Thursday, October 30, 2008

Highlight #107: Birthday feasting (Part I) - Restaurant: La Grotta

Birthday is no time for experimentation. The last thing I want is a major let down. With that said, this year, at the start of my week long birthday feasting, I wanted to go somewhere unexplored, but with a low chance of messing up. That place turned out to be La Grotta.

I have heard much about this thirty year old place from both native Atlantans and new arrivals. One thing almost everyone mentions is good service. And for a celebratory dinner, service is almost as important as food quality.

We were seated quickly once we found our way down to the dimly lit restaurant in the basement of an old condo building. The subterranean location is odd but not unpleasant as there were gracious hostess and valet at the front of the building to greet us. The room is decked out in old school mahogany to match the old school clientele. A quick look around confirmed that this birthday probably put me within twenty years of the other diners.

Our waiter was also the old school type I love. He obviously knew the menu and the wine list and delivered useful information with humor. My friends weren't of the exotic eating type, so we skipped the snails and settled on some seared calamari and grilled portobello as appetizers. The calamaries were delightfully presented in their chubby wholeness and tasted tender fresh in the bright tomato based fra diavolo sauce. No one fought me for the tentacles, which truly made me happy.

The portobello appetizer fared less well. First of all, the mushroom pieces were rather small and seemed slightly watery under the layer of goat cheese. They were also not the focus of the dish, which was mainly a baby spinach salad. Had I not expected a large dose of portobello, I would have been content with the well-dressed salad. But the dish did start out with "portobello" in the name, so... All in all though, it was a solid salad.

One friend went with even more calamari and ordered the black & white linguine with calamari. I really liked the visual of the black and white contrast. The one bite I sampled was nicely toothsome and pungent with roasted garlic in a very pleasurable way.

My special of veal ravioli was simply amazing and I don't use that word lightly. Creamy yet light, the filling coated the mouth like eating savory whipped cream. Combine that with perfectly al dente shells hot from nutty brown butter, this was heaven on a plate.

We ended things with the house dessert - the tiramisu. Not quite cakey yet not quite mousse like, the texture was akin to that of a cool soaked sponge cake. The espresso flavor could have been played up a little bit more, but the overall combination was very balanced and enjoyable. In the way of an attentive old world establishment, flutes of champagne were sent out for us to toast. For my one friend who was not drinking that night, a glass of gingerale was provided as a considerate touch.

There you have it. A solid night of dining that started off my birthday week on the good foot.

La Grotta
2637 Peachtree Road NE
Atlanta, GA 30305

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Highlight #106:It looked like it, but it wasn't it - Restaurant: Nam

Some days ago on my way to Trader Joe's, I saw the sign for Nam, now almost invisible from the road behind the new construction. I made a mental note then to revisit the place on a night when we feel like Vietnamese but are not up for driving to Buford Highway.

Then there was such a night and I remembered the note in the back of my mind. We were both in the mood for something a bit lighter that night and started things off with a green papaya salad. Savory from the fish sauce and a little sweet from a pinch of sugar, the crunchy papaya carried the refreshing flavors very well, especially when paired with the chewy shreds of beef jerky for textural contrast.

Our other appetizer was far less successful. Perhaps my expectation had been set too high in my hope to relive a wonderful experience at a Saigon curbside stall. Unlike that delicate lacy rice crepe from the land of Madame Butterfly, this incarnation, while looking somewhat like it, was constructed too thick and, as a result, emerged from the frying pan with a toothsome mochie like dense texture. It seemed that the thick shell had also prevented heat from properly penetrating to the innards and left the bean sprouts rather soggy.

The lemongrass beef brought things back to the level where the green papaya salad started the meal at. The primary impression here was the extreme tenderness of the beef. I often find that Asian stir fried dishes have a way of achieving that higher lever of softness in protein, the secret being a light coating of corn starch and high heat, which together seal in the moisture. The lemongrass flavor was very subtle here. What wasn't subtle were the flecks of dried onion bits. I am not sure if that's standard addition in this dish, but for some reason, it worked well in contrast to the softness of the beef.

