Friday, January 29, 2010

restaurant: Woodfire Grill

SO. I went to Woodfire Grill (re-newly hot hotspot for localvores and fans of Kevin Gillespie's beard) a couple weeks ago and promised you a review, and I definitely haven't posted that yet. Except for how I'm posting it right now. It took me awhile because, guys, I apparently had a lot to say about this dinner. Which is an awesome thing.

Chef's 5-course tasting menu from Woodfire Grill, and Kevin Gillespie, January 12, 2010I'd decided long before my roommate and I arrived that we were gonna do the whole-table-inclusive 5-course chef's tasting menu. Luckily (for him, as I would've probably asked the kitchen for a trout to slap him with otherwise), my roommate agreed. The menu and wine pairings (which are chosen by the owner, and offered for a separate charge) for the tasting are based on the whims of the market and kitchen each day, so I can nearly guarantee that if you go, you won't have the same dinner that we did. And they won't tell you what dishes you'll be tasting beforehand -- every course is a surprise. (I would like to sign up for more surprises like these.) This is what ours wound up being:

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to report that the dinner started off a bit slow. A server was eager to take our drink order while we were waiting for our table in the comfortable lounge -- but our glasses of wine didn't actually show up until several minutes after we'd been seated, and bread didn't hit until after we'd ordered several minutes later, arriving (slightly chilled, so probably they weren't waiting for a batch to come out) along with our amuse. Perhaps they wanted the amuse to be the first thing we tasted? I wasn't running a timer, but the process of seating and ordering must've taken half an hour at the very least, which is awhile to wait when you're thirsty, hungry, and have a reservation. But that's my single complaint about the service -- for the rest of the evening, our waitress (and the entire fleet of other servers who were on hand) was warm and attentive, quick to explain, inform, and help.

But to the food! First out was an amuse bouche -- a black-eyed pea fritter with a spicy, creamy pickle dressing. Pure welcome and comfort. It was paired with a local sparkling wine that was a bit sweet for the dish, I thought, but the bubbles were just the thing for the light, crispy fritter. And luckily for wine-on-an-empty-stomach me, the vaguely belated bread basket contained a thick & chewy, lemon-zested, focaccia-type panbread; a darker, seeded peasant bread; and an addictively salted & herbed whipped butter. I could've filled up on the lemony one plus heavy schmears of butter alone, but I managed to abstain for the good of all of us.

The first full course was strips of battered & fried mushroom, slightly sweet, over a sharp & creamy cheese sauce with a drizzle of pungent candied garlic sauce. I found the fried mushroom a little oily after the first few bites, but it served well as a vehicle for the terrific sauces. I would have liked, in particular, to take home a vat of the cheese one. The wine pairing, an earthy Semillon, was perfect -- the sort of pairing that develops deeper flavors in both the wine and the dish.

Second course was seafood -- a roasted scallop and a few sweet, small shrimp, with a sprinkle of dill and a jewel-like salad of radish slices, cut paper-thin, and blood orange segments. My roommate, who dislikes seafood, cleaned the plate. I was less impressed with this dish than with all of the others; the scallop had a bit of grit to it, I wasn't entirely sure what the dill was doing besides mucking about, and the texture on both scallop and shrimp was more on the side of well-done than I personally prefer (I'm not sure how I feel about confit of shrimp). But the flavor of everything was good -- all very light and slightly sweet. (In retrospect, I think I would've wanted to have this before the fried mushrooms because the flavors in it were just so delicate.) The wine pairing, a Chenin Blanc, was another terrific match -- crisp and light with just enough sweetness.

Next came another taste from the kitchen, to cleanse and prep our palates for the heavier dishes ahead -- an oyster on the half-shell, dressed with a lobster cream and salt-cured salmon roe. And, okay, I never order raw oysters anywhere because, while I enjoy raw seafood, most places that serve raw oysters skeeze me right the hell out. But this was just (if you'll excuse me slipping into clichéd foodie hyperbole) ethereal. It didn't taste like shellfish -- it tasted like the ocean, salty, briny, and breezy. The cream played against this, pulling the flavor and mouthfeel into a richer, heavier place, and the roe balanced both out. And the wine pairing, a chardonnay, convinced a certain roommate who takes issue with the very existence of chards that the wine does indeed have a place in the world. In terms of wow factor and harmony of flavors, I'd say this was my favorite thing from the whole dinner.

