God, I need a vacation. A long one in a padded room with nothing but a jar of baby food and one of those white-noise machines to drown out drama. This week I had a great meal in an unlikely spot with someone who, within two days of our meal, became a Former Friend. It's a strange experience. One aftertaste, the food, is great. The other, the dead friendship, is vile.
Dinner was at Halo in the old Biltmore in Midtown (817 W. Peachtree St., 404-962-7333). Finding this very designed bar isn't easy. There's no sign that I noticed and I finally went to Ami, in the same complex, and asked for directions. "Go around the corner and go through the unmarked door," the bartender there told me.
The place is a knockout -- pure architecture, like a massive stone stairway that goes nowhere, with a theatrical use of color and lighting. The furnishings are pomo. I went early on a Wednesday night, and it was mainly empty though the place gets quite busy late. The place is, of course, mainly a lounge -- a very trendy one that seats about 300 people -- but it has been emphasizing a grazing menu recently. The chef is Stephan Leed, who recently left Commune.
My Former Friend, as usual, wriggled his nose at the menu. "It's weird," he whined. I didn't hate him yet, so I was compassionate. "It's not weird. It's fusion," I said. "You always reflexively hate what is new to you. Try to relax."
Our waiter Josh, herewith declared Waitron of the Week, looked away and then back. Josh, a songwriter, assured us that Leed's cuisine was awesome. No less than Janet Jackson had sat on the banquette a few feet down from us and eaten it. "Famous people come here all the time," he said. "But Janet is big!" I nodded.
"You know, Josh," I said. "Speaking of big stars, my high school prom was held in the Biltmore Hotel. The Swinging Medallions performed." I sang a few bars of "Double Shot of My Baby's Love." My Former Friend rolled his eyes. Josh told me that was awesome. "Yeah," I said, "I was awesome in my baby-blue tux with a ruffled shirt."
Poor Josh had to run up and down the stairs fetching dishes for us. Leed changes his menu daily, apparently, and, honestly, I loved nearly everything I sampled, ordering more and more. It was good enough to warrant losing a friend.
Mainly, we stuck to the lighter dishes. There was nothing very unusual about the edamame ($4) except the crunchy peas coated in wasabi with which it was served. But a sloppy joe made with shredded duck confit ($9) was a decadent and funny masterpiece on a glossy bun. I was less impressed with the grilled cheese sandwich made with "secret artisan cheeses" ($7). The interior was indeed a nice tour of pungent flavors but I found the bread way greasy for my taste. Another sandwich, a BLT, made with Niman bacon, buttery hydroponic lettuce and heirloom tomatoes on sourdough ($8), was killer.
Organic collards braised with vanilla vinegar and butter ($7) took a minute to get used to but then disappeared. In fact, my fussy Former Friend said it made him gag when he first tasted it and then insisted on having the last forkful. I was tempted by the rack of lamb served with housemade vanilla apple sauce ($17) but the idea of more vanilla -- really strong in the collards -- discouraged me.
The absolute don't-miss grazing item is the macaroni and cheese ($8). I know. I've written a thousand times that I wish mac and cheese would join the forgotten ranks of other formerly fashionable foods like the kiwi, but this is amazing. The noodles are almost suspended in cream under a thick crust, and the dish is redolent of white truffle oil. Yeah, I know, white truffle oil is itself a cliche and it was overused at Commune, but I want this as my final meal before I am executed for trashing Former Friend.
What else? The menu during my visit included shrimp sauteed with lemon and butter ($14), crabcakes with honey-ginger remoulade ($13), a filet mignon with Point Reyes blue cheese ($18) and a bizarre "kit" for making "smores" at the table ($7).
A few other trendy lounges in town have attempted this kind of menu before. I do hope Halo succeeds. This is the best of such food I've sampled in our town and it's a great excuse for nondrinkers like me to visit a trendy destination. I love it. And, as for my Former Friend: I hate that you stuck me with the bill again!
Here and there
The Patio has reopened in Inman Park under new owners, but I'm sorry to say the experience hasn't improved a whole lot. This restaurant, located in the old Deacon Burton's location across from the Inman Park MARTA station, is about five times larger than it needs to be. A cavernous, rambling space with outdoor areas as well as indoor ones, The Patio is as hard to enter as Halo. Wayne and I couldn't find the door, saw nobody dining through the windows and were heading back to our car when an employee came outside and shouted at us, steering us to the door.
I wish the Italian cuisine were better. For a starter, we divided a pizza ($10.95). Topped with very little pesto, roma tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, the pizza was drier than toast on a hospital tray. Come on! Double the pesto and don't heat the thing till it's parched.
Our entrees were better. In fact, mine was quite pleasing. I ordered the leg of lamb "steak," 12 ounces, topped with gorgonzola sauce ($17.95). The polenta served with it should be rushed to emergency services. It's not edible. Wayne ordered cappelini in a tomato-basil sauce ($11.95). He added some Italian sausage, overpriced at $4.50, making the dish too expensive for the middling quality.
You'll also find chicken marsala, lamb chops, ravioli appetizers, mussels, roasted garlic and salads on the menu. There's a cool bar for hanging out. Too bad the restaurant is so damn huge. Even if there was a good crowd in it, it would feel empty. Maybe they could partition it and sublet some space to the tattoo parlors soon to be driven out of Little Five Points by the massive gentrification project there?
The Apres Diem/Carroll Street Cafe folks have opened a French bistro -- Carpe Diem -- in Decatur at 105 Sycamore at the old Atlantic Star location. ... Feedback from Nick Murphy: "I always appreciate your observations in Grazing, especially when my own opinions are more eloquently and cleverly confirmed by yours. S&S Cafeteria is a wonderful throwback to the days of yore when it was OK to eat such 'comfort food' as veal parmesan and fried okra and cracklin' bread on a regular basis (i.e. every Sunday after church). The long, claustrophic halls are uniquely conducive to conversations between strangers as you draw nearer to the menu board posted ahead and the shimmer of the tomato aspic and other congealed delights."
Michell Botwinick, responding to my column on bar food, wrote this: "For great food at a bar (as opposed to great bar food) you really should check out the Highlander (391 Monroe Drive, 404-872-0060). Yes, the floor is sticky, it's really dark and divey, and the bathrooms consistently win dubious awards from CL, but a lot of the food is made from scratch. The chicken pot pie is not to be missed (as the food critics say), nor is the cream of wild mushroom soup."
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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