For a place that is close in town, we enjoyed the meal. But if I really crave good Vietnamese, I am still driving up to Buford Highway.

931 Monroe Dr NE
Atlanta, GA 30308
(404) 541-9997

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Highlight #105: Another place to nibble - Restaurant: Eros Tapa Lounge

There are plenty of people who hate the tapa trend of the last few years. Not me. I am a nibbler. I love the small plate format. When the dishes are priced right, I see nothing but variety and value.

Before the weather got cold, six of us gathered on the large patio of Eros, which took over the former Pie Bar space, to wind down a busy week and to express our surprise over M's impending move to Iraq. What can I say, she is a brave one.

The loud 80s music videos playing on flat screens all over the patio raised some question marks in our minds about the quality of the food. But the reasonable prices encouraged us to order. Once the first plate came out, our minds were put to ease. Food was good here.

The homey meatballs were large yet tender. There were just enough breading in them to lighten the texture, but not too much to achieve that smooth processed meat feel. The rustic marinara introduced a tangy bite, but did not drown the meatballs.

The grilled lamb chops were prepared with just a little olive oil, oregano, and a dash of lemon juice. The simplicity of it was wonderful because the chops were prepared expertly to medium rare. Nothing was there to mask the natural lamb flavor. Neither did I detect any strong gaminess.

The fried goat cheese balls evoked images of a kindred spirit at Ecco. Drizzled with honey and sprinkled with walnut bits, these were as good as they sound. The ceviche octopus was less successful. While the tentacle pieces were of the right tenderness, the mixture of tomatoes, mango, onions, and lime juice rather smothered the octopus in both presentation and taste.

Fried zucchini chips are perhaps one of my favorite fried vegetables and these were done well. Crispy and non-too-greasy, they were a delight to snack on dipped in the cooling tzatziki.

Chorizo in red wine with chickpeas was exactly that. I liked it just fine, but got excited about none of the elements. It might have been a good one pot meal at home, but considering the quality of the other excellent bites here, I wanted a bit more.

We finished with a collection of three desserts. The baklava has never been my favorite dessert, finding it too tooth achingly sweet. Eros' version wasn't all sticky sweetness and the nuts tasted fresh. It was not my favorite, but by no means bad. The large brownie on the other hand was great. Crunchy on the edges and almost fudgey in the middle, it had all the pleasing textural elements to appeal. The chocolate content was also not too shabby, especially drizzled with a good bit of chocolate sauce. I can't remember at all what the last dessert was (even looking at the photo). It looks almost like the fried goat cheese balls described above... In any case, it must have been okay, but not exceptional.

Eros Tapas Lounge
2160 Monroe Dr. NE
Atlanta, GA

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Highlight #104: Bloggers! Together! - Restaurant: Cuerno

It's always more fun to eat with a group. This is especially true for a group of people who spend most of their spare time reading about food, taking photos of food, and writing about food. So it was with great pleasure that I shared a meal with a few delightful bloggers at Cuerno.

Both Molly from Disposable Income and Gene from Eat, Drink, Man were as wonderful in person as they are in print. I was beyond giddy when the group, which also included a friend and two SOs, decided in the collective that we were excited about the rabbit and snail paella enough to order it.

While the paella cooked, we nourished ourselves on conversation and some nibbles. Among the plates was a salt cod fritter, which JM and I fell in love with while in Barcelona. Were these as good as what we had in Spain? Perhaps not (a little too mushy). But that's almost an impossibly high standard to meet considering that memory has a way of coloring good experiences in heavenly hues. These were soft and a little creamy from having been washed (probably in milk). There was no excessive saltiness, just a pleasant savoriness.

My favorite from a previous visit made another appearance. These grilled scallops were quite sweet, but were just a bit more cooked than the last time, which I had always thought about fondly. Perhaps the slight thinness of the scallops had something to do with it. Regardless, they were seasoned well and benefited from the generous dose of green-tasting olive oil.