Not to say that you should do something drastic like stop reading, 'cause next up, the third course, was a plate of little bitty quail quarters that I could've kept eating all night, served over a bed of stewed, creamy-textured potatoes and chewy mushrooms and circled with a salty chicken jus. I love game bird, and this was perhaps the best quail I've ever had, salty-sweet-crisp-tender all at once. Salty & sweet from the glaze over the crisp outer crust, with tender meat underneath. If I am ever fabulously wealthy, I'm going to eat something very much like those quailbits in the way that the plebes eat chicken wings. This was the one wine pairing, however, that I didn't think complimented the dish well at all. On the sweet side, the pinot blend made the glaze on the birds go sour, and had no power to cut the fat in the meat and ragout. Both my roommate and I prefer drier wines, though, and even if we were biased, one pairing slip the whole night ain't shabby.

The fourth and main course was -- of course -- pork. Pork two ways, in fact -- a medallion of pork loin and a thick chunk of pork belly, accompanied by a pork rind-studded risotto, a spear of picklish endive, and a schmear of apple vinegar sauce. The smokiness and tenderness involved in both pieces of meat was absolutely pornographic -- like the best beef tenderloin and sirloin, but in pig flavor. And the wine pairing -- a smoky, rich Garnacha -- enhanced it to the point that my roommate and I stopped talking and conversed only in indecently happy noises while we savored this dish. If this is the style of pork belly treatment that Tom Colicchio found fault with in the Top Chef season finale, well, I'll take his lifetime allotment of it. I disliked the endive -- whatever it was braised in (more apple vinegar?) made it too sour and bitter for me, even next to the fatty meat. (My roommate didn't mind it though -- I think I dislike vinegar more than the average bear.) But that was minor, forgivable. Oh, that smokiness. I'm afraid I'm going to hold all future pork dishes up to that one, and find them all lacking.

In the afterglow, the fifth course arrived -- two different dessert dishes, each with its own wine pairing! My considerable sweet-tooth and I were incredibly pleased. First, I tasted the molten-chocolate-filled chocolate crepe that was served over a sort of mocha latte soup with little nibs of cocoa and a spoonful of whipped cream. The flavors were just what I wanted after that pork, deep and dark and bittersweet. I thought the texture of the crepe was off -- a little too thick and spongy -- and that the sauce was a bit too thin. But the flavors went wonderfully with the tawny port it was served with (which I squeed a little about when the waitress poured it for me -- tawny port is one of my most favorite things on the planet when it's sort of masculine and nutty, like dessert whiskey more than dessert wine, and this was one of those).

Then my roommate and I switched plates and I tried the second dessert -- a small vanilla cake served with meringue and apple bits. Which was, strangely, also exactly what I wanted after the pork, sweet and warming with just a tiny hint of tartness. My roommate wasn't impressed by this one (though he's not a fan of sweets in general and cooked apples in particular), but as a baker myself, I very much was. (I did think the apples could've been cooked a tad more and incorporated into the cake, which, by itself, was bland after so many aggressive courses. But.) The cake's dense, heavy crumb, contained by a deeply caramelized crust, is something I'm going to attempt to replicate. And the meringue -- the meringue was paradigm-shifting, for a person with paradigms about pastry. It was what meringe can be, should be -- pudding-thick and so fresh that it managed to be sticky and creamy at the same time, like the best-ever marshmallow fluff. (I need to make this meringue. I need to put it on icebox pies, make cookie sandwiches out of it, serve it between layers of fruit and ice cream. But, um, anyway.) The dish was served with a chilled Sauternes that provided a slightly tart contrast to all the sweetness, and both the dish and the wine helped bring out the fruitiness in the other.

Overall, was this dinner worth the price tag of $65 per person plus wine, with the final bill including gratuity being up above $200? Um. That's a hard thing to answer. It was a special event for two food geeks, and I can write a huge part of the price tag off as being part of the experience. But I wouldn't do something like that more than once every couple of years, and only for people who I like very, very much. And if I go back, I'll keep a few things in mind to minimize the expense.

My advice:

  • Plan ahead and make a reservation well in advance. Not that you'll have much choice, there. The rumor I heard was that business at Woodfire is up 200% since Gillespie appeared on Top Chef (and good for them).

  • Do the 5-course chef's tasting. It's only maybe 10 bucks more expensive than two entrees plus shared appetizers and dessert would be. And if you think you dislike certain foods, this is the sort of place that might change your mind.

  • As tempting as the wine and cocktail list may be, just order water while you're waiting for your table if you're planning on doing wine pairings with your meal.

  • Totally do wine pairings with your meal. It's pricey, but part of the adventure.

  • But unless you're some kind of superhuman (or perhaps French), do the half-glass wine pairings.

