Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Food For Thought: Summer Food


The first solid food that I ever ate was my father's home grown tomatoes. When I was a year old he would cut a tomato into tiny chunks and feed it to me in my high chair. Some years he would produce a bumper crop and give them out as gifts to our grateful neighbors.

From the time before I was born, Daddy has almost always cultivated a little garden in the summer. I remember that he, my sister Sabrina and I would pile in Daddy's immaculately clean pickup truck every spring and drive to the local gardening store or the dreaded Wal-Mart, where he would choose a few vegetable plants to grow that year. Sometimes we had okra, sometimes green bell peppers, often we would get yellow squash. However, no matter what else Daddy chose he always made sure to buy several tomato plants, Big Boy being his favorite variety. When we got back to the house we didn't waste any time clearing out our garden space, tilling the soil, planting the starts and erecting wire cages for the tomatoes. In the days afterward we took turns watering the garden. Planting the garden was a family group activity, one that everyone enjoyed.

When I was a child I hated to eat, and Daddy practically had to force feed me at every meal. Even though I didn't enjoy eating back then, I experienced a definite satisfaction from seeing the vegetables grow and receiving tangible and visible proof that our family's hard work in the hot sun had paid off. Once the tomatoes were ripe, my sister and I would argue about who would get to pluck them from the vines.

Tomatoes were one food that Daddy never had to make me eat. I always loved tomatoes, and would sometimes make an entire meal of them. The ones from our garden tasted so superior to the ones at the grocery store, so juicy and flavorful. The red skin seemed darker, the fruit heavier. After we picked them, Sabrina and I would carefully rinse them under the warm water in the sink before Daddy sliced them and arranged them on a dinner plate. We salted them heavily and ate them every night for dinner, taking pleasure in the refreshing fruit during the humid Southern nights in July and August. Tomatoes, to me, are inextricably related to summer.

Do you have a food that you specifically relate to summer? Please share your memories of your own special summer food.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cafe 458




458 Edgewood Ave., http://www.cafe458atl.com/

My boyfriend Kyle and I ate brunch at Cafe 458 today. I have been eating Sunday brunch at Cafe 458 once every few months for over three years now, and this was Kyle's fourth brunch there. The restaurant is located in a somewhat sketchy area of the city on Edgewood Avenue, but I have never felt unsafe there during the late morning hours on the weekend.

Cafe 458 is in itself a novelty. It's run by The Samaritan House, a local nonprofit geared towards getting Atlanta's homeless into the workforce and off the streets. Cafe 458 is staffed almost entirely by volunteers. During the week the Cafe serves homeless individuals, allowing them to regain a bit of their dignity by ordering and eating good food in a restaurant setting. The rest of Atlanta gets the opportunity to dine at Cafe 458 for Sunday brunch. All proceeds, including any tips, go to The Samaritan House's work. It's a unique and self-sustaining idea.

Before it's renovation a few years ago, courtesy of a local TV show, the interior of the Cafe looked almost exactly like my high school cafeteria, albeit on a much smaller scale. Cups and silverware were mismatched, tables were rickety and chairs were uncomfortable and boring. Now the place is really cute, decorated in brown, cream and dark orange with photos of the participants in the Samaritan House's programs. It's attractive and cozy.

Kyle ordered the day's special, the cinnamon raisin French toast, which came with cheesy eggs and bacon. He was a little disappointed, primarily because he'd previously eaten a Texas French toast at the Cafe and preferred it over the thinner, drier toast of today. I ordered the smoked salmon omelet, which was accompanied by three links of sausage, basil home fries and a biscuit. The biscuit could easily have come out of the Pillsbury can, which isn't really a bad thing. The basil home fries were a little unpleasantly spicy. The omelet was very good. The chopped smoked salmon was nicely complemented by a garlic pico de gallo style topping, which also contained a refreshing citrusy flavor.

Although we weren't completely won over by our selections today, we've been consistently impressed in the past. Kyle really loves the Carolina pulled pork eggs benedict, a regular menu item. A few months ago I thoroughly enjoyed the special French toast; that day it was bananas foster with powdered sugar, surrounded by diced honeydew melon. It was beautifully plated and richly delicious. Considering the great quality of most of the menu items, you're getting an excellent deal.