The paella was flavored well and boasted quite an abundance of rabbit pieces and plump snails. If there was anything to pick on, it would have been the lack of a crunchy bottom. In this rather strange sounding combination, the earthiness of the snails really complemented the slight gaminess (in a good way) of the rabbit to create balanced bites.

Besides the paella, we also ordered a few other mains including this steak. As you can see, the meat was cooked to just the right temperature and, as a result, was very tender. A little more salt may have made it even more fantastic.

More than the food, we laughed like old friends rather than new acquaintances. I like to think that it's because food people are just happier people in general. :) We'll be doing it again for sure.

905 Juniper St.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Highlight #103: Magic with butternut squash and young pumpkin

Fall brings with it a vegetable that both my mom and I adore. This season, with my folks settled in Atlanta, I finally have the pleasure of tasting my mom's creations as well as my own. This weekend, we lunched at my parents' house and enjoyed a fantastic squash soup done the old fashion way. No blender or processor were called into service. Mom simply spent her time rendering the squash pieces into a broken down state in homemade chicken stock. Just a little mashing took place with the help of a fork, but most of the chunks were left intact for texture, just the way I like it. Simple as that, the soup was superb and extruded in abundance the sweetness of the butternut squash.

Satisfied with a seven dish lunch, mom and I went on to make one of the most adorable treats of the season. Check out these mini pumpkin mochies ready for steaming. They are as cute as can be and so easy to make. Mom mixed up some glutinous rice flour with water while I mashed a handful of cooked pumpkin chunks into a paste. The two mixtures were introduced to each other, covered in sugar, and kneaded into a slightly orange dough. While mom went on with the kneading, I whipped up a filling of red bean paste, some lard, and sugar. Then we formed some ping pong sized dough balls and filled them with slightly smaller balls of red bean paste. With a knife, we cut pumpkin folds into the balls and adore the tops with a pea for stem. Into the steamer they all went as round balls. Ten minutes later, mini pumpkins emerged a little smoother and much more orange. The exterior texture was classic mochie chewy and the red bean center was sweet and soft. Taste aside, the joy of these lie in the delight of making something so autumn-ish in honor of this beautiful season.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Highlight #102: Taste of Atlanta - Restaurants: Joli Kobe Bakery & Cafe, Straits, Bhojanic, Cafe 458, Sugno Gelato, and Johnny Rockets

Over the years I've grown fearful of crowds, especially when parking is a part of the equation. So every year past I've stayed away from the Taste of Atlanta at Atlantic Station, until this year. This year, I decided to be brave. After all, I've lived with crowds all those years in China and my dear husband J still teases me for my ability to part the human sea if necessary.

Girlfriend J and I arrived early as the vendors were just finishing their final setup. Before long, the meats began to sizzle on grills all through the grounds.

I had planned to start the day with something salty, but as soon as I saw these macarons, my plan went right out of the window. Finally, we have a bakery intown that makes macarons on a daily basis. I tried the pistachio, my go to flavor, and like it. I am not going to lie, this wasn't the best or even the top ten macarons I've ever had. But beggars can't be choosers. This was pretty darn good considering we don't have any other place intown when the craving hits. Now if Alon's decided to stock them on a regular basis, then we'll have competition.

I followed up the sweet stuff with something I've been craving, spicy Indian from Bhojanic. The bright orange color of the chicken tikka masala scared me a little, but the taste was just fine. A little spicy, but not enough to induce any sweating, the flavors were quite complex and cohesive.

Ribs seemed to be everywhere on Saturday and one of the best I tasted was from Straits. I still have not made my way to the restaurant, afraid to be disappointed, especially since I just came back from feasting in Singapore, where Straits draws its inspirations. But these little ribs were surprisingly tender and thoroughly seasoned with a nice interpretation of southeast asian sweet/savory flavor if not an authentic one. I enjoyed it very much even without any forks or napkins.

The rib bits from Cafe 458, on the other hand, were less successful. Quite a bit tougher and a little too sweet, the hoisin stickiness pretty much overwhelmed any other flavor.

