It was Wayne's 100th birthday. His life was floating away. It was raining again. The ground was floating away. So we went to Floataway Cafe (1123 Zonolite Road, 404-892-1414).
This restaurant, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, is the less formal sister of Bacchanalia, whose opening 10 years ago by Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison improved the Atlanta dining scene as few restaurants in our city ever have. The couple brought to Bacchanalia an obsession with fresh regional produce and artisan ingredients. They gave us our best taste of New American cooking's international notes. Floataway, whose chefs are Eric Evans and Jennifer Johnson, does the same more casually and at prices that are highly competitive.
Floataway broke another kind of ground in our city by locating in a warehouse building. Since then, many other restaurants (including Bacchanalia) have found similar locations. I still love Floataway's gauzy curtains and disorienting cloud graphics -- clever image-istic evocations of the restaurant's name - but in truth the restaurant decor could use a bit of freshening.
We were surprised and happy to have Gladys Parada as our server. Gladys owned the short-lived but delightful Andaluz. After its closing, she returned to her earlier job as host at Seeger's but has again left that restaurant, which has recently been plagued by dramas that deserve an opera score.
We ate a whole lot, it being Wayne's birthday. We started with an antipasto of tender serrano ham folded on the plate under thin slices of red and gold beets in vinaigrette, garnished with beet and arugula sprouts. It's hard to imagine a better play of flavors, from sweet to bitter, and textures, from crunchy to slightly chewy.
We ordered two other appetizers. Fried squash blossoms heavily filled with basil-spiked ricotta cheese were polish-the-plate quality but I much prefer the feather-light versions I've eaten in Rome. A signature appetizer here, maybe one of my favorite dishes in town, is organic chicken livers, sweet and earthy, grilled medium rare on rosemary skewers, served under pickled red onions. Others around town have tried to duplicate it. They don't come close.
Gladys and I were both worried when Wayne ordered the house-cured salt cod cioppino. I was married to a Cuban years ago, Gladys is Cuban and we both warned Wayne how strong salt cod, "bacalo" to Cubans, can be. Happily, he ignored us. The cod was mild, almost sweet, in the cioppino, which is a fish soup created by fishermen in San Francisco. Floataway's cioppino, actually more like a sauce in the bottom of a big bowl, is quite spicy.
My choice of braised kobe brisket, cut into thin slices, was served with baby carrots, potatoes, sweet onions and peas. Though it needed twice its grated horseradish, it was a great version of a kosher favorite. But if I had to pick, I'd go for the cod.
For dessert, Wayne polished off a slice of chocolate cake with chantilly cream. It did not have a single birthday candle in it and Gladys did not sing "Feliz Navidad." My own dessert -- cheesecake made with goat cheese -- was staggering. It reminded me of creme brûlee with its glazed sugar disc topping the creamy chevre. Blueberries, in compote, were scattered over the dish.
Few restaurants in our city offer the quality for the money Floataway does. I don't know why I don't go more often.
We hit another old favorite last week, Nuevo Laredo Cantina (1495 Chattahoochee Ave., 404-352-9090). This wildly popular restaurant in an industrial section of the city serves Atlanta's best border cuisine. I don't mean by that to suggest the food isn't authentic, but it's definitely Mexican with some north-of-the-border notes.
Getting a table here is sometimes like asking Our Lady of Guadalupe for a miracle. The host told us we'd have a 30-minute wait. "Really?" I asked, remembering that last time our 30 minutes turned into an hour.
"Well, maybe," she replied. "Could be more than 30, could be less than 30." Well, the sense of time is authentically Mexican, that's for sure. Happily the wait was only 15 minutes.
The don't-miss dish here for me is the chicken mole. I don't think there's a better mole in our city. Dense, spicy but sweet with a powerful fragrance, it's served with moist chicken torn from the bone. I always make tacos from it, folding in the restaurant's frijoles refritos.
Wayne ordered the thin-cut tampiquena steak, not one of my faves anywhere, but lean and not overwhelmed by salsa and cheese here. It was served with one of the restaurant's artful enchiladas. A starter here I love, by the way, is the cebollitas -- charbroiled scallions with lime.
Nuevo Laredo, whose decor blends the sexy and the Day of the Dead, was looking at opening a second location in Little Five Points some months ago, but those plans have gone kaput. In the meantime, maybe they'd like to add a dining patio to the present location? A third floor?
Here and there
Speaking of Mexican, Oh ... Maria!, the city's only serious effort at gourmet Mexican cooking, has closed. It had been faltering for some time but I do wish someone in our city would take up some serious Yucatanean cooking.
Claire Hudson writes to encourage me to return to Thaicoon where she broke her Passover fast of matzoh with the restaurant's sushi, of which she has become "a massive fan." Claire also wrote to sing the praises of Radames, a server at Billy Goat's Cantina, and to state her utter disbelief that Tortillas, "a long established cultural hangout," could lose so much business to "places like Moe's" that it had to close. Wake up and smell the bean dip, Claire!
John G. Papastavridis, born and raised in Greece, writes to share my concerns about Taverna Plaka. Besides the mediocre food, John is bummed by the manic belly dancing: "Belly dancing has nothing to do with Greece. Actually, it came from Lebanon and Egypt. Personally I find it offensive, let alone sexist. Why not visit a strip joint nearby?"
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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