The service, however, is often a problem. Today we arrived at the Cafe when it was nearly empty, so we were served promptly by a very polite waiter, and we received our orders correctly. Unfortunately this isn't always the case. Service is often very, very slow, and I have been served an incorrect order more than once. Getting a mistake corrected will likely tack on another 15 minutes to your wait time. Since Cafe 458 is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, I have to give them a large amount of leeway on this front, but I don't always have time to spend two hours there for brunch, and I don't think most people have the patience or tolerance for slow service either. Today one of the waitresses smelled strongly of marijuana. On the bright side, I have never had a server exhibit a negative attitude and each person has always made a big effort to perform the job well. Service has improved during my past three visits to the Cafe, so I am optimistic.

Another problem is that the Cafe is often out of items standard on the menu. I've ordered hot chocolate almost every time I've eaten there (think around twenty brunches), and the Cafe has only had it on hand three times. Once I was told that they had the ingredients, but no employee knew how to make it. Today my first choice entree was the fish, shrimp and grits, but my polite waiter informed me that they were out of fish. I assume the management is to blame for these shortages. Again, when I dine there I try to keep in mind that most of the people working there are graciously volunteering their time, and the money is going to a great cause.

I noticed that two other restaurants - Cafe Circa and Edgewood Corner Tavern - located right beside Cafe 458 are also now offering brunch. I am afraid that if the service at Cafe 458 doesn't pick up, it is destined to lose much of its business to these more professional competitors. I hope for the sake of Samaritan House and fans of Cafe 458 that the Cafe can take some steps towards improvement in the near future. It would be a shame for this great organization if the Cafe failed.

Verdict: A wonderful cause, a great idea and a generally awesome brunch for the same price as your local IHOP. Be prepared for at least some menu items to be out of stock. Service is somewhat inconsistent but seems to be improving.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Kiosco



48 Powder Springs St., Marietta www.Kioscocolombianrestaurant.com

Last night my friend Erin and I ate dinner at Kiosco, a Columbian restaurant in the Marietta Square (or about 100 feet from it, down Powder Springs Rd.). It's small, with only seven or eight tables and a small but cute bar area. Marietta offers an abundance of Brazilian restaurants, but this is the first Columbian one I have seen, so I was anxious to try it.

Any time I have the opportunity to order sangria, I do, so Erin and I each enjoyed a glass. It was slightly above average. I liked the julienned slices of apple that floated amidst the burgundy liquid. It wasn't too strong, and it wasn't too weak. Two glasses should do it for a normal person.

We started with an appetizer of fried sweet plantains, which were good, although they screamed for salt. Once salted, they were delicious.

For the entree, I ordered a Columbian Tamale and Erin ordered the Medio Pollo al Horno, or half roasted chicken with raspberry sauce. The Columbian tamale was attractively presented on sage green colored steamed banana leaves. It contained carrots, tomatoes, pork and chicken, and was accompanied by a small, white corn bread. I wish it would have tasted as good as it looked. The corn bread lacked sufficient flavor. Not being familiar with Columbian food, I might be completely off on this, but I found the tamale (like the plantains) in great need of salt and the concoction itself to be too mushy, perhaps baked too long. I have no idea if banana leaves are considered edible or not, but in the spirit of adventure I tried a long piece of one, and found it too be too stringy to pursue. I rate the dish overall as average. The half chicken was a great value. For $11.95 the chicken was large and perfectly roasted, and the raspberry sauce was a surprising and unique condiment. Erin took at least half of it home with the intent to eat it for lunch the next day. Each entree came with either lentil soup or garbanzo bean salad, and Erin and I both opted for the salad. The salad included the beans, cilantro, lime juice, red onion and carrots. I liked it, but didn't love it. Columbians (or at least the ones running this restaurant) must be partial to carrots, because they were included in every dish, apart from the plantains.

For dessert we shared the figs in syrup with cheese. The figs were great, and I am always happy to spot them on a menu, especially in summer, because they aren't overly heavy. The syrup was hot and tasted of caramelized sugar. The cheese was unfortunately lacking. It reminded me of a less crumbly feta without the goat flavor. If that sounds difficult to imagine, just rely on the adjective "boring". I feel that figs and cheese are a nice combination and think that the dessert could definitely be improved by a cheese with a little more personality. Although I wasn't especially impressed with this dessert, I did like the looks of the dessert menu, which included passion fruit flan, coconut cobbler and bourbon cake as additional options. I definitely want to return and try one of these along with one of the dishes containing chorizo, which the restaurant claims is homemade.

