Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ca Dao

4646 Buford Hwy, Suite R, Chamblee, GA

My friend John and I were driving along Buford Hwy on Christmas Eve, determined to randomly choose an ethnic spot for lunch. We passed a shopping center that I thought looked awfully familiar, and decided to go inside.

After about 20 minutes staring at the walls, booths and decor, I realized that this was the former Bamboo Grill & Hot Pot, which I reviewed back on May 20th. Apparently Bamboo Grill closed down in the middle of the summer, which was a real shame, in my opinion. Now the space houses a Vietnamese restaurant called Ca Dao.

We started with some spring rolls. Good, neatly wrapped and a true appetizer for the coming main courses.

For my entree, I chose the # 66, pork rice in clay pot. I loved the rich flavor of the twice cooked pork, and the sauteed vegetables. I also liked the rice, especially the grains at the bottom of the pot, which were cooked the longest and had an almost caramelized brown taste and appearance. However, I was disappointed with the meat & veggie to rice ratio: this dish was probably 70% rice. Fortunately it wasn't too expensive - most of the dishes at Ca Dao are under $9.

John ordered the # 82, a "special combination" of grilled pork and fried shrimp with other fried crispy things (despite our best efforts, we couldn't tell exactly what these things were) inside a rice paper wrap. This dish was very similar to a thick spring roll, about 6 inches long, only with a harder outside and the strange crispy things within. Just because I couldn't identify the ingredients doesn't mean I didn't like # 82. I did. However, I wouldn't consider it a meal, especially if you've got a big appetite.

Besides the clay pot dishes and rice paper rolls, Ca Dao has an extensive menu of pho soup, always a great choice for a cold day. You can get any combination of beef/pork/tripe/shrimp with vegetables and good broth. I didn't order any pho on Friday, so I can't compare it to great nearby restaurants like Pho Bac, but Ca Dao looks right at home on Buford Hwy, so I bet it's pretty good here.

Oh, and the tea is good here. A nice jasmine, not bitter at all, and not sweet.

Service was fine. Good luck to the owners in getting more business. Ca Dao was pretty deserted on Christmas Eve.

Verdict: Worth a stop.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Chocolate Bar

201 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Suite C, Decatur, GA

Last Thursday night Kyle and I visited Chocolate Bar, located in the heart of Decatur. We have been to Chocolate Bar several times, but not recently. I think the last time was about 2 years ago. We loved their inspired desserts and cocktails, but hated the terrible service. And by terrible, I mean THE WORST. Most of the time we were just served incredibly slowly, even when we were the only people in the Bar. One time we overheard two servers, standing about 3 feet away, voicing their desire for all of the customers to just GET OUT and leave them alone. Yes, this actually happened.

However, we bought a GroupOn a few months back and decided to give it another try. Knowing the high turnover rate at restaurants, we figured all of the belligerent staff we encountered before was probably long gone by now.

And to our happy surprise, that was exactly the case. Our waitress, Luba, was great. She whisked away our dirty plates and perfectly timed the arrival of our courses. And she actually smiled at us. Up until now, smiling servers have been noticeably absent at Chocolate Bar.

I ordered the lemon-ginger martini ($9). This is comprised of Grey Goose, "sweet" lemon and ginger. The parentheses are mine - this is not a sweet cocktail. It's very tart, and there's more than a subtle hint of ginger. I liked it very much, but I'm also a big lemon and ginger lover, so I was hoping for a big dose of each. I got it.

Kyle ordered the Grand Manhattan($11). When he took his first sip, his eyes grew wide and he pushed it my way. I took one whiff of it and pushed it back. Whatever infusion the house made, it's a strong one. You'll only need one of these babies for the night.

If you like sweet, creamy drinks, I can recommend the Chocolate Bar and the Mississippi Sidehand from previous experiences at the Bar. Delish.

We also started with a few snacks. I ordered the black truffle popcorn ($5.50), and received a large bowl, complete with shavings of what may or may not have been bonafide black truffle. Whatever it was, it was tremendously salty. This is coming from someone who salts about 80% of her food, so be forewarned. I liked the rich, earthy flavor, but couldn't handle the copious amount of salt and only ate about half of this dish. Next time I might try the Madras curry popcorn ($4) instead.

I also ate the salami ($7), which was thickly sliced and accompanied by some overly crisp chunks of garlic bread. This was average. The bread was barely edible and had a slightly burned smell, and the salami was too strong. It was overpowering, not a good complement to either the popcorn or the dessert.