We also had some shrimp curry from Asam house that was alright with tiny but not over cooked shrimps.

On the dessert end, I was super excited to see Sugno Gelato as I had heard some good things about it and probably wouldn't have driven all the way up to Cumming to try it. I was able to get both caramel and coffee in a single cup. Unfortunately, neither wowed me. They were not bad, neither too sweet nor too rich. But nothing in the cup grabbed me. I couldn't detect any coffee nuance or caramel richness.

To use up the last of our tickets, we bought a couple of shots of Johnny Rockets milkshake in both vanilla and chocolate. You know what, these wowed me. Creamy and old fashioned, both the vanilla and the chocolate tasted of whole mike and real cream. What more could one ask for. It was simply yet heavenly.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Highlight #101: Birthdays and anniversaries - Restaurants: El Taco, Shaun's, and Chef Blais

This past week marked the second anniversary of Shaun's, one of my favorite places in the city. Girlfriend J wasted no time in suggesting that we head over for the celebratory dinner, which also featured chef Craig Sauls of the soon to open El Taco in the old Sala space and chef Richard Blais.

The first tasting course, which looked like a little gnome's lost hat, was from chef Sauls. Stuffed with masa sopes mixed with bbq chicken and sweetgrass dairy pepper cheese, both the texture and flavor were complex and further benefited from a shot of spice in the color contrasting green sauce. If this was any indication of what we have to look forward to at El Taco, then my interest was piqued.

We ordered a side of braised mushrooms as another starter. I am a big fan of mushroom and have had some great ones at Shaun's in a grits dish, but this bowl went beyond great, it was divine. Slightly charred on the outside, the pieces of mushrooms almost sizzled all the way to the mouth. The chew was meaty and so was the savory flavor. I could have just ate a large bowl of this for dinner and stayed blissfully happy.

I was looking forward to seeing how Blais would match chef Doty's more wholesome food and then realized that no one ever said that this dinner was supposed to be coordinated in that way. In a way, it was nice to see the chefs just doing whatever they wanted. The relaxed approach suited the style of Shaun's. Maybe that was the point. This hamachi was fresh tasting without much meddling, the way that fresh hamiachi should be. The fried chicken skin had the mouth feel of crackling and was not so much like the grilled chicken skin I so love at Japanese izakayas. Maybe that's also the point - to make the chicken skin flavor not so prominent. The smoked mayonnaise raviolis were classic Blais. Having the mouth feel of creme fraiche, the adorable balls coated the already oil rich hamachi with another layer of decadence. J declared this the best dish of the evening, but I reserved my affection for another dish yet to come.

Blais followed up with grilled cod with crispy clams and of course lemon scented foam. I still miss the perfect piece of poached salmon I had at Element, where Blais came table side with the fish fillets inside army heating packs. That was cool. This cod was imbued with the right amount of salt, but just a little over the hill on the tenderness side of things.

I have to be honest. We really order the beef tartar for the fries. We almost can't go to Shaun's without getting the duck fat fries. They were as good as ever, with or without ketchup. The tartar on the other hand paled in comparison to the hamachi. I know, I know, it's not the same thing. But I can't help it. In comparison, it was tougher in texture and a little short of salt. I stress in comparison because I would have happily eaten this for lunch any day.

My heart belonged that night to the heritage pork schnitzel with vidalia onion and foie gras croutons. I could have even lived without the onion or the foie gras. Really, even the foie gras. The schnitzel was so crunchy, tender, and well seasoned, nothing else held my interest on the plate. All I wanted to do was to experience and re-experience the sequence of crunchy and then juicy. It was dreamy stuff.

The dessert of the evening screamed southeast asia, but had its roots in Carolina. The gold rice pudding with cardamom and honey ice cream looked and tasted very much similar to a sticky rice and coconut milk concoction called pulut hitam (black rice pudding). Both had great texture that contrasted sticky with creamy and hot with cold. And as with any ice cream, I enjoyed it immensely.