In regards to the decor, the restaurant seems to be experiencing something of an identity crisis. The interior walls are dressed with black and white pictures of Marietta Square in the early part of the century, instead of photos or paintings of Columbia. There was almost no indication within the decor that the restaurant served authentic Columbian food, which is a shame, since that's presumably why the patrons are dining there. In the restroom there is a nice woven picture of what appears to be the Columbian hills, but on the adjacent wall there is (incongruously) a sketch of an Italian cafe. Several establishments in the Square, including the Strand theatre and Shillings on the Square, already have lots of Square memorabilia. Kiosco should take a lesson from the unpretentious but successful Australian Cafe around the corner and be itself.

It is noteworthy that the restaurant is currently offering a special of one appetizer, two entrees and a pitcher of sangria for $35, a good deal if you can stop there for dinner on Monday through Thursday nights. As Erin and I ate at the restaurant on Friday night, the deal wasn't applicable to us, but we spent about the same amount of money.

Verdict: Kiosco is worth a try and probably won't disappoint. Your best bet is to eat dinner there on a Thursday, when you can partake of the $35 full meal for two deal, then stroll over to the Atlanta Lyric Theatre (at the Strand) and catch a high quality musical. Make the most of a night in the Square at these unique venues.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cafe Agora



262. E Paces Ferry Rd., Atlanta http://www.cafeagora.com/

Let me start with this: I promise that all of my reviews will not be of restaurants located only in Buckhead. I know that the first three restaurants have all been located within a five mile area on Peachtree, and this is merely a coincidence. I will be reviewing restaurants and taverns in all of metro Atlanta. Bear with me in the meantime, because Cafe Agora is really special.

Cafe Agora is a casual restaurant right in the middle of what could formerly be described as Buckhead's club district. It serves Turkish, Greek and Mediterranean style cuisine and also offer takeout. For those night owls in search of great food, the restaurant is open until an astonishing late 4am on Fridays and Saturdays.

I had lunch at Cafe Agora today, and this was my third visit to the restaurant. The food here is outstanding, and is served to you by a seemingly always upbeat, extremely personable Turkish man named Al. You will love him. Why will you love him? Because he is rightfully proud of the fresh, delicious food that the restaurant serves, and he is determined that you will like it too.

When you dine at Cafe Agora, be sure and tell Al that it's your first time eating there. You'll know who he is, because he'll approach you right away and he might be the only employee who will speak to you. Don't worry, Al is enough. He will confidentally inform you that the food is great, then he will probably recommend the meze appetizer plate. Recommend may not be the right word. Most likely he'll just tell you you're going to eat it. Don't get upset about this, because it might be the best item on the menu. It's all vegetarian, for those of you who are concerned with that. You'll get a good sized, colorful platter of creamy hummus, tahini, cilantro, tomatoes and olives with a second plate of small slices of pita for dipping. The babaganoush is out of this world, eggplant transformed into a edible powerhouse. If you let him, Al will feed it to you. Try not to get freaked out. He looks clean, and he's very sweet. Consider yourself pampered.

If you've followed Al instructions and refrained from filling up on the pita, you will have room for an actual entree. The gyros are excellent. They are piping hot, with with a combination of spit roasted beef and lamb. The kebabs, if you have a bigger appetite, are even better. The meat is perfectly roasted and spiced, and it comes with a small salad and warm, doughy baked bread. What could be better? Here's what's better - you'll end up spending about $10 per person for a fantastic meal and great service.

Please leave a little room for dessert. The baklava is the best I've ever had. The honey, the soft but crisp baked phyllo dough and the bright green, ground pistachio covering the top all add up to a wonderful treat. Unlike a lot of baklava served around Atlanta, it's not overly sweet, so you won't go into sugar shock after eating one piece. Instead, you'll want to take some home, like my friend Dave did today.

I've traveled to Turkey (Kusadasi), but only for a day, so I'm not an expert on the food. However, my friend Kevin was stationed there during his military days and he said the food is authentic. Another big plus.

If anything keeps this place from being perfect, it's the same thing that makes it so great: Al's excitement about the food. If you don't eat everything on your plate, his disappointment is obvious. He's not mad, he just feel like he's failed you a little bit. He can't really understand that you might have stuffed yourself to your full capacity.

