Weirdly, as I eat my muffuletta at Parish Market, I'm flashing back to the 1970s and the (recently revived) BBC television series "Upstairs, Downstairs." It's 9:30 p.m. and I am literally the only customer, but there's plenty to observe.
The Market is the downstairs café operation of the more formal, upstairs Parish Foods & Goods (240 N. Highland Ave., 404-681-4434). The market is busiest during breakfast and lunch when its pastries, sandwiches and simple meat-and-three plates draw brisk business.
But the kitchen for both operations is located downstairs, so that I have a view of the young servers traipsing up and down the stairs and hanging out between trips to tables. Several of them are seated at a table, rolling silverware into napkins.
There's a lot of laughter as business winds down. After I order my muffuletta, I notice a large tray of half-price pastries — that day's leftovers. The apparent downstairs manager helps me pick eight to take home, while two guys from the kitchen watch, teasing me for my half-price mania. "Yeah, how the hell am I gonna eat eight pastries?" I ask.
I enjoy the ambiance during my 30-minute visit. My sandwich is less enjoyable. The muffuletta, on a sesame-covered roll, is good enough, but tastes like it was pulled from a refrigerator. Later, I find the butter croissant decadently rich as a 1 a.m. snack. Conversely, another croissant frustrates me with its stingy portion of chocolate. And scones are decent-tasting but excessively crumbly. Don't eat one shirtless and then get into bed.
My muffuletta - New Orleans' signature sandwich - brings to mind something strange about this visit and my earlier one to the upstairs dining room. Parish opened as a New Orleans-style restaurant. It wasn't hardcore étouffée and the like, but the Cajun notes were clear. Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything besides the muffuletta downstairs that brings the French Quarter's food to mind. The funky grocery-store ambiance downstairs and the upstairs' brick arches and flashy glass chandeliers do preserve the N'awlins feel, but pointlessly.
So what's up? During the visit upstairs a few days earlier, our server explained as soon as we sat down that Parish has indeed shifted its emphasis. Now, she said, it's a "Southern, farm-to-table restaurant featuring organic, local ingredients." I'm paraphrasing because she mumbled this in a way that deservedly implied a "Whatever!" at the end of the sentence.
Our meal was not good and maybe that's why the dining room was nearly empty. Then again, it was the Sunday before Inman Park Restaurant Week started, so maybe people were waiting for the special three-course $25 menu.
The best dish we sampled was the "country ham and chicken liver pâté," served with some toast, bread-and-butter pickles and mustard. Frankly, I didn't even detect the ham, not even as a salty note, but who doesn't like smooth chopped liver? I have to say, though, that the plating was incredibly unappealing. The pâté was in a small jar, set on a big white plate with the pickles and a mustard glop haphazardly dumped nearby.
If that was just plain dumpy, then a starter of smoked chicken thighs took the evening's prize for Dish Most Suggestive of Hallucinatory Inspiration. The chicken was rolled into little chunks resembling shrimp at first glance. The chunks were papered with thin bacon. Every drop of moisture was smoked out of the chicken. They were served with hoe cakes that were fresh many hours earlier. Oy!
Entrées weren't better. I opted for fried chicken. The menu did mention "spiced honey" at the end of its description, but it wasn't explained to me that my three pieces of Springer Mountain chicken were going to be anointed in the stuff. Do you eat fried chicken with your hands? If so, ask for a wet napkin. Honestly, the chicken itself was moist and, um, springy and the coating crispy, but I don't want all that sticky-sweet honey, at least not in that quantity.
The chicken was served with a mess of collards and three big slices of yellow tomatoes. The latter were perfect taste-wise, but warmed "pot liquor jus" from the collards had been poured over them, apparently, warming them well above room temperature. The server convinced me to also order a side of grits, served in a little iron skillet. Another exercise in dehydration. Adding butter didn't help. They were served too cool to stir and melt it in.
Wayne ordered roasted loin of pork with a "crispy ham hock" from Gum Creek Farms. It really is nice that Parish buys its pork from this reliable operation in Roopville. Too bad it is subjected to more overcooking, making it hard to swallow. Okra and tomatoes on the side tasted shockingly like a canned product. More grits, plus some pickled Vidalias.
For dessert I insisted we share the fig galette. The local, whole figs were perfectly ripe, there was just the right amount of cream-cheese custard, but candied citron strewn all over the plate was a meaningless distraction. The flat, flavorless pastry got in the way, too, serving no function besides containment.
What an immense letdown. Really, should I blame the late Sunday hour? Was half the kitchen staff home in bed early, resting up for the onslaught of Inman Park Restaurant Week? Even if that was so, there's no excuse for such disappointing fare. The servers, upstairs and downstairs, were super-attentive but they deserve far better food to serve.
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