Elm was opened by Nick Chaivarlis, Hunter Jefferson, and Keith Osborne a bit over a year ago and named to honor the neighborhood’s designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Ink & Elm: According to the restaurant website, “`Ink’ is an allusion to Olmsted's renderings, while `Elm’ refers to his “favorite type of tree. . . used to adorn the streets of Druid Hills in the 1890s.”
Inside there are three ways to dine in the cavernous 7,300 square foot space--in the Tavern, Dining Room, or Lounge. The first serves cocktails and sandwiches, the last oysters and charcuterie plates. The dining room is large, the tables commodious, and the chandelier lighting and colors throughout make the room darker than it looks in the photo to the right. This includes dark wooden tables without tablecloths that would reflect light and dampen sound, which is absorbed only by tweed banquettes and a curtain of sheer fabric. There’s a truly lovely window on the kitchen overlaid with a photograph of elm trees in the local Lullwater Preserve.
Executive Chef Stephen Sharp has a fine flair for modern American fare, putting emphasis on Southern ingredients and seasonality. And he keeps prices in reasonable line, perhaps so that those Emory profs can dine here occasionally.
The food has heft, it’s hearty, and it’s often deeply flavorful, dependent on the high quality of ingredients. Still, the dishes can be overloaded and messy. Heirloom tomato with pickled okra, Vidalia onion, cucumbers, lady peas, herbs and soft boiled egg and dilly vinaigrette ($14) was all about summer. Veal sweetbreads ($14) came with a sweet date puree and spinach adds a foil, with pine nut pistou, feta cheese, Port pear and naan Indian bread—way too much to allow the delicate flavor of the sweetbreads to shine through. The best dish I tried was a generous appetizer plate of luscious, succulent Georgia shrimp (below) with toasted butter, smoked ham broth, pickled peppers and charred bread ($14), which I would gladly gobble up as a main course. Pole beans and burrata came with peaches, spiced pecans, sunburst tomato, zucchini puree and shallot vinaigrette ($13); again, the cream-centered cheese got lost in the rest of the ingredients.
Entrees include a beautifully cooked and well presented trout with rock shrimp, carrot salsa verde, baby carrots and a fennel confit ($35), which just skirted being too many flavors on one plate. Carolina pork with smoked belly, ham steak, garlic sausage, field pea succotash, pole beans, leeks and a pork demi-glace ($27) is more than enough food for two people and speaks mightily of how good Southern cooking can be. So, too, does the grouper with eggplant, okra, squash, preserved tomato, purple peppers, corn and celery ($28), though few traditional Southern chefs would ever pile so much on a fish. Another big-hearted dish is the duo of lamb ($34)—braised shank, crȇpinette, smoked peach, harissa for bite, bulgur, pickled cucumber, fava beans, and almond gremolata. Obviously, with these kinds of main items you don’t need any side dishes.
You may also be too stuffed for desserts, and they are not lightweights. But they’re terrific, not least the sticky cinnamon bun with pecans, sorghum, bourbon glaze and welcome white cheddar ($9) and the butterscotch pot de crème with pumpkin butter, chocolate gingersnap and whipped cream ($9).
My eyes are now a bit blurry and fingers sore just from typing out those myriad ingredients dispersed with too much unbridled enthusiasm and little discrimination as to whether they all go together. Simplifying the menus and clashing flavors would make Ink and Elm a much better restaurant than it already is.
Open Tues.-Sun. for dinner. Sunday for brunch.
Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano
and Antico Pizza
Across the way is his Pizza Antico Napoletana (below)—a madhouse of first-come-first serve, sit anywhere communal tables, and it’s B.Y.O/B. (Bummer.) There’s a list of ten pizzas—no slices!-- from $18-$22, only produced “until the dough runs out.” At meal’s end you an get cannoli or sfogliatelle pastry. The place has had a lot of celebrity sightings, including Chris Rock and Owen Wilson. Di Palma himself, who contends he was once so poor he slept in his Dodge Challenger, now drives to work in an Aston Martin.