How do you convince Al that you really loved Cafe Agora's food, thereby alleviating his worries and smoothing his sensitive feathers? You come back another day, and eat some more.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Restaurant Eugene







2277 Peachtree Rd. Atlanta http:/http://www.restauranteugene.com/

Last night my friend Kelly and I had dinner at Restaurant Eugene. Kelly had recently devoted over eleven hours of her time to teach me to bake bread, and although she refused to allow me to properly compensate her for this service she finally agreed to let me treat her to dinner. I knew that if I simply asked Kelly where she wanted to dine she would end up choosing something cheap out of courtesy, so I bypassed a potentially awkward situation by sending her links to ten different upscale restaurants across the metro Atlanta area. Of these, she selected Restaurant Eugene.

As soon as I made our reservation I started getting really excited. Restaurant Eugene, which opened in 2006, is having a really hot year. The chef, Linton Hopkins, was named as one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs, and the restaurant itself has been nominated for the James Beard Awards (in the Southeast division, which includes GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, and WV). My gym buddy, David, is a big fan of the restaurant and thinks it's better than Bacchanalia, a bold statement. My friend Paul, a fellow foodie, confirmed this, although he thought the comparison with Bacchanalia was a little much.

Restaurant Eugene is located on Peachtree, a stone's throw away from the Peachtree Battle shopping center, home of Cafe Lapin (previously reviewed last week). They offer complimentary valet.

After making any lunch or dinner reservation I immediately access the restaurant's website so I may peruse the menu and make some tentative decisions. I did this a week prior to my dinner at Eugene's, and was surprised at the length and depth of the selections. Just as I was beginning to feel overwhelmed, I saw that the restaurant offers a 5 course and a 7 course chef's tasting menu. It has been awhile since I indulged in a tasting menu - I think the last time was in Charleston, SC in early 2007 - so I opted to go for it. Kelly agreed to join me.

The decor was warm, but not especially interesting. Although the restaurant was nearly full when we were there for dinner, the noise level was only moderate.

Before we placed our order, I inquired for more information about the 5 course menu. She informed us that we would be served the chef's selection of raw fish, cooked fish, protein and vegetable, cheese and dessert. Kelly and I felt this was a sufficient amount of food, so we consented. Next, our waitress asked if we had any food allergies, dietary restrictions or strong aversion to any particular foods. I told her that we were completely open to whatever the chef chose to serve us. She seemed very pleased about this, so I gather that the waitstaff is normally confronted with very picky diners.

Here's what I think about that: too bad for those people. Kelly and I enjoyed every one of our five courses. Beforehand we were presented with tiny white porcelain lionshead bowls of cold broccoli soup with chive oil, a very nice choice for a hot summer night.

The first course was a raw Alaskan white salmon accented with parsley oil, thinly sliced red onion, pickled fennel and tarragon. Fresh, unusual and tasty. Upon inquiry, the waitress informed us that the chef's specialty was pickling, and that his bread and butter pickles were especially good. I made note of this for future visits. Next we were served broiled snapper with Heirloom tomato risotto. The risotto was perfectly prepared, as far from gummy as the earth is from Neptune. It was topped with little sprigs of micro celery root, a nice and inventive touch. Our third course was a coursely salted beef filet with one appropriately crisp onion ring atop creamed Georgia greens. I think the greens were collards, but I neglected to get confirmation of this. Although I'm usually a big fan of greens, I felt that these were slightly undercooked. Our fourth course was a local Cow's milk cheese, accompanied by micro arugula, hazelnuts and a carrot-based pistou which was simply sublime. I had to keep myself from scraping the plate, so good was this pistou.

Kelly and I ordered coffee before the dessert and were pleased to see that it came with clumps of raw sugar in addition to the usual choices of refined white sugar and artificial sweeteners. We were given several minutes alone with our coffee before the dessert arrived. The reason I am mentioning this is because I felt that the timing of the meal was perfect throughout. At no point were we rushed, nor did we have to wait very long for the next course to arrive. I especially appreciated the time to allow my coffee to cool so I could sufficiently enjoy it with my dessert, as opposed to after completely consuming it.

