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I love Food. Cooking it. Eating it. Experiencing it. As a result, that's what this blog has evolved into: A journal of my gastronomical journeys abroad, as well as my culinary creativity at home. I hope you enjoy what I have to say, and I'd love to hear your comments... Cheers!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On Parchment & Chalk Boards: The "Slo-cal South" Food Scene, Part One

What I Learned (So Far) On My Summer Vacation:  if a restaurant has a chalk board on the wall for specials, and disposable paper menus on the tables... you're in the right place for a quality, if not  memorable, meal.  If I may be so bold to coin a hybrid phrase, what I've experienced is the parallel paths of Slow Food and Locavore-ism.  Hence, "Slo-cal" Food...  
I planned a Summer Food-A-Palooza for my extended stay in the Atlanta area.  Exhaustively compiled an extensive list of spots to choose from, ranging from A (Abbatoir) to Z (Zuma Sushi), with all culinary fetishes in between.  As it goes (kids, work, weather, etc.), I have not been able to make a single check mark on my list...yet.  But, when one (restaurant) door closes, another opens.  I've so far been to no fewer than five memorable spots... and we've only reached the Ides of July! 

Touting itself as a "Neighborhood Barn & Grill," Horseradish Grill stands as a rustic, yet sophisticated mainstay of Southern dining in the Atlanta suburbs.  The chef, Daniel Alterman, is the son of the owner, and he grew up in the kitchen of this converted barn.  He has the benefit and luxury of a beautiful and bountiful garden literally in his own back yard, and he uses it to its maximum yield.  HRG has been doing for years what is now popularly recognized as the Slow Food Movement in the South:  Grow your own.  Use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible.  Respect the source and the process.  To this end, the Altermans are rightfully featured on Emeril's Cooking Channel tome to American dining institutions, "The Originals."
 You feel at home in this prime piece of real estate across from Chastain Park, what with the bevy of blooming flowers in the front, and the beautiful veggies and herbs sprouting out back.  The owners have done a good job of creating a space that is equal parts cozy and classy, and in many ways, the food can be described in the same way.  My tablemates and I shared some apps first.  The standout was the North Carolina Barbecue.  A plate of pulled smoked pork atop a cornmeal pancake, with a crisp, creamy cole slaw and a vinegar-tomato sauce.  Awesome balance of BBQ flavors, all coming together in ideal fashion for my tastes.  I also enjoyed the HRG Caesar Salad, with house made cornmeal croutons and shaved Reggiano parmesan.   I obliged the menu's siren call for its "Famous" Skillet Fried Chicken with garlic green beans and Yukon whipped mashed potatoes.  And they serve you the entire chicken, in parts! The knowledgeable waitress let me in on the process:  brining the chicken for 24 hours, then bathing it in buttermilk for another 24.  Jack Bauer would be proud.  Two shared desserts were equally different and decadent:  an insanely rich and dense Chocolate Chocolate Layer Cake (do I studder?!), and a perfectly fresh Organic Peach Cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream. 
This was a solid, if not spectacular, Southern meal.  There are a lot of newer Atlanta establishments that benefit from star chefs and glitzier locations, but Horseradish Grill still remains as an Original.  Just ask Emeril...     

In the heart of the locavore-loving hamlet of Decatur sits one of its latest darlings, Cakes & Ale.  Named after a famous Shakespeare quote from Twelfth Night, this unassuming spot creates - and re-creates - their menu almost every day, the food made from scratch using the season's best, local and sustainable produce and products.
In stark contrast to the more traditional bent of Horseradish Grill, Cakes & Ale is all tattoos and piercings and black tees.  But lemme tell ya, the New Guard can work a pan!                    

With the wealth of their selections scrawled in chalk upon entering, you know right off the bat what you're about to eat will be freshhhhh.  What I was really surprised about was how diverse the offerings would be.  Before the food mentions, I must give a shout out to one of the most interesting cocktails I've ever tasted.  They clearly take equal pride in their mixology, and it shows.  Their Pineapple Habanero Gimlet was sweet, spicy, and sensationally singular.  Like a shot of Jamaican hot sauce with your gin and soda, except this beauty featured vodka instead of gin, lime juice, and powdered sugar along with the pineapple juice and pepper.  Yeah, it was that good!    
The food, as stated, was creatively cultivated, and technically precise.  Our waitress was as subtle as a hammer in "recommending" we order tapas-style, with small plates to share between everyone at the table.  The highlights included Arnacini (fried rice balls) sprinkled with pollen fennel, and the Buffalo Mozzarella with summer tomatoes, basil, prosciutto and fresh peaches.  There was also homemade Gnocchi with lamb sugo and fresh chanterelles, each component melt-in-your-mouth good, and my seared Scallops were on point, as well.  The dishes were imaginative riffs on classic combinations.
It's the kind of place that encourages sharing, tasting, and a bit of an adventurous palette.  If you're up for all three of those, then Cakes & Ale is a place you'll look forward to making a habit of visiting...

Next:  Part 2:  Athens 

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