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Murphy's: mainstay 

Stands the test of time in Virginia-Highland

Every couple of years I find myself returning to Murphy's (997 Virginia Ave., 404-872-0904) and I always leave with the same question: "Why don't I come here more often?"

One answer could be that it makes me feel older than dirt. I well remember the restaurant when it opened about 26 years ago in its original location in a picturesque brick basement off North Highland, a few blocks from the present building. Owner Tom Murphy, always sporting a beret, created the perfect ambiance and menu for the neighborhood's youthful residents. The food was light, homey, sort of post-hippie and inexpensive.

The original restaurant had an adolescent quality and many of us were horrified when Murphy decided to grow up and move to the greatly expanded present location. He began serving a very adult menu that, over the years, was tweaked by some of the city's most creative chefs, such as Gerry Klaskala and Michael Tuohy.

I dined in the restaurant last week, a few days before it hosted its annual St. Patrick's Day celebration. It would be hard to find a more pleasant restaurant in the city on a spring evening. Mellow lighting, brick surfaces and open windows combine to create the sensation of a mountain lodge. There's a martini-and-wine bar in the waiting area and an adjoining retail wine shop.

The current chef is Gregg McCarthy (formerly with Ray's Restaurants). Murphy's promotional literature says he "draws his inspiration from the coasts around the world." Perhaps. We didn't order fish, so there didn't seem to be anything particularly coastal about our meal. It was earthy comfort food with plenty of powerful flavors and not a trace of pretension.

Wayne must have been in a particularly homey mood. He selected fried green tomatoes followed by meat loaf. McCarthy layers the tomatoes with mozzarella and accompanies them with an arugula salad tossed with bits of red-wine salami. The meat loaf, made with sausage and spinach, was topped with marinara (instead of the ketchup you grew up eating), served over creamy mashed potatoes with crunchy green beans.

Don't make the mistake I did and order the short rib appetizer followed by the "cracklin' pork shank." I'm not complaining about the flavors, but the two together were too heavy. The starter featured meat shredded from the bone, served with a rich zinfandel sauce over polenta with reggiano cheese. Micro parsley topped the dish.

The pork shank was a marvel. McCarthy roasts the meaty shank until tender and then flash fries it, so that it's crispy on the outside like a gigantic carnita. It's lacquered with piquant orange-mustard glaze and served with sweet braised red cabbage. Fred and Wilma Flintstone would have enjoyed this at their wedding dinner.

Dutch pastry chef John Hamstra continues to produce luscious desserts, including a liquored-up, fluffy bread pudding served with candied fruit and a trio of chocolate tastes someone at your table should definitely order.

Service at the restaurant remains informal but courteous. Sarita, a gorgeous Emory grad student of Colombian and Arab extraction, is Waitron of the Week. I've rarely seen anyone smile so much. In fact, I guessed she was an actor, not an innaleckshul.

Here and there

Rose D'Agostino and I lunched recently at Chef Liu (5221 Buford Highway, 770-936-0532). This Chinese restaurant specializing in dumplings sits in something like a big mobile home in the parking lot of Pine Tree Plaza. There are two tiny dining rooms, mainly filled with Asian customers.

We ordered the savory leek pie, which resembles the scallion pancakes you've eaten elsewhere, but this includes a big pocket filled with various ingredients besides the leeks. Generally, I like the fried dumplings more than the steamed ones here, and we ordered a plate of them filled with pork.

We also ordered a plate of noodles with beef, which a Chinese man at the next table was eating. When I asked its name, he said, "Just ask for Chinese spaghetti with meat sauce."

Finally, we shared a cruller, a so-called Chinese doughnut. This is best used to sop soup but was a chewy, slightly salty pleasure all by itself. ...

There has been a false rumor going around that Radial Cafe has closed. The restaurant recently expanded and is alive and kicking.

I recently reported on Utopia, a martini-and-tapas bar. A similar operation, Element Restaurant and Lounge, has opened on West Peachtree. ... Doc Chey's in Vinings has closed. ... The Chocolate Bar has opened in the Artisan Condos building in downtown Decatur. ... The Supper Club, one of our city's quirkiest restaurants, is closing at the end of this month. ...

Curmudgeonly Gripe

Any regular reader of this column knows that I love Ann's Snack Bar. I was delighted to see longtime Wall Street Journal food writer Raymond Sokolov give Miss Ann his award for the best hamburger in America. He also gave a thumbs-up to my two other favorites, the Vortex and the Earl.

Miss Ann makes several burgers and Sokolov said his favorite was the "World-Famous Ghetto Burger." But the burger he described was not a ghetto burger, unless Miss Ann recently changed her recipe. The ghetto burger, a plate-sized monster, is slathered in chili. Sokolov described a double-bacon cheeseburger.

If Miss Ann has changed her recipe, I'm cool with that. If she has not, I think Mr. Sokolov should correct himself, as should the AJC, which has likewise failed to mention the ingredient that, besides size, differentiates the ghetto burger from other burgers on the menu.

This is really important.

Reader's recommendation

From Daniel Banks: "I would like to recommend Pho 79 (Dunwoody Point, 5000 Winters Chapel Road, Doraville, 404-477-3317), a Vietnamese restaurant that has reopened at this new location after closing its doors on Buford Highway (Plaza Fiesta) a few months ago. Many of its customers and new neighbors might not be aware of its reopening. I ate lunch there today and highly recommend its bun tofu chien xa (vermicelli w/ fried tofu and vegetables in peanut sauce). Its service is attentive and cheerful; its portions generous, fresh and quickly served. The new location has a much improved decor."

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