Dessert, our fifth and final course, was a buttermilk panna cotta topped with raspberry sorbet. It was highlighted with raspberry and lemongrass sauces. Chef Hopkins apparently has no fear of pairing oils and sauces with every single dish on his tasting menus. I think this is a great trait in a chef. While I'm not a huge panna cotta fan (due to it's nearly Jello-like consistency) I did particularly enjoy this version, which I feel especially benefited from the fresh and tart flavors of raspberry and lemongrass.

Verdict: A thoroughly wonderful meal. Interesting combinations, beautiful presentation and warm service from the staff. Can't wait for an excuse to return and try some items from the regular menu.




Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cafe Lapin




2341 Peachtree Rd, Atlanta http://www.cafelapin.com/

I work about half a mile from the Peachtree Battle shopping center in Buckhead, so I often take advantage of the restaurants there during my lunch break. I noticed the newest addition, Cafe Lapin, about six weeks ago, but didn't have a chance to drop in until today.

My friend Kevin accompanied me there at 12:40pm. There are three tables outside on the sidewalk, but it was too hot today for us to dine outside so we entered the dining room. It was completely packed, mainly with middle aged women. As we seated ourselves at the only available table, Kevin joked that the odds were definitely in his favor. Excluding the all male waitstaff, he was one of only three men in the room.

Once seated, I looked around determined from the decor that this is definitely a girly restaurant. A few white couches with frou-frou embroidered pillows lined the walls, which are painted a peachy melon. The tables and chairs are simply constructed, and the tables are topped with plain white paper.

One of the waiters brought us our menus, which consisted of several salads, two soups (white bean chicken chili and roasted butternut squash), a large variety of chicken, tuna and eggs salads and a list of approximately ten desserts. A separate menu featuring the daily specials included blueberry buckle and a several quiches, including the ubiquitous Quiche Lorraine and a mushroom with fennel. I briefly considered the quiche, then chose the Mandarin orange souffle instead. The souffle itself is only a component of the meal - it actually includes your choice of tuna/chicken/egg salad, a side item, a small mixed greens salad and the souffle. Upon the recommendation of the waiter, I opted for the jalapeno chicken salad with a side of corn medley. Kevin ordered the shrimp salad. Taking advantage of the dessert menu, I also ordered the pistachio shortbread.

Ten minutes later our food arrived. The selections all appeared fresh and colorful. The jalapeno chicken salad was good, the jalapeno giving it just a little kick. The shrimp salad included green apples and diced red onion, a fresh and pleasant combination. We were not given a choice of salad dressings. Little plastic condiment cups full of watery, dark colored vinaigrette sat on the plates. I sampled it and didn't care for it. The salad itself was nice, complete with spinach, radicchio, sunflower seeds and dried cranberries. The Mandarin orange souffle was light and citrusy, possibly a little too like a creamy jello but tasty nonetheless. Nothing was absolutely stellar, but nothing was below average either.

The service during our visit was a little spotty. After we received our entrees, Kevin and I looked over them for a minute, trying to determine how much of each we were willing to share. Our waiter sauntered up to our table and rudely sneered, "Is something wrong with your food?" I reassured him that it was fine and he just walked off without another word. Two different waiters came over and asked to take our drink orders when we were seated, but after we received our entrees none of the waiters ever returned. I'm willing to consider that this may be because the restaurant was extremely busy and the three waiters that I saw might have just been overwhelmed. However, I was also disappointed that our waiter apparently forgot about my shortbread order and I had to re-order it.

The shortbread itself was great, although it consisted of only one thin, round cookie. It was a lovely light brown inflected with candied cherries (?) and bits of pistachio. It tasted appropriately buttery, and the cookie's edge was lined with coarse sugar. Our waiter recommended the chocolate pie, so we also ordered a piece of that to share. The whipped cream was thick and pure, and the chocolate was very rich. Upon inquiry I learned that they use Valrhona chocolate. I think this is a nice, unexpected luxury amidst some otherwise not particularly exciting food.

I liked Cafe Lapin, partly because I haven't found another inexpensive French cafe in this area. I think it fits a niche, and judging by the crowd gathered at lunch hour I'm not the only person of that opinion. Our total bill was less than $25, including desserts. The decor is cute without being overbearing. The menu was mainly predictable, but it did boast a few high points that are worth further sampling.

Verdict: Though the restaurant seems to be wrestling with some growing pains, especially with the service, it has potential. If the quality of the food remains consistent, it should be added to your list of lunch spots.