I was intrigued by the turnip cake with miso ice cream. It came out looking more like a carrot cake than what I thought turnip cake would look like (more gray). I think it was intended as a play on the carrot cake, and if so, it was an okay one, but I loved the ice cream more. The miso was not a token addition. Rather, it added a real salty edge to the ample cream in this home style ice cream. As an ice cream lover, I highly recommend this to anyone looking for something familiar yet different.

J had on a fabulous black and white dress that deserved to be seen by more than me. :) So here it is. I was honored that she wore it for me. Although, deep down I know she really did it for herself and that's the way it should always be.

1029 Edgewood Ave. NE
Atlanta, GA 30307

The Original El Taco
1186 N. Highland Ave. NE
Atlanta, GA 30306

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Highlight #100: A southern gem - Restaurant: Dogwood

A southern restaurant with a name like Dogwood simply cannot not serve grits. But rather than doing it grudgingly, Dogwood had decided to take this requirement to new heights by putting the humble grits on a pedestal. From the Dogwood grits bar, one could order at least three dressed grits and a today's special. On the day we went for a birthday lunch, the choices included braised mushrooms, butter poached lobster, ham and pimento cheese, and a special of Logan Turnpike "Fools Gold." As you can see, we chose the lobster. While the lobster chunk was tiny, the grits was not, and it was fabulous. Made from a much larger grain than what is normally found around town, this glamorized version tasted almost like mac and cheese with a grainier texture. Lovely stuff. Maybe the restaurant can work on a bit more lobster?

I was in the mood for one of my favorite things, the scallops, so ordered the pan seared dayboat scallops on dirty rice cake with a chicken and oyster gumbo sauce. I am not going to get all technical about the usage of "dayboat," but let's just say that whether or not they qualify as the dayboat variety, they are of a rather small specie. What the scallops lacked in stature, the dirty rice cake and gumbo sauce made up in flavor. Specifically, the dirty rice cake was slightly crunchy on the outside and amply spiced within. And the dirty rice cake was boasted even further in umami quotient by the thickish gumbo sauce full of shredded chicken. This was a satisfying, but light lunch option for dainty ladies as I imagine most men will need a second portion.

Or said men can get the buttermilk fried springer mountain chicken breast, baked mac & cheese, and braised greens. Birthday girl K got this without much hesitation. Unlike my usual self, I didn't ask for a taste. After all, it was a work lunch and I was treating. I fought against my fork dying for a mouthful and tried to stay somewhat professional. Darn, that chicken looked good. So did the mac...

We can't have a birthday lunch without desserts, so I convinced everyone to share two, the maple cheesecake and blackberry chocolate cornbread upside down cake with coffee gelato. The cheesecake, to my delight, was more cake than cheese. Considering that I prefer a more textured cake, this was right up my alley without sacrificing any moistness. However, the maple flavor could not be detected under the rather assertive apple cranberry compote...

The cornbread upside down cake, on the other hand, was more about the blackberries and chocolate than the cornbread cake. Regardless, it was taken to a higher place by the coffee gelato that was pure decadence with its cream content, which was closer to a high butterfat ice cream than the leaner gelato. Such technicalities aside, this was lovely stuff perfect for lunch.

565 Peachtree St. NE
Atlanta, GA 30308

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I cry for Atlanta

I just catch a glimpse of Bravo's new Real Housewives of Atlanta and I am speechless.

Our collective class level had just dropped by about a gazillion percent. To settle my stomach, I had to get something hard and warm down. Luckily, on hand was this great old world Bourbon from our dear friend K. This Noah's Mill 15 year literally jumped out of the glass with buttery pralines, which almost instantly soothed my nerves.

I suppose we'll have deal with many more episodes of this horrid stuff. With this bourbon, I may just make it... It's amazing how much money can't buy. Sad sad night of television.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Highlight #99: Jujube

The Chinese red dates or jujubes are in season now. Of course, these fresh ones look nothing like the dried red dates that are always present in the various Chinese health soups. The fresh ones destined to be eaten as fruits are picked much earlier than its siblings meant for drying. Those are left on the trees until fully ripen and red all through.

