Dine out or eat in? This is the perpetual question when getting together with friends or family. The former has the benefit of being, well, easy. No dirty dishes to clean, no grocery trips, no thinking ahead. And, when you choose your restaurant wisely, eating out has the added benefit of delivering culinary experiences that can be hard to replicate at home. On the other hand, eating in offers you the opportunity to entertain in the comfort of your own home, to save a few bucks, and, more importantly, impress the pants off your guests.
The four-course meal that follows combines the deliciousness of some of Atlanta's best restaurant experiences with the pride and joy that comes from making a meal for others in your own kitchen. To start, a bowl of honey-drizzled fried goat cheese balls inspired by Ecco. Next, you'll find a version of the Spence's way-too-good-to-be-healthy kale Caesar salad. For the main course, we chose a lemony roast chicken in broth in the style of Gio's Chicken Amalfitano. Finally, for dessert, we channeled the refreshing, fruity goodness of a King of Pops tangerine basil ice pop.
I can't promise that your home-cooked meal will be an exact replica of these restaurant masterpieces. But when you see the happy faces of your friends or family as they devour the goodness you prepared with your own two hands, I think you'll find the experience equally satisfying.
The recipes that follow are my home hacks — simplified shortcuts I devised based on a quick chat with each chef. I'm not a professional chef, but I do consider myself a fairly accomplished home cook. And while I personally try to shop at local farmers markets, and frequently obsess over intricate recipes from cookbooks by famous chefs, I tried to avoid overcomplicated techniques and hard-to-find ingredients to keep this experiment relatively simple.
But, hey, if you want to make your own croutons from two-day-old baguettes or infuse your olive oil with lemon essence, go for it. You may need to borrow a tool or two — a meat thermometer and an oil thermometer, perhaps. But aside from grocery shopping, the most planning ahead you'll need to do is for the pops because, well, freezing takes time. All recipes will serve four people, so dial up or down accordingly.
To complement these classic Atlanta dishes, you'll also find suggested Georgia wine and beer pairings for each course brought to you by celebrated sommelier and all-around-drank-guru Steven Grubbs of Empire State South. We'll admit, finding Georgia wines around town can be tricky, but most local wine and package stores are happy to special order wines by request, even if it's only a bottle or two. Try Mac's Beer and Wine (21 Peachtree Place, 404-872-4897), Ansley Wine Merchants (1544 Piedmont Road, 404-876-6790), and 3 Parks Wine (880 Glenwood Ave., 678-349-7070). Bigger stores such as Green's and Tower should have you covered, too.
HELPFUL HINT: If you're preparing this entire meal, be sure to start the pops the night before. The chicken can be rubbed/marinated earlier in the day, and the Caesar dressing for the salad can be made in advance, as well. You'll be cutting it close, but you can fully cook and serve the fried goat cheese while the chicken and potatoes are in the oven. Better yet, serve the goat cheese as an appetizer, then enjoy some of the Georgia wine or beer that Grubbs has suggested while you cook the chicken and potatoes.
Echoes of Ecco's Fried Goat Cheese with Honey and Black Pepper
"Almost every table at Ecco ends up getting this dish. We fry it to order, with a high-quality goat cheese from Sonoma County that has both great flavor and the right texture for frying. We toast our black peppercorns to bring out a smoky flavor, and it's really important to use warm honey so the fried goat cheese stays nice and crispy and hot."
— Jonathan Beatty, executive chef, Ecco
For this home version, a log of firm goat cheese is important. Most decent grocery stores carry a few choices — go for the least runny. Toasting those peppercorns is not mandatory, but avoiding regular old finely ground black pepper is critical — you need coarse chunks of peppercorn to give that POW of flavor to balance the honey and the crunch to go with the soft goat cheese.
• Canola oil, for frying, (48-64 ounces for an 8- to 10-inch wide saucepan)
• 10-ounce log of goat cheese, cold
• 1 cup all-purpose flour, split into 1/4 cup and 3/4 cup portions
• 1/4 cup cornstarch
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup club soda
• Honey, 1 teaspoon for the batter, 3 tablespoons to garnish
• Cracked or coarsely ground black pepper
Fill a broad saucepan with 2 inches of canola oil and heat on medium-high. Heat to 375 degrees for optimal frying, about 15 minutes.
Cut the goat cheese into 10 pieces and roll each into a ball. In a bowl, roll the goat cheese balls in 1/4 cup of flour to lightly coat. Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.
Mix the remaining 3/4 cup flour, cornstarch, and salt in a separate bowl. Whisk in the club soda and 1 teaspoon honey. Mixture should be roughly the consistency of a thin pancake batter, and a bit lumpy is OK.
