These lyrics trill in my head, then out my mouth, while I watch my tablemates taste City Grill's scallion-mashed potato pancake. They each get the same look of recognition in their eyes that I did: Grandmother food. Simple, satisfying and practical -- a sustaining, nutritious side dish Grandma would have resourcefully crafted from leftovers in the fridge. The beef filet it accompanies has depth from hickory-grilled char, and a flanking tussle of sauteed spinach is clean and honest. But it's the saline, crispy/soft potato cake spiked with mild scallions that makes a decisive impression.
A meal at City Grill can offer up several memory-igniting moments that court sentimentality but ultimately deliver soulful straightforwardness. Alas, you typically need to weave through some underwhelming hoopla to find them.
City Grill maintains an unusual status in Atlanta's culinary landscape. Once the belle of the Peasant Restaurant Group and a mainstay on the dining scene since the '80s, the restaurant has bumped up and down in quality over the years. Current owner Karen Bremer, formerly the president of Peasant and Mick's restaurants, bought City Grill four years ago. Under her direction, the restaurant has successfully capitalized on the challenges of its enigmatic downtown location as best it can.
Which is to say, suits and conventioneers fill the bulk of the seats in the dining room.
But, oh, what a room. The longevity of City Grill can in large part be attributed to the grand drama of the space. It caters like no other restaurant in town to the romantic notions of Atlanta's Southern gentility that persist in the minds of visitors. They can sweep up the circular marble staircase in a flurry of cliched, Tara-esque fantasies. Then they can legitimately draw an excited breath at the multistory ceilings; the pictorial murals painted in muted grays, greens and blues; the sumptuous curtains (my God, that's a lot of fabric); and, when the room is full, the succoring purr of relaxed, engaged diners.
The draw for locals? It's an atmosphere that encourages articulate conversation. The chairs are comfy, a relatively rare thing in restaurants. And it's a refreshingly retro break from the dim industrial dens that so many of the city's eateries occupy these days.
Appetizers don't begin meals with the same lasting impression as the ambience. At a recent lunch, lobster corn chowder proves thick, gluey and unfortunately bland, despite some sizable chunks of lobster meat. A disjointed salad of butter lettuce, ham, fennel and apple slices in a mustardy vinaigrette almost works, but doesn't quite come together. The ham comes off strange and jarring, an unwelcome fleshy texture in an otherwise verdant composition.
Fried green tomatoes, layered with blowsy slices of buffalo mozzarella, taste underseasoned and are tough and cold, like they were made way earlier and relegated to the nether regions of a heat lamp.
Our main courses proffer signs of hope. A lamb sandwich has presence: the meat tender and generously piled, the bread not too thick. But what really snags my attention are the grits alongside gently smoked pork tenderloin. Coarse yet smooth and full of warm corn flavor, the grits -- milled in small batches by South Carolina company Anson Mills -- remind me once again why local flavors are so worth preserving and celebrating.
Lunch and dinner are wholly different experiences at City Grill. At lunch, the streets around the restaurant teem with office workers. Lunch can be busy and brisk, though the staff is always professional. Light floods through the massive windows, and the restaurant is dominated by the hum of businesslike, baritone voices.
Though you never know whether the crowd will be dead or bustling, I prefer dinner. Nighttime flatters the room, and the soul of the food makes a clearer showing. Through the years, the menu has navigated the fine distinctions between New Southern, traditional Southern, Continental and New American cuisines. Currently, under the direction of executive chef Anne Moriarta, it favors New American with scattered hints of Southern. Look for the traditional touches -- that's where the biggest payoffs lay.
Like lunch, we slog through some mediocre starters: a discombobulated "winter" vegetable and grilled shrimp salad (since when are asparagus and zucchini cold weather offerings?), and a butter lettuce salad rife with possibility but lacking savvy execution. More bacon, more blue cheese dressing and less mealy tomatoes would cure its ailments.
Happily, we score with the soup of the day: pumpkin with cinnamon mascarpone. We ask for extra spoons and take turns savoring its spicy fragrance and homey taste. Funny how every season has its distinct flavors, but autumn's seem to be the most pronounced and immediately evocative. Good stuff.
If you order the pork chop, any lingering disappointments will be obliterated. The preparation changes frequently, but I try the chop stuffed with cabbage and morsels of red-blooded sausage. Ribald and juicy. On the side? More of those wondrous grits, and a hillock of sweet, sauteed baby carrots. More like this, please.
Stick to dishes like the pork chop and the beef filet with the scallion-potato cake, and you'll be set. Veer elsewhere and you risk venturing into hotel food territory. Rack of lamb is nicely grilled, but the wild rice pilaf underneath conjures the wrong kind of nostalgia: I don't ever desire to eat another bite of Uncle Ben's again.
A swordfish special is fresh and moist, but the risotto underneath is gloppy. Maybe the kitchen should just triple the recipe for the grits and call it a day.
The here-and-there touches that make City Grill worth visiting show up in full force come dessert time. A plate of hot, gooey, just-baked cookies strokes all your comfort-food synapses. Gingerbread sparks discussion: Do you like this holiday tradition sharp or mild? I like mine sharp, and though City Grill's is on the temperate side, it's certainly appealing drizzled with a creamy lemon curd.
A server confided during one visit that the kitchen strives, worthily, to use as many local ingredients as possible, so the waitstaff constantly jokes amongst themselves, "Is this Georgia grown?" The peanuts in the "peanut patty" are indeed from these here parts. The patty jogs some kind of memory I can't quite place: It's soft and peanut buttery, but not like a cookie. I even called my mom to see if she'd ever made something like this. She said she hadn't. Maybe someone else's mother brought a peanuty treat akin to it for a kindergarten snack? I'm still racking my brain.
You've caught the theme by now: There's a real undercurrent of Americana that runs in the food at City Grill. If Moriarta and her crew coaxed out that element, I'd bet much of the food would lose its anonymous sheen. 'Cause when they do tap into that sensibility where sustenance and reminiscence intermingle, the result is so satisfying you'll want to sing for -- or to -- your supper.
KILL IT!! Love you guys!
Sad to hear about Ben's Brown Bag. Hate to say it but it seems like…
Thanks. I guess there are some caul fat haters on this board. I like the…
not only is this a well written article, it makes me want to go out…
Breakfast with Santa, something great for the kids.