  • And even then, have only one out of every two members of your party order the wine. The half pours are still generous, plenty enough for two people to each sip before, during, and after each course. (Plus, like our waitress said, they want you to remember your nice dinner. And they wound up serving us 8 wines, so, yes. Even over the course of 2 hours, that's a lot of wine.)

  • I have no idea whether they'll consider your request, but try asking for a table downstairs, in the cozy area by the wood ovens -- and especially along the back wall of the area, at one of the two corner tables with cushioned bench seating. We randomly scored one of these, and it was just excessively comfortable. And good for chef-watching -- we had a clear view of everything going on around the ovens.

  • Enjoy yourself thoroughly and post, equally thoroughly, on the Intarwebs about your experience. And send me a link. The more foodpr0n I have, the less tempted I'll be to spend all my paychecks this way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

adventures while not moving

I was in a bad mood last week so I reread Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword, which is double chocolate chip cookies in book form if you like 18th century social commentary, pretty dresses, awkward teenagers bein' awkward, swordplay, and characters who aren't straight. It's self-indulgent, but delicious things often are. (It's a sequel of sorts to Swordspoint, which is also delicious and recommended for people who like politics, swordplay, and gay dudes. And that's only a double entendre when Kushner wants it to be.) My only criticism of it is that, in jumping between first- and third-person narration, it occasionally stumbles. But I mean, like, twice. So that's okay. If you think you'd enjoy a period story about a practical teenage girl who both learns to fight and loves romance novels, you should mosey over to Small Beer Press and get yourself a copy. (And maybe buy some of their other books because they're running a remainder sale for a good cause, and read them, and tell me what you think. I've got Generation Loss and Meet Me in the Moon Room on my reading list, so I'll return the favor soonish.)

Now I'm going through Neil Gaiman's collection of shorts and poetry, Fragile Things. Except I'm skipping the poetry. (I expect this indicates that I'm a horrific sociopath of a poet, and/or that I made a good choice when I didn't try to apply for any MFA poetry programs. I am comfortable with both of these.) So far I think I enjoy Gaiman more when he's writing novels or graphic novels (or blogposts), but his turns of phrase and pieces of atmosphere are nonetheless delightful. And/or creepy. And/or delightfully creepy.

Ubi es Caelum has a new blogthing where she's writing very openly about herself and her life and her brain. This is something that I do not have the guts to do, in a metaphorically literal sort of way. I do not have the kind of guts that would stand up to public self-evisceration and display, the skin pinned back, however prettily, like an anatomist's cadaver. But it's wonderful when a really good writer does, so I encourage you to go read her stuff.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

film: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Got out to see Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus last weekend -- y'know, the last flick that Heath Ledger, dreamboat of bad Shakespeare remakes and inappropriately sexy terror of Gotham, worked on? Which Gilliam got three of Ledger's actor friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, a telescoping progression of talent and yum) to finish in Ledger's stead?

Gilliam is my very favorite director whose films I frequently fall asleep during, and I would've wanted to see Imaginarium for any and all of the actors attached, so, y'know, it would've had to have been something just shockingly terrible for me to have disliked it -- but really and truly, I loved it. It was the most terrifically Pythonesque thing I've seen from Gilliam since possibly Baron von Munchausen, surreal and dead-serious silly, with his signature rambling narrative and cartoonishly dreamlike landscapes, inhabitants, and objects. It's not altogether a pleasant dream -- in parts it's quite upsetting, especially on reflection of Ledger's death -- but I love it all the more for its deep, dark ripples. Because it's a film about people -- about their desires and deeds and efforts and beliefs and souls -- and you can't do that without a good measure of darkness. And, like all my favorite stories, in its chewy center it's all about storytelling.

Also, it's got my absolute favorite casting of the Devil ever. And a heart-lockingly lovely heroine wearing costumes that I would fight you for.

If you have three hours (plus maybe a couple for mental recovery) and you want to be transported, you should go see it. And you should avoid reading anything about the plot if you can. Letting Gilliam unhurriedly unfurl the story for you is half the fun.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

restaurant: Mac McGee's

Intoxicated with food adventure after my dinner at Woodfire Grill on Tuesday (extensive post forthcoming, I promise), I got out to the new Irish pub on Decatur square, Mac McGee's, on Wednesday. (They don't seem to have a website yet, but you can check out the menu on Decatur Metro's post about them.)

Mac McGee's pub in Decatur - a view from the magical beer window, complete with Trois Pistoles.The space is tiny but friendly, with several small high-top tables, stools along the bar, a few high-backed corner booths, and a couple 2-to-4-tops. We snagged the cozy booth at the front, which can be completely closed in but for a window that goes through to the bar. Highly recommended for largeish parties of close friends and/or people who want to feel like they're in a mafia movie. It's a nonsmoking establishment (bliss!), and decorated, appropriately, in glowing woods and dim lights.