Kyle and I shared the oreos and milk ($9 on the online menu, but $12 at the Bar????), something we knew in advance was a total delight, and by far the shining star of our meal. This is comprised of lovely dark chocolate souffles about the size of the palm of your hand, with a thick white chocolate center and a small scoop of milk sorbet on the side. The souffles are served warm and soft, and are topped with what I think is coarse rock salt. It mixes perfectly with the sorbet. You'll love it. It's meant for two people, but I saw a couple at another table with one each.

The Chocolate Bar also has a glass counter with various truffles, bon bons and pastries. The selection appeared to be pretty good.

Verdict: Much improved service. Don't miss the oreos and milk. Be sure to check your receipt to make sure you weren't overcharged.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Special Feature: Celso's Cakes

6070 Dawson Blvd, Ste. C, Norcross, GA

I heard about this place a couple of years ago from a co-worker of mine who had used the bakery for her wedding. Last spring Kyle and I scheduled a wedding cake tasting and were just thrilled with the absolutely delicious taste of these cakes. Celso's cakes were phenomenal, and at least $1/slice cheaper than the other Atlanta bakeries I considered prior to my wedding.

And our cake came out beautifully. Kyle chose the larger, bottom layer, which was a vanilla cake with white chocolate raspberry fill. I chose the top layer, which was bittersweet chocolate cake with amaretto fill. Our wedding guests had a nice choice and raved about the moist cake, thick icing and true raspberry and amaretto flavors.

Last night I returned to Celso's to pick up a few of their holiday boxes, which come in three sizes and contain pound cake, gourmet cookies and pecan diamonds. Everyone at my wedding enjoyed my cake so much, I decided this would be an excellent gift for several people on my list. Wish I could have picked up an eggnog cheesecake for myself.

While I was there I gazed into the glass counter, which contained all kinds of little goodies. Celso's sells petit fours, mini cupcakes, chocolate napoleons and assorted pastries year-round. The mango mascarpone cake sounds great too, doesn't it?

Chef Celso has lots of experience baking in Atlanta. He's a former pastry chef at the SwissHotel, Grand Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton. He is always on hand to deal with customers directly, and is often accompanied by his lovely wife, Pavla. When brides schedule a tasting, they'll be meeting with the actual chef who will bake their cake. How's that for peace of mind?

Verdict: Make this your first choice for special occasion cakes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party

1645 McLendon Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA

On Sunday my friend Eliza and I had high tea at Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party near Little 5 Points. You can read that sentence again - it is completely correct. Dr. Bombay's is one of the few places in the metro Atlanta area (and probably the least expensive) who still serve high tea. Every single day of the week you can enjoy it from 3:30 to 5:30pm, $25 for two people.

Dr. Bombay's knows how to do high tea. You can expect very sweet, lovely little petite fours, tiny cupcakes in flavors like red velvet, mini brownies, egg salad sandwiches, and huge scones (in different flavors, such as apple cinnamon) aside real clotted green and a small pot of jam. These are all presented on a cute two-tiered serving tray. Each pair of guests will share a pot of tea in the flavor of your choosing.

As for the tea, a blackboard lists dozens of great flavors. You can find the usual suspects like early grey and English breakfast, along with lots of sublime green teas and lovely fruits. I thoroughly enjoyed the peach tea, along with the blackberry sage. A friend of mine likes the apple cinnamon. Regardless of your taste, you'll have no problem finding something you like here.

This was my second excursion to Dr. Bombay's. My sweet sister Sabrina threw me a wonderfully girly bridal shower there in September. Everyone who attended raved about how much fun it was. When you book a large group (call the tea house to do so), they will give you your own space and bring out multiple teas so your guests will have a nice variety.

High tea isn't the only option at Dr. Bombay's, though. You can enjoy a simple cup of tea with or without goodies displayed in the glass case any time. For a light meal, you can choose from sandwiches on fresh bread, small sides or bakery items.

It's an absolutely charming place. All the pots, cups and utensils are mismatched. There a walls full of bookcases containing an array of used books for sale: all profits go to charities abroad. The space works equally well for students with their laptops as it does for ladies in hats and gloves. I had a great time here on both occasions, and I can't wait to return.

Verdict: If you've been searching for a modestly priced, serious tea house in Atlanta, look no further.

Monday, December 13, 2010


1441 Dresden Dr., Atlanta, GA

On Friday night Kyle and I had dinner at Valenza. Well, actually my office hosted their annual holiday party at the restaurant, which meant that we had a limited selection of the menu with which to work.

We began with the calamari, in this case grilled with pine nuts, roasted tomatoes and a hint of lemoncello. A nice combination that's a little off the beaten path. The salumi e forgmaggi, an artisan cheese and cured meat plate, is very good, but pricey at $16. Loved the thin-sliced prosciutto.

