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

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