Dip the cold goat cheese balls into the batter and turn to coat well. In batches, so as not to overcrowd or reduce oil temperature, gently drop goat cheese balls into the hot canola oil. Gently turn each goat cheese ball in the oil, especially at the beginning, to make sure they don't stick to the bottom or each other. Fry for about two minutes, until they have a light golden brown color.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the balls to a paper towel-lined plate until each batch is done.
Place balls into a serving bowl and drizzle with remaining honey (warm is preferable but not mandatory, at least make sure honey is not cold). Sprinkle generously with cracked/coarsely ground black pepper. Serve immediately.
BONUS TIP: The batter is basically tempura batter — feel free to fry up any other random items in your fridge.
Grubbs' suggested beer pairing:
Terrapin Rye Pale Ale, Athens, Ga.
"Pairing beer and warm cheese is almost too easy, but the gentle boost of rye here makes the ale play well with both the batter and the black pepper. Also, it happens to hail from one of the greatest little towns on planet earth."
The Spence, In a Sense, Kale Caesar
"I love the texture of kale. It's the exact opposite of the romaine that's usually used in a Caesar salad. It's rough and slightly bitter. It has a chew to it ... and, mostly, flavor. We've used a few types of kale for this salad over the past couple years, but currently use baby kale as it's a bit softer. The dressing is simple, a basic Caesar dressing, but with the addition of a splash of fish sauce, chili, and lemon confit. We really ramp up the traditional ingredients ... lots of garlic, lots of anchovy, lots of lemon, and lots of black pepper."
— Richard Blais, executive chef, the Spence
Our version sticks with lemon juice and lemon zest rather than going for a confit, and leaves the fish sauce out in favor of straight-up anchovy and some Worcestershire sauce. The Spence adds in a bit of tarragon with its kale, but tarragon can be a turn-off to some, so we're leaving that out. It's totally fine by us to use ready-made croutons, but do make the dressing from scratch.
• 1 5-ounce package of baby kale (Yes, this is a thing, Publix and Kroger both carry it.)
• Lemon wedge
• Black pepper
• 1/2 cup finely shaved or shredded Parmesan
For the dressing:
• 1 egg yolk
• 4 garlic cloves, chopped
• 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
• Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan
• 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
• 1/4 teaspoon dried red chili pepper flakes
• 3/4 cup oil (preferably a mild olive oil, or a mix of olive oil and vegetable or canola oil)
For the dressing, combine all ingredients in a blender and, well, blend. If you want to get fancy with emulsification dynamics, start with everything but the oil, then pour in the oil slowly while the blender runs. If it's too thick, add a little bit of water and blend again.
Keep the dressing cold until you're ready to serve. Then, toss the kale with dressing to taste (you will not need it all). Top the dressed salad with croutons, a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of black pepper, and a handful of finely shaved or shredded Parmesan. If you've got a microplane grater, that's great-er, but regular old store-bought shredded Parmesan will do.
Grubbs' suggested beer and wine pairings:
Option 1: Three Sisters Vineyards Vidal Blanc, Dahlonega, Ga. (available at the winery for $16 and at Marietta Wine Market)
"Vidal is a hybrid white grape, which means it has both European DNA (like most common wine grapes) and wild North American DNA. The American genes make it easier to grow on the East Coast, and this crisp white performs pretty well up at Doug Paul's farm in Lumpkin County."
Option 2: Wild Heaven Craft Beers, Let There Be Light American Ale, Decatur, Ga. (available frequently at growler shops such as Hop City, Ale Yeah!, or the Beer Growler)
"Most of Wild Heaven's stuff has a potent Belgian streak, but the Let There Be Light Ale is geared more toward lift, and crushability. Notes of orange peel link well to the zip of the Caesar dressing."
Almost-like-Gio's Sorrento Lemon Chicken and Potatoes
"Our logo has lemons in it for a reason — this chicken is a game changer in people's lives. There are a few special steps we take. We infuse olive oil with the zest from Amalfi-style lemons for an intense flavor, and use very strong, wild Sicilian oregano. We also use very high-quality chicken, from Bell and Evans, slow roasting then basting for a few minutes in the charbroiler. And we make our fresh chicken stock every day that finishes it off — you'll want to drink every drop."
— Giovanni di Palma, owner, Gio's Chicken Amalfitano
What really kicks this dish into the swoon-worthy stratosphere is the broth that gets poured over the roasted chicken before its final run under the broiler. Di Palma may scoff at the following approach, but the results are great. We're going with breasts only to keep the cooking consistent, and to please anyone averse to hacking up whole chickens into parts. You can go out and buy a fancy lemon-infused olive oil, but using zest in addition to lemon juice for the broth here gets you pretty close.