I was excited to try the food, being a fan of the chef, Ryan Stewart, from when he headed the kitchen at The Glenwood. I ordered the lamb cottage pie (fine-ground lamb in gravy covered with mashed potatoes, with a side of simply dressed salad) and it was good but underwhelming, with little lamby flavor and a higher ratio of potatoes-to-meat than I would've preferred.

That was the only entrée I tasted, so I'll reserve judgment until I have a chance to go back, but the sandwiches I tried -- the corned beef and the cheeseburger with house-made bacon -- seemed to be much surer bets. Each was served on excellent bread (a squishy, eggy roll for the cheeseburger and a thick & chewy toasted baguette for the corned beef), and both meats were very well seasoned -- though I'm not sure that the burgers were actually cooked to order, despite the waitress asking everyone at what temperature they wanted theirs. The sandwiches came with sides of the best fries I've had in a long time -- small wedges of potato with a high contrast of crispy coating to meltingly soft meal. I usually don't consider fries to be worth the calories, but I could eat a lot of these.

The draft list had some terrific options (I had a Houblon Chouffe IPA Tripel and a Unibroue Trois Pistoles Strong Dark Ale), though the list was missing any form of description, in some cases including what brewery the beers were from. (Tasting notes aren't necessary on a menu, and the bartender cheerfully provided explanations and recommendations, but I'd at least like to know the general categories and gravities of what's available. My beergeek knowledge isn't always immediately accessible, especially after I've had one [Yes, one. I'm tiny].) I heard tell of a whiskey menu but didn't see one and didn't ask -- Wednesday wasn't that kind of night, and I really didn't want to tempt myself to turn it into that kind of night. But it's precisely the sort of place that I'd like to spend time denting a barstool and nursing from a short glass, and I'll definitely report back on the whiskey situation once I have.

Our waitress and bartenders were casual, good-humored, and attentive, with I think only two tiny, quickly-resolved hiccups for our table of 9, which counts as a complete service win.

Will definitely be returning. Let me know if you've been, and what you've thought if you have! And/or tell me what's your favorite UK-style pub around town -- especially if it's off the beaten.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Woodfire, brunch, meat pies, and Hunger

I've got a reservation at Woodfire Grill this evening. It was a Christmas present to my roommate (and yes, today was the first date available for a resonable dinnertime reservation when I hit up back in December), 'cause both of us are huge fandorks for Top Chef and adored Kevin Gillespie's attitude and cooking style during this past season. I promise I'll make every effort to a) do a writeup about our dinner and b) not hump Gillespie's leg.

Brunch this week was at good ol' Manny's, mostly because none of us thought to check whether Flat Iron opens before noon (it doesn't). It's not a brunch I'd go out of my way to have, and like everything at Manny's it's simple and greasy, but it's so comfy and casual there that I never mind. And their biscuits are some of my favorites in town, so tender & buttery that they're perfect plain.

Before we ditched East Atlanta, I stopped and grabbed a couple of meat pies to go from the Australian Bakery Cafe, which I've been craving ever since we saw Titus Andronicus at Georgia Shakes last summer. (An' what?) Their steak & mushroom pie is still my ultimate travel breakfast food -- warming, savory, and filling, with that elusive balance of gravy-to-crust that allows for both tastiness and handheld snacking.

In literary news, I zipped through the first two books of The Hunger Games YA series by Suzanne Collins in less than 36 hours. So, um, I recommend those. I'll do a more in-depth review soon, but basically: This series was written specifically for 12-year-old me. If you were also once an unsqueamish girl who loved (mostly the food parts of) survival action stories, wasn't sure what she thought about romance, and was obsessed with dystopian-future fight-The-Man oh-the-injustice stories, then you should probably start finding a way to read these books now.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

back into the brunch

Went to Emerald Coast Coffee & Grille with my friend Buffi for brunch on Sunday. They offer a three-course affair with (nonalcoholic) drink pairings for $10, which ends up being a completely ludicrous amount of food and caffeine.

First up was a pastry involving white chocolate, cranberries, and wonderfully soft, creamy, cakey dough -- paired with a plain cup of lovely rich coffee. Second was a fluffy omelet with grated onions and potatoes and a side of mildly spicy salsa -- paired, somewhat confusingly, with a sweet, Irish cream-flavored mocha. Third was a half of a Cuban-inspired sandwich consisting of thin-sliced roast pork with a good, tangy balance of pickles and mustard and excellently melty cheese served on a pillowy bread -- paired, again somewhat confusingly, with a milky iced chai. They were happy to make the drinks with soymilk or skim milk, to our liking. (Though really, they were happy to do everything to our liking. Very pleasant, noninstrusive, helpful staff.)