These spotted fresh ones are a bit spongy and slightly sweet. It's not the most attract fruit in either taste or appearance, but it's fibrous enough to be a great detoxing agent. :) I grew up with a dad who loves them because he had a tree in the back yard on which he played and ate as a child. So we both grew up associating love and fun with them and end up being lovers of these rather bland fruits. Such is nostalgia.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Highlight #98: Remebering Bali - Part I: Gangsa

It's easy to remember Bali. And it's easy to remember Gangsa, where every waking moment spelled pleasure. You can tell me that I am biased because I was on my honeymoon, but pictures do not lie.

Imagine starting every morning with breakfast this glorious. It may not look like much, but I can tell you that ripe avocados were born to marry young coconut milk in this avocado shake. A little sweet and plenty creamy, this stuff is surely the nectar of gods. Of course, there was also Javanese coffee. Need I say more?

My favorite breakfast choice was this nasi goreng (fried rice). Sounds simply but oh so good. Each distinct rice grain was imbued with a savory and slightly sweet flavor that is unique to Indonesia and this Balinese version also seemed somewhat lighter than its cousins on the other islands. The mini skewers of satay added some protein and a good dose of charred charm. And the egg, the incredibly wobbly egg. It was the secret that tied everything together and took the rice concoction to a whole new level with its stickiness.

After breakfast, there was never any hurry to do anything. We took our coffee to the outdoor living area of our fenced villa next to the pool while we caught up on a bit of world news. To be honest, everything seemed so far away, even the terrible stock market that was taking my portfolio for a sharp downward spin.

When we finally got ourselves worked up for a bit of excursion, our 24 hour butler quickly arranged for a car equipped with cookies to take us to our little private piece of beachfront. The shade was absolutely necessary here. The Balinese sun was fierce as J soon found out.

On the day when we felt a bit more active, there was snorkeling just a quick ride off shore on the colorful catamaran. With just a bit of bread, the neon colored fishes swam right up to my hand, but always too quick for me to pet. J was more adventurous, and dived down to the bottom to get shells for me and to touch a natural Buddha head formation.

After the exertion, we went back to Gangsa to relax and found that our 24 hour butler had drawn a nice scented bath in the outdoor tub for us as a prelude to our afternoon massage. If that's not decadence, I don't know what is.

In the lazy afternoon, from my vantage point lounging next to the pool, I caught this great photo of J mid air on his way into our pool for a dip.

As for myself, I enjoyed my after massage glow on the couch with an afternoon fruit. The snake fruit to be exact. Despite the scaly texture, the flesh was crunchy and sweet like a harder peach.

Just before night fall, our butler brought a small army of the most happy workers I've ever seen to dump buckets of flower pedals into our pool. In response to my puzzled look, he asked with the biggest smile on his face "may we set up for your candle light dinner"?

But of course. How does one refuse a full pool of flowers in the softest pink, brightest fuchsia, and orange. Also placed around the villa were dozens and dozens of handmade banana leaf covered candles ready for darkness.

As night fell, we found our villa lit up to match the heavily populated constellations in the sky.

Our feast included a sampler of Balinese specials for tasting. Surrounding the fried onion topped Balinese rice were delightful samples including sweet/savory ground pork on sugar cane skewers, fried prawn in their entirely covered in a light tangy sauce, and steamed fish inside banana leaves. We love everything and felt light rather than weighed down afterwards.

For dessert, our butler brought us a little bonus almond cake. I've never heard of happy honeymoon before, but we loved the gesture and the cake.

Also for dessert, we had the requisite agar agar type dessert with chocolate mouse and coconut milk. In it's smoothness and jello like wobbliness, this dessert exemplified what the Southeast Asians love in a light dessert, the cooling texture.

There is so much more to tell you about Bali. I'll try to mix the Bali posts in with the updates on our beloved Atlanta.