Friday, January 29, 2010

Road Trip: Firefly Cafe - Savannah, GA

321 Habersham St., Savannah GA

Our recent short trip to Savannah ended with Sunday brunch at The Firefly Cafe. I also had dinner at the Cafe a couple of years ago and both of my experiences there were good.

I ordered the Savannah Eggs Benedict, which included shredded crab meat and a side of nicely browned hash browns along with the perfectly poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce. I have to say that I was a little disappointed with this combination - the crab just didn't seem to complement the eggs and sauce. The smoked salmon Benedictine at Atmosphere in the Ansley area of Atlanta is heads and shoulders above this dish.

The brunch menu also has a few interesting items, such as sides of sliced tomato (very Southern!) and cinnamon rolls. The banana nut French toast with creme Anglaise' sounds promising, as does the blueberry corncakes or the Italian sausage omelet with red onion, mushrooms, fresh basil, four cheese blend and marinara sauce.

Since I ate dinner there so long ago I can't give very many details on this, but I do remember that I had some sort of shrimp with pasta and I liked it. My brother-in-law, who used to work there several years ago, makes a great salmon with rice, recipe courtesy of The Firefly Cafe.

Firefly Cafe has another advantage: it's a neighborhood place a little off the beaten bath of the more touristy and well-trod downtown area. In the spring and summer you can sit outside under an umbrella and enjoy your dinner without hoards of people continuously walking past you. It's also not overpriced, like some of the other restaurants more centrally located. Our group of 4 spent $67 for brunch, which included a 20% tip.

Service was good, size of the restaurant is small to medium, and the decor is cute without being pretentious - you can wear jeans and a t-shirt and not feel under dressed. The tiny blue-shaded lights that extend from the high ceilings low down to your table and the yellow cloth partitions between the tables along the far wall lend cheerful notes to the basement space.

Verdict: A neighborhood find.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Road Trip: Jazz'd - Savannah, GA

52 Barnard St., Savannah, GA

I'm always excited when I get the opportunity to dine out in Savannah, Georgia. If Atlanta has the most innovative, best quality dining in the state, then Savannah runs a close second.

On Saturday night Kyle and I joined our friends Danielle and Ben at Jazz'd, a tapas restaurant in downtown Savannah. The dining room, which is located down a flight of stairs in the basement of the building, is decorated in purples, reds and yellows, an attractively vibrant pallete. The bar area is especially well designed, and contains a large selection of liquors.

Jazz'd offers live entertainment Tuesday through Sunday. Between the music and the loud conversations it's a high energy place - you'll probably have to crane your neck to be heard over the people at the next table. It's not ideal for quiet romance, but it's good for small groups who'd like to throw back a cocktail or share small plates of tasty edibles.

I ordered the chorizo stuffed mushrooms ($9), but I thought the melted provolone cheese was a little overkill; the goat cheese within would have been perfect on its own. The southwestern chicken quesadillas, accompanied by sour cream and fresh salsa, was very good. The Cuban rubbed beef satays were probably the best deal at $10. The dish was large and the beef was plentiful, with an original and successful sweet jalapeno glaze. Kyle loved the beef shoulder tender ($13.50), which came with potatoes au gratin and a proscuitto demi-glaze with thin, blackened leeks. Speaking of proscuitto, the saltimbocca dish was flavorful and the pasta tender but overly seasoned with thyme, a powerful herb that should be used sparingly. In hindsight, I'm sorry that I didn't order the potato leek frittata with mango fig chutney. Guess that means I'll have to go back. Can't say I'm sorry.

The best dish I tried was a chef's special of seared tuna amidst pickled cucumber salad with teriaki sauce, ginger, and what I think was a well-placed shake of Chinese five spice powder. A wonderful profusion of flavors.

There's also a special for two that includes a choice of soup or salad for each person, 2 tapas each and 2 desserts for $60. Kyle and I didn't go for this because we didn't want to waste time on soups or salads, dishes we eat each and every single week for lunch. However, our party did share a serving of the Grand Marnier creme' brulee, which was fantastic.

It's pricier than Atlanta's Eclipse di Luna, with the tapas ranging from about $8 to $15 each.

Verdict: A slightly expensive but very good tapas joint in an entertaining venue.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Food for Thought: Tipping - Part 1

You would think that it wouldn't be necessary in this day and age for me to state that you have to leave a decent tip for your server when you dine out, but all of my friends in the restaurant industry will tell you otherwise. In most states, servers make a base hourly wage of around $2.50 per hour. That is not a typo. The remainder of their pay is based on tips they receive from their tables.

OK, maybe you are simply unaware of how much you should be tipping. The standard tip amount is 15% to 20% of the total cost of your meal. My sister Sabrina, a former O'Charley's waitress of 4 years, says that when she dines out she tips 20% or $2 per person in her party, whichever is greater. She tips this amount even if the service is less than stellar, because as a former server she understands all of the labor that goes into the job, as well as the level of rude behavior a server often endures from his or her customers. Sabrina can tell you many horror stories of customers leaving her pocket change on a $40 tab or neglecting to tip her entirely.