It's a terrific deal for huge appetites or people with a good three hours on their hands. It was a bit much for me, food- and caffeine-wise -- next time I'll order decaf on any mixed drinks, and will consider compiling a tableful of half-eaten dishes for taking home. I might've been conflictingly heavy and bouncy for the rest of the day.

I'm not sure what else there is by way of reasonably-priced brunch in the areas around Brookahven. I've been to the Terminus Flying Biscuit (which, like all the offshoot FB locations, seems incapable of cooking eggs to order or hiring waitstaff as endearingly unhelpful as the hipster kids who work the original location) and to the Corner Cafe on Piedmont (which serves generous portions of delicious food for its high prices, has perhaps overly polite waiters, and is reasonable to get into on Saturday mornings).

Anyone have any places to recommend?

For the record, my favorite places to brunch in town are Steinbeck's in Oakhurst (for savory, hearty dishes -- their brisket hash with creamy potatoes and perfect poached eggs is approximately the best thing I've ever eaten), Canoe in Vinings (for special occasions, as they're pricey and expect one to act like a decent human being before having coffee), and Gato Bizco in Candler Park (which is that place across from Flying Biscuit with its own line of waiting customers -- for honest diner dishes in huge portions, including lots of southwest-themed items and sweet potato pancakes). So uh. Possibly I'm a hipster and think that breakfast should either be schmancy or served by people with tattoos who are likely to be hungover, too.

Are there any places like that north of Decatur? Tell me about your favorite brunch spot even if it's not north of Decatur. Or even if it's not anywhere near Atlanta.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

consumerism wow: motivations

Another side effect of my trip to visit my family in upstate New York is that I have fallen hopelessly, tragically in love with Ojon's Hydrating Conditioner -- hopelessly because it smells wonderful (like musky vanilla, and the scent actually stays for at least a day) and leaves my hair & scalp neither greasy nor dry, and tragically because it costs way more than I'm willing to pay for a conditioner. Hair & skin care products occupy such a terrifyingly steep & slippery consumer slope. 'Cause. Sometimes expensive products work really well. But. I like not spending 22 bucks on a bottle of conditioner. But if I'm willing to spend 7 bucks on a bottle of conditioner, then why not 10? And if 10, why not 15, why not 20? After all, I'd drop that much on a round of drinks any night, and those drinks last significantly less long than a bottle of conditioner would.

This is why I'm not allowed to go into Sephora.

This is also (partially) why I've been thinking lately about how I assign value to things. I mean, consumable things: food, experiences, media, beauty products, wearables. I blanch at the idea of spending more than $20 on a piece of clothing, unless it's something nice that I can wear to the office (where I care much more than usual about how I look) -- but I'll gladly pick up the $40 check for a nice dinner with a close friend. I won't buy an $8 paperback book (~400 pages) if I don't have a coupon or can't find it cheaper used -- but I'll buy $15 worth of comic books I've never heard of (~70 pages) because they look weird and funny. I'll order a $12 cocktail but search out the cheapest entrée on the menu. Sometimes I won't buy an entire album on mp3 for $10 because I can pick & choose the songs that immediately strike me as likable for only $7 (even if I enjoy the artist and know full well that I feel differently about songs once I've warmed up to them), but I'll order 5 samples of perfumes I've never smelled for $3.50 apiece.

Do you do things like this? Surely I can't be the only mercurial spender out there.

The conclusion I've come to is that what I'm really shopping for isn't the product, but the experience of that product. Of appearing responsible and capable to my coworkers and bosses. Of sharing conversation and plates of good food and not having to clean up afterwards. Of feeling like I'm cultured and supportive of independent artists. Of drinking something I'd never conceive of on my own. Of finding out exactly what roses mingled with graveyard dirt smells like when applied to my skin.

Why I value these experiences more than others I'm not sure. It's probably one of those highly individual, annoyingly unsaleable, unique-snowflakey things that drives advertisers to drink. Although it's true that somewhere in my motivation to purchase these things and experiences lies the concept that they'll make me more attractive/loved/happy, my personal idea (anyone's personal idea) of what is is to be attractive/loved/happy is necessarily strange, even to myself. But because self-awareness is awesome, I'm working on sussing out the particulars. I'll let you all know how that goes. I just hope you'll forgive me for not having the softest, flowingest, musky vanilla-scentedest hair while I'm at it.