Other buildings on the expanding property include a Bottega and a Gelateria.
You can’t fault Di Palma’s exuberance and
good cheer, though local media seem to delight in
reporting on how he seems always to be getting in
and out of hot water in various dealings. They
include a contentiously embattled failed IT Company,
a messy public divorce, numerous lawsuits, and, a
few weeks ago, an investigation by the Federal
Department of Labor.
Gio’s Chicken Amalfitana is open for dinner Tues.-Sun; Pizza Antico Mon.-Sat.
The Polaris Restaurant
Back in the late 1960s the revolving restaurant at the top of the Hyatt Regency was all the rage, though more for the view than for the food. It lasted as a tourist attraction for decades but finally shut down. Now, having undergone a total renovation by Johnson Studios, it is called the Polaris Restaurant, re-opened this past June.
It features small plates at a variety of perches on the 45-minute rotating platform that gives you a 360-degree view of Atlanta’s skyline, which only recently has acquired any architecture that’s interesting to look at. Most of downtown looks like it was built by the Veteran’s Administration.
The dining "zone" at Polaris features a custom walnut communal table; the library and living room have lounge seating and sectional sofas and screens; the bar is where a good deal of the nightly action takes place, especially at sundown. Throughout there is a lot of bold modern artwork and sculpture, and the ceiling is finished with a remarkable, unnoticeable polished material that sucks up noise. More restaurateurs should find out about this.
I hadn’t the time to dine at The Polaris, but I found the place a pleasant diversion in the otherwise dreary downtown. And after all these years, it’s still fun to zoom up the atrium in those original John Portman elevators.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
226 West 79th Street
The cuisine of Australia has not exactly captivated the rest of the world, but then, it’s not an easy cuisine to pin down. According to Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, Australia is rich in flora, with 25,000 plant species, more than Europe, though it has only two percent of the world’s freshwater fish species.
Its aboriginal people’s diet was very basic, so, with colonization by the British, the continent’s gastronomy developed along British culinary traditions—shepherd’s pie, steamed puddings and the like. But, over the past twenty years Australia’s urban chefs have shown as much imagination and culinary talent as any on Earth. Most revel in their indigenous provender, while readily absorbing the cuisines of the Pacific Rim into their kitchens.
Australian cuisine, not unlike American, is then an amalgam immigrant cuisine, and, while New York has had a few restaurants open under the Australian banner, the year-old Burke & Wills on the Upper West Side makes a fine showing.
Named for pioneering adventurers who made an expedition across Australia in 1860, Burke & Wills is Tim Harris and Matilda Boland’s homage to the land Down Under. Harris grew up in the restaurant business in Australia, and previously worked at another Aussie restaurant (now closed) named Bondi Road. Now, with Executive Chef Rodrigo Nogueira (previously at Montmartre and the Monkey Bar), he has created a menu that offers a savory introduction to the kind of modern cuisine being served in Sydney, Melbourne and other cities, with an emphasis on the rotisserie. Harris is also your ebullient guide through a wine list heavily stocked with some of the best Aussie and New Zealand bottlings available in NYC.
Up front is a long, polished bar offering raw shellfish and a small plates menu of items like beef tartare with smoked egg and capers, and a crispy crab beignet with Japanese mayo and bonito flakes.
The very cozy dining room to the rear, with an angled skylight ceiling, is done in handsome shades of slate gray banquettes, white tablecloths and distressed stained wood, with antique Australian photos and maps on the walls. Our amiable waitress was herself appropriately an Aussie and was very helpful in explaining the menu and anything else I asked her about the cooking and Australia in general.
The menu is of a sensible size (the kitchen is cramped), with eight first courses, six mains, one or two specials, and five desserts. Our table began with fine tuna sashimi with a lush lemon custard and contrasting smoked hon shimeji mushrooms ($16). Foie gras torchon ($17) was made less predictable with the addition of a sea scallop, a confit of apple, a drizzle of honey and brioche bread. Sweet bay scallops were a special that evening, gently sautéed and subtly seasoned, tender and juicy, in a ginger broth. Best of all the starters was a highly flavorful, very juicy crêpinette of lamb with roasted cauliflower, capers and a lamb jus ($15).