The worst one I've heard is about a large group of church-goers who came in after a Sunday morning service. Typically, restaurants automatically tack on an 18% gratuity to the checks for large parties. This insures that the server handling that table doesn't run around like a crazy person for two hours without some kind of pay for his/her hard work.

In the case of my sister's aforementioned large group, she brought them their bill after a particularly stressful experience with the group making constant demands, changes to their orders, requests for extra butter, more bread, all the sauces on the side, special diet requests - generally making her job and that of the kitchen staff very difficult. Immediately one of the diners called her back to the table, disputing the 18% gratuity. "I only tip God 10%, why should I tip you more?" the man snidely remarked, in reference to his church tithes.

It's proof that my sister is a better person than I am in that she refrained from cracking him over the head with his iced tea glass. There are so many things wrong with this view that I hardly know where to begin. If you disagree, please do the dining industry a favor and don't ever set foot in a sit-down restaurant again.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Woodfire Grill

1782 Cheshire Bridge Rd., Atlanta, GA 30324

Saturday night was a major foodie event for me: my sister, brother-in-law, Kyle and I had dinner at Woodfire Grill, home of Chef Kevin Gillespie of recent Top Chef fame. I made our reservation over six weeks ago, and in the meantime my gym-buddy David (a lawyer who can afford a greater number of extravagant meals) kept giving me mouth-watering details about Gillespie's creations while I struggled on the elliptical machine. As you can imagine, I was chomping at the bit by the time Saturday morning dawned. No amount of rain could keep us away from our table on Cheshire Bridge Rd.

After perusing the menu for a few minutes we decided to take the plunge and go for the 5-course tasting menu, which is $65 per person. Woodfire also offers a lighter, 3-course tasting menu, but since we didn't know when we'd have the pleasure of dining at Woodfire again we wanted the full monty.

We began with a truly wonderful amuse-bouche which played on the theme of the Southern New Year: heirloom tomato fritters in a mix of creamed collard greens and black eyed peas. The aftertaste had a little kick reminiscent of hot sauce. This may have been my absolute favorite part of the meal and was definitely successful in whetting my appetite.

Over the next two hours we were served scallops and shrimp with satsuma oranges and paper-thin slices of fresh beets, miniature beets in a carrot puree with creamy, tangy chevre, quail with mushrooms (the wine was so good, at this point the details are a little hazy but I think they may have been porcini), and a combination of pork tenderloin and pork belly with slightly bitter endive.

For dessert, my sister and I were served chocolate crepe-like pockets filled with mocha sauce and the men were served little vanilla cake, crunching on the outside and soft inside, with a side of slices of Pink Lady apples. Everyone was pleased.

Each time a course appeared it was delivered by a different member of the waitstaff, who gave us lots of cool details about the food. We were informed that the shrimp was Laughing Bird, from a sustainable farm in Belize, showing the chef's commitment to organic, sustainable foods. Mid-way through our courses we were given an interesting treat - a single Kusshi oyster, a Japanese variety by way of Seattle. It was so fresh that for a moment I closed my eyes and forgot I was in a restaurant in Atlanta instead of the beach. the delivery of each course was perfectly timed. We never felt rushed and we never sat around anxiously awaiting the next component. It was a sublime dining experience.

Also, there's a long and interesting wine list which ranges from half-bottles at $30 to some high-end full-sized selections at around $300. There's something for everyone. Kyle and I selected the Seven Terraces pinot noir, which hails from New Zealand, and found that it complemented every dish.

My best comparison? Restaurant Eugene. Their 5-course tasting menu is exactly the same price and offers different but equally delicious and innovative dishes. If you are having a hard time choosing, here are two things to consider: the atmosphere is much better at Woodfire. We were fortunate enough to be seated in one of several small private dining rooms, but all of the tables in the main dining room also have ample space, whereas you're always going to be one foot away from your fellow diners at Eugene. The second consideration is that Woodfire heavily utilizes pork, so if you're not big on the pig you should probably select Eugene. (Note: Woodfire does offer vegetarian selections, including a vegetarian tasting menu.)

Verdict: Fantastic. My highest rating. A shining star in Atlanta dining.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Food for Thought: Casseroles

The recent frigid temperatures in Atlanta has got me thinking about cold weather dishes, which I define as prepared foods that are most appropriately eaten in the hard months of winter. Heavy foods that warm the body, fill the stomach and in some minor way soothe the soul. Foods that help us brace ourselves against the piercing sleet and biting winds. Think chili, pot roast and bread pudding.

Given this definition, my favorite cold weather dishes are casseroles. Baking casseroles in the oven warms your kitchen, and if you have a crappy oven like mine that doesn't close properly, it also warms your living room. Casseroles are eaten hot, and are best fresh out of the oven when you can smell their wonderful steaming aromas. They're also normally very easy to prepare: about 80% of my casserole recipes only require the cook to combine multiple ingredients before pouring the mixture in a glass dish and

I served curried chicken divan recently for my book club (recipe courtesy of Rev. Mary Ann Gilbert) and each woman, all of whom occasionally complain about winter weight gain, asked for seconds. I also have a Food & Wine recipe for broccoli and wild mushroom casserole that makes a great meal for my vegetarian friends. Everyone enjoys the mushrooms and broccoli with cheddar cheese, onions and celery. There's just something about a hot casserole on a kitchen table, flanked by big oven mitts and sitting on a decorative hot plate, that makes me feel suddenly content. The wind can rattle the windowpanes of the dining room, but when you see the casserole bubbling around the edges, the top often covered with crushed, buttery Ritz crackers that have browned to perfection, you just don't seem to hear it anymore. The cold outdoors fade into the distance as you take that first bite, which always puts a smile on your face.