• 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
• Olive oil, 2 tablespoons for the chicken, 2 tablespoons for the potatoes, 1/4 cup for the broth
• Salt and pepper
• Dry oregano, 1 teaspoon for the chicken, 1 teaspoon for the broth
• 4 lemons (1 quartered to go in with the chicken, 1 to be zested then juiced for the broth, 1 more to be juiced for the broth, and 1 to be sliced into thin rounds for garnish)
• 2 baking potatoes, rinsed and dried, sliced into 8 long wedges each
• 1 cup chicken stock (I really like the Better than Bouillon brand concentrate)
• 2 tablespoons grated Romano (or Parmesan) cheese
• 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Rub the chicken with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then sprinkle both sides generously with salt and pepper and 1 teaspoon oregano. Arrange chicken skin side up in a baking pan to cook. Throw in the quartered lemon. In a separate baking pan, toss the potato wedges with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. (The chicken and potatoes can both be rubbed several hours in advance and refrigerated.)
Cook the chicken and potatoes until the chicken hits 165 degrees, roughly 50 minutes.
While the chicken and potatoes are cooking, whisk together the broth — zest of 1 lemon, juice of 2 lemons, 1/4 cup olive oil, chicken stock, grated cheese, chopped garlic, and 1 teaspoon oregano.
If you have a meat thermometer, check the chicken at 45 minutes to see if it has hit 165 degrees and has a light golden color to the skin. If not, give it a few more minutes then check again.
Once the chicken is ready, pull it out and switch the oven to broil. Leave the potatoes in for a few minutes as the broiler heats up to give them an extra crisp. Give the broth another quick whisk and pour over the chicken into the baking pan. Take the potatoes out of the oven, then broil the chicken for about 3 minutes, until the skin is well browned and the broth is bubbling a bit.
For each person, place 4 wedges of potato and a chicken breast into a bowl, then spoon or pour in the sauce from the chicken pan. Garnish with chopped parsley and thin slices of lemon.
Grubbs' suggested wine pairing:
Wolf Mountain Vineyard Plenitude white blend, Dahlonega, Ga. (available at Whole Foods for $20 or at the winery)
"Karl Boegner runs one of the more impressive operations in the bounding Dahlonega hills. His white blend has just enough meat on its bones to handle the chicken, and enough acidity to match up with this Mediterranean Diet mainstay."
King of Pops Mini-me Tangerine Basil Pops
"Blending whole fruits for Popsicles is superior in both taste and texture. The closer you can get to the fruit coming out of the ground the better. That is why we strive to use local ingredients when we can. Tangerine basil may be not something people are used to seeing in pop form. It makes them stop and look, and it's maximum refreshing. And most pops are better with a little sweetener, not only does it bring out flavors, but sugar depresses the freezing point and gives your pops a more pleasant texture."
— Steven Carse, founder, King of Pops
While King of Pops wins people over with intricate, fresh flavors, you can also keep it super simple and focus on the magic that happens when juice meets your freezer. For the tangerine basil pops, you could buy fresh fruit, blend it and strain it, mix it with simple syrup, and squeeze in some lemon juice for extra acidity. You can also just buy some tangerine juice, add a quick hit of agave nectar, mix it with fresh basil and let the freezer do its thing. Let's do that.
• 16 ounces tangerine juice
• 2 tablespoons agave nectar (or honey, or simple syrup — your call)
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Do you have an ice pop mold? I've got friends with simple old-fashioned ones, and friends with fancy newfangled ones that freeze on contact. But I've also got ice cube trays, plastic wrap, and toothpicks. And I like the idea of mini-pops to finish off a meal. Choose your method.
Blend tangerine juice, agave nectar, and basil in a blender. (If you don't blend, the basil will mostly float to the top of the juice.)
Pour into your ice cube tray or ice pop mold. Cover the whole thing with plastic wrap or foil, and then gently push toothpicks or Popsicle sticks or plastic spoons into the middle of each mold. (If you want the toothpicks to be in somewhat straight, freeze for 90 minutes, then adjust the leaning toothpicks.)
Freeze for at least 5 hours, or, better yet, overnight.
Grubbs' suggested wine pairing:
Frogtown Cellars Cachet Vidal Ice Wine, 2006, Dahlonega, Ga. (available at the winery for $23 or online plus shipping cost)
"I like the idea of ice wine and [ice pops]. This one is another Georgia Vidal, but this time a dessert wine, produced by pressing frozen grapes at high ripeness levels. The result is intense, and a touch floral, nicely matching the basil tones in the pop."
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