B&W’s “large plates” live up to their boast: portions are very generous, and prices are, too, $17-$29. Even if unexpected in an Aussie bistro, potato gnocchi with roasted mushrooms, pecorino and grilled scallions were very welcome at our table, as was roasted chicken with roasted baby patty pan squash and a rich brown butter sauce. The fish that night was barramundi, which was pan seared and quite succulent, and the accompanying fennel barigoule and pickled fennel gave it tart spiking. (For the ichthyologists out there, this barramundi is an Asian sea bass, farmed in the U.S., not the barramundi cod that swims in Australian waters.)
Of course, what’s an Australian menu without kangaroo? At B&W the marsupial shows up as an appetizer of loin with onion soubise, roasted mushrooms and fingerling potatoes, and as a “’roo burger,” which is big and hearty, on a good roll, with tomato jam, shaved onions and fat, triple-fried potatoes (which they call “chips”). It’s a good dish, not very fatty, though more a curiosity when compared to a more flavorful beef burger. Oddly, the dish lacked a fried egg, traditional to Australian burgers.
Best of the main courses was a spiced duck breast, meaty, well fatted and served with farrotto, roasted turnips, and honey turnip puree.
You shouldn’t skip dessert here (all $8). At least share the warm chocolate cake with orange syrup, and amaretto crunch gelato, or the Pavlova--the one Australian dish many people will recognize—named after Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, who did several tours of Australia and New Zealand. It is a meringue torte with passion fruit curd, berries and kiwi fruit and then lavished with whipped cream.
Upstairs at B&W is a wood-paneled cocktail lounge—they call it a “private speakeasy open to the public”—named The Manhattan Cricket Club, arrayed with Australian cricket paraphernalia and photographs of turn-of-the-century players.
In the end, you may not exit B&W with a thorough understanding of Aussie cuisine, but you will have eaten well in a casual but sophisticated ambiance you won’t easily find downtown. Anyone who lives on the Upper West Side may well make it their own personal club to frequent.
Burke & Wills is located at 226 W 79th Street, 646-823-9251, www.burkeandwillsny.com and is open seven days a week for cocktails, bar snacks, dinner, late night and weekend brunch.
DEPT. OF BAD TASTE IN THE MOUTH
GEE! WE NEVER WOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF
ANY OF THESE ALL ON OUR OWN!!!
"The World's Toughest Restaurant Reservations (and
How to Get in),'' Condé
"The World's Toughest Restaurant Reservations (and
How to Get in),'' Condé
El Celler de Can Roca,
Girona : "Even if you encounter the same bleak
e-fate we did, you can also try calling or e-mailing the
restaurant to get yourself on the wait list."
"Stop by when you’re in town and check with the emcee to
see if any last-minute cancellations have freed up a
"To get a seat at the ten-person bar, you'll need to
know a Tokyo native (or have other Japanese host who can
vouch for you) and that's with the help of a hotel
concierge to boot."
Schwa, Chicago: "Patience, grasshopper—that and flexibility."
I'm proud and happy to announce that my new book, The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books), has just been published through Amazon and Kindle. It is a Christmas novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured favorite. The story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring back his master back from the edge of despair.
Any of John Mariani's
books below may be ordered from amazon.com.
❖❖❖FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linked to four excellent travel sites:
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences."
Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
An engaging, interactive
wine column by Nick Passmore, Artisanal Editor, Four
Seasons Magazine; Wine Columnist, BusinessWeek.com;
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET
NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John
Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,
Robert Mariani, Misha
John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein,
Andrew Chalk, Dotty Griffith and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographers: Galina Dargery, Bobby
Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
To un-subscribe from this newsletter,click here.
© copyright John Mariani 2014