What cold weather dish do you feel is the best cure for the winter blues?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Australian Cafe

48 South Park Square, Marietta, GA 30060

On Saturday Rebecca, Dan, Kyle and I had lunch at The Australian Bakery & Cafe in the Marietta Square. The Australian Cafe' is my very favorite place to eat in the Square. This is why:

The Café’ serves breakfast and lunch and is decorated with an Australian theme. Flags of Eureka Stockade, Norfolk Island and Torres Straight hang proudly from the ceiling. The space also includes a small store where you can pick up Australian foods like Vegemite, Bundaberg ginger beer, Cherry Ripe and Tim Tam cookies. Every time I eat lunch there I find at least a handful of genuine Australians dining alongside me, clearly enjoying their meat pies and Lamingtons cakes. I can attest that the food is excellent, but even before I tasted it I knew it was so because the small population of Australians in Atlanta would not come from all over the city to patronize this little establishment outside of the perimeter if it wasn’t the real deal.

You can also purchase sandwiches and soups from the Cafe', but my favorite item is the meat pies. Kyle loves the barbecue chicken the best (pictured here), whereas I favor the English pork pie, a thick and solid pie, and the Aussie meat pie, which consists of ground beef in a beef seasoned gravy, baked in a flaky crust. The pies are all hot and hearty, prepared in advance and warmed up quickly for the customers. It's an excellent choice on a cold winter's day. Sometimes the Cafe' offers curry lamb pies, sausage rolls and steak and kidney pies. The pies cost between $3 and $5. Usually one plus a dessert makes a good lunch for me.

The glass bakery counter contains lots of interesting items, although sometimes they are unfortunately a little hard or stale. I've had about a 75% success rates with the desserts, and especially enjoy the cherry ripe slice (shortbread with maraschino cherries, topped with chocolate), the vanilla slice (vanilla custard - goes well with any item on the lunch menu) and the Lamington's sponge cake dusted with coconut. During the Easter season the Cafe' makes hot cross buns, a rare find in Atlanta. All of the desserts range between $2 and $5.

Verdict: A very interesting themed restaurant in Marietta Square. Love the meat pies.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Pasta Vino

2391 Peachtree Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA

I have eaten at Pasta Vino four times in the past two years, all for lunch. It's located in the Peachtree Battle shopping center on Peachtree Rd. It has a pleasant green awning out front and the interior is decorated in standard "Tuscany" colors - mauve, maize and brown. Black and white candid portraits of the restaurant's staff add a touch of personality.

Right off I noticed the menu had changed when I visited Pasta Vino for lunch today. The restaurant used to offer their full menu for lunch as well as dinner. Now they've limited their lunch selections to a few salads, sandwiches and pastas. I have enjoyed the linguine with white clam sauce in the pasta but found this is no longer a lunch option, so I ordered the gnocchi with "pink" sauce. When I asked about ingredients that comprised the sauce the waiter blinked at me and said "it's a pink sauce." Bidden to elaborate, he showed his irritation as he responded that it is made from tomatoes and cream. This was not a new waiter - this is the same person who was pictured on the wall right behind me, smiling and generally looking like a much happier person than the one in front of me.

In its defense, the gnocchi looked better in person than it does in the picture. It was fine, but not great, slightly gummy and in need of some salt. Actually, what is was really in need of was some fresh, grated Parmesan cheese. Just as you enter the restaurant, there is a small table with a bowl of fresh, grated Parmesan cheese and small spoon which your waiter is supposed to bring by your table after you receive your entree. Did this ever happen? No.

And I'm not surprised about this. The only time I've ever gotten good service at Pasta Vino is the first time when I came with my mom. My mom is normally notorious for driving waiters crazy but something about her helped us with the staff in this case - we were attentively served. The other 3 times I've eaten alone, and I don't know if the waiter immediately (and incorrectly) pegged me as a bad tipper or a difficult customer, but I've been virtually ignored on these occasions. One time I watched my server hover over an apparently affluent couple, quickly getting their entrees to their table and refilling their drinks regularly while I waited for over 40 minutes for my pasta, resulting in a late return to my workplace. This time I had to request silverware after I received my bread, and of course missed out on the Parmesan which would have improved the gnocchi.

Speaking of the bread, it was below average. It tasted too wheaty and was served with individually wrapped plastic servings of butter, a cheap choice in my opinion. There's a small bottle of olive oil at your table but it's not great either.

Verdict: Three times of poor service and average food is not a charm. Atlanta is full of little Italian restaurants with better offerings. Choose one of them for your lunch or dinner.