My friend Erin tried the merluzzo, a pan roasted silver hake with Brussels sprouts, chanterelles, pancetta and brown butter ($26). In my mind, you can't go wrong with a good fish and brown butter. The pancetta wasn't overpowering, rather it offset the lovely, woodsy chanterelle mushrooms and absolutely delicious fresh, sauteed Brussels sprouts. You won't find bitter sprouts here, folks.

I had the ravioli with butternut squash filling ($16). This was exactly what homemade pasta should be - beautiful, soft, super-absorbent. The squash filling was very good, and the dish was topped with chopped pecans brown butter and sage. The last place where I ordered butternut squash ravioli was Figo, and I can tell you that this may be more expensive, but it was far superior.

Kyle had the C.A.B. ribeye with arugula, nickel filet beans and lemon ($28). He's not a fan of arugula, but other than that he felt the meat was cooked exactly as he ordered and that it was a very good cut.

I was less impressed with the desserts. The crostata di mele, or apple crostada with caramel gelato and sauce, was a little lackluster. The cesto d'espresso (espresso custard with mascarpone cream) was a slightly better, but didn't give me that completely satisfied feeling I expect from dessert. If I return to Valenza I'll probably try the warm chocolate tart, a selection that always makes me happy. All desserts at Valenza are $7.

The service was impressive. Each server was on top of his/her game, keeping the wine flowing and the tables cleared as soon as anyone was finished with a course. The manager, Michel Arnette, personally checked on us several times to insure our satisfaction. He was funny and very approachable.

I used to live within walking distance of Valenza's location, and over the past decade I've noticed this area morphing into a charming place with substance, developing character and culture. The addition of Valenza as a high quality, neighborhood restaurant is definitely a great thing for Brookhaven residents.

Verdict: A neighborhood find.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Social Vinings

3621 Vinings Slope Dr. Ste. 1100, Atlanta

Kyle and I had dinner with some friends at Social Vinings, one of the several restaurants around town owned by Chef Paul Albrecht (I previously reviewed another one, Paul's). Social Vinings is located in (surprise) the Vinings area of Atlanta/Smyrna, just off Paces Ferry Rd. There is limited self-parking in a deck behind the restaurant along with valet.

We started with the tuna tartare ($8) and the filet mignon bruschetta ($7.50). The tuna was very good, better than what I had recently at Eclipse di Luna, with a little spicy aftertaste. The bruschetta was stupendous. Kyle wants us to go back and just get about 3 orders of this for dinner.

Next we had a large sashimi platter. Wonderful fresh fish on a cumcumber salad. The yellow tail was especially good, which surprised me since I found this fish at Paul's to be sub-par.

My friend John loved the sauteed calf's liver with caramelized onions (always a good addition), apples, mashed potatoes and crispy bacon ($19). The more he ate it, the more he praised the strong flavor of the liver with the perfectly cooked bacon, creamy potatoes and locally grown (Ellijay, GA) apples.

Kyle had the ribeye filet ($25), and Amr ordered the surf and turf ($38 - filet mignon and lobster tail), and they were both very pleased. Pam and I both ordered the pan roasted sea bass ($29), which came with a juicy tomato risotto and some dynamite brocolli drizzled with basil oil. I don't know if I ever want to eat broccoli without basil oil again. The sea bass was tender and buttery, exactly as I'd hoped.

Last but certainly not least, we indulged in dessert. We tried both the rocky road spasm with Bailey's ice cream and the deep fried oreo cookies. The former is sort of a deconstructed, abstract version of rocky road - chunks of dark chocolate fudge, mini marshmallows, candied pecans and fresh sliced strawberries litter the plate, with a big scoop of absolutely luscious Bailey's Irish Cream ice cream on top. Very good. But the real favorite was the fried oreos. One plate gets you 2. It's a warm, gooey batch of goodness. Pam said she considered it a combination donut and double-stuffed oreo with powdered sugar. Ingy said that if she could eat these every day she would be content to live the rest of her life alone. Guess that makes them the ultimate comfort food. All desserts are $6.

Followers, I have to say that I can't find anything to dislike about Social Vinings. Everything we ordered was excellent and our server was great. If anything, the volume was a little loud for my taste. It's on the pricey side for Cobb county, but it's also far and away a superior choice to most of the restaurants in the area.

A word of advice - this restaurant is the "it" place to eat in Vinings right now. Be sure to make a reservation through Open Table. My friend Amr says the bar is packed solid on Friday nights.