I'll be frank: 2011 wasn't the best year for dining in Atlanta. Despite that, I have high hopes for 2012. Some of our city's best supper clubs are morphing into actual restaurants: Cardamom Hill promises to be a serious, upscale Indian venture propelled by the enthusiasm of Spice Route's Asha Gomez. The Lawrence, brought to us by the folks behind Dinner Party, furthers the culinary playground of chef Shane Devereux. Richard Blais is promising to finally bring his non-junk food cooking back at the Spence. There are a zillion rumors flying about new projects from some of my favorite restaurateurs. Bring it 2012.
But even though 2011 was a tad slow, I did manage to eat well, much of the time. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite dishes of 2011.
Brown stew chicken at Stir It Up
I only ordered this dish when everything else at the restaurant was unavailable, and I'm so happy I did. You know when you roast a chicken, and there's that brown gooey sticky stuff on the bottom of the pan, and if you scrape it off with a spoon and eat it you basically go to schmaltz nirvana? The deep, rich sauce on the huge serving of bone-in chicken tasted like that, but a tad darker, a smidge more comforting. 1083 Euclid Ave. 404-963-2384. www.stiritupatl.com.
Lamb tenderloin appetizer at BLT Steak
Mostly, sauces are used to complement and contrast with a piece of meat. This dish showcased something much more nuanced. The lamb itself was simple and lovely, meltingly tender and rich with flavor. But an espresso cardamom dressing played against everything lamby about the lamb, ramping up those musky, earthy flavors but also enhancing the meat, making the juices seem juicier and brighter. 45 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd. 404-577-7601. www.e2hospitality.com/blt-steak-atlanta.
Soft-cooked egg on rice cake at Miso Izakaya
There's a lot to love at Miso these days. The duck buns are juicy, the ramen milky and satisfying. But my favorite treat from this izakaya is also one of the most unassuming (and cheapest, at $3). It's a dish that recalls the pleasures of childhood breakfasts — the soft egg and crispy toast. But here the crunch is provided by a rice cake, which the egg sits primly atop until broken, when the yellow yolk runs down into the rice and creates a simple treat that feels decadent all the same. 619 Edgewood Ave. 678-701-0128. www.misoizakaya.com.
Crab salad at Empire State South
Ryan Smith has a knack for juxtaposition. Give him a dainty piece of fluke, he'll add crispy pig ears. Or, as with his crab salad, give him the delicacy of crab meat, and he'll find crunch and heat to act as perfect counterpoints. This past spring's crab salad was a medley of contrasts: crab, peanuts, slivers of hot peppers. It evoked all that's good about traditional seafood salad but turned it on its head, giving it crunch, nuttiness and spice, and eschewing mayo for a housemade contrivance called peanut milk. Literally, the milk you can squeeze from a peanut if you're Ryan Smith. It was both amazingly pleasurable but also cerebral, and that's a juxtaposition I can get behind. 999 Peachtree St. 404-541-1105. www.empirestatesouth.com.
Cranberry soufflé with pink peppercorn ice cream at Bacchanalia
A marvel of texture (sugar crunch, airy soufflé, creamy ice cream, gooey hot cakey cranberries) and flavor, this is one of those instances where a small amount of invention goes a long way. The slight prickle of pink peppercorns juxtaposed with the spun sugar-like crust and tart cranberry of the soufflé made for an almost magical dessert, like what the pinkest wicked fairy godmother would use to lure you to her castle of cotton candy. 1198 Howell Mill Road. 404-365-0410. www.starprovisions.com.
Sweetbreads and fried dough at the Sound Table
I had this one night when I stopped by the Sound Table on my way home, planning to grab a quick cocktail and check out the new menu but not eat anything. But this dish stood out: sweetbreads with fried dough. Because I'm obsessed with fair food and sweetbreads, I had to try it. I was rewarded with a huge steak-like sweetbread, crisped on the outside and creamy on the inside, over pillowy hunks of crunchy and appropriately oily fried dough. It worked. Really worked. But, perhaps just as importantly, it showed humor and wit, a willingness to reach into the realm of our most fun culinary traditions and meld them with our most ambitious. 483 Edgewood Ave. 404-835-2534. www.thesoundtable.com.
Chicken livers over risotto at One Eared Stag
Chicken livers and rice is a staple of my family's home-cooked comfort-food repertoire. It's cheap, it's good for you, it's delicious. So despite this One Eared Stag dish sounding kind of insane — chicken livers, pickled ramps, preserved tomato, bacon powder, Carolina golden rice risotto — I couldn't resist ordering it a couple months ago. In true Robert Phalen style, the entrée exhibited bravado just in its place on the menu. It's not often you see chicken livers as a main course, let alone chicken livers fried in pork fat over risotto topped with bacon powder. Sounds unbearably heavy, right? Nope. The preserved tomatoes and pickled ramps brightened the risotto, and the bacon powder added a light smokiness. Despite feeling like a fall dish, it put to use the best of the spring and summer harvests, and showcased the seriousness of a kitchen willing to put in the effort to preserve ingredients. All presented with the creamy pink livers, this was food that felt luxurious and straightforward at the same time. 1029 Edgewood Ave. 404-525-4479. www.oneearedstag.com.
Foie gras bread pudding at Baton Supper Club's M. Wells dinner
Speaking of decadence, this dish from M. Wells' two-night stint at Baton Supper Club takes the cake. Or, more accurately, the pudding: A savory square of bread pudding, imbued with all the fat and funk of foie gras. The result was spongy, salty, creamy, gloriously fatty, ridiculously rich, and just about the most delicious thing I've been served all year. Gato Bizco, 1660 McLendon Ave. 404-371-0889. www.baton-limited.com.
Porchetta sandwich at No. 246
Perhaps it's lazy of me to recycle a description, but I believe I said it best in my August review of No. 246 when I described the porchetta sandwich thusly: "The plate holds one of the most glorious lunchtime indulgences I've encountered in years: a porchetta sandwich alongside a shallow bowl of 'roasting juices.' In other words, this hunk of pig was roasted until meltingly tender, slathered with aïoli, topped with pickled red onions and then sandwiched by a crusty roll. As if that weren't enough, the drippings from the pan are provided as an au jus, adding extra moisture, indulgence and just straight yum to the experience. I am besotted."
I still think about that damn sandwich, usually when I'm so far from Decatur that getting there is impossible. In a town of great sandwiches, this one is up there among the best. 129 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 678-399-8246. www.no246.com.
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