"Damn!" my husband exclaims. "You'd only give your nana three stars?"
"If she was a restaurant." I explain. "If I was reviewing nanas, then I'd give her five stars, of course. But if she was a restaurant, she'd get three stars. Three stars is pretty good!"
"I can't believe you'd only give your nana three stars." He says, shaking his head.
This absurd conversation is taking place because of my affection for the Epicurean, the catering company turned restaurant in an older strip mall near the corner of North Decatur and Clairmont roads in Decatur. It reminds me of my nana.
She was an amazing woman, loving but very proper, who wore heels and stockings until the day she stopped getting out of bed. She watched a lot of BBC comedies about old Brits living in the countryside and fancied herself a Brit (which she wasn't, except in heritage).
She would have loved everything about the Epicurean: its checkered floors, red banquettes, oddly old-fashioned service and European-inflected food. The Epicurean reminds me of the restaurants my nana used to take me to when I was little, where she'd meet "the girls" for lunch.
I thought those places were the height of sophistication with their dainty asparagus salads and cups of tea. Just when I felt like a real lady, my nana would pull a tissue from her sleeve and ferociously wipe my nose, reminding all in attendance that I was a child and she was in control.
I miss her. Perhaps that's part of why I love this restaurant. But it's not the only reason.
To begin with, the service is attentive, earnest and determined to please. Manager Andres Loaiza, who worked at Mitra and in a number of Buckhead Life restaurants before coming to the Epicurean, is one of those hosts who practices a brand of service that is almost extinct. He will remember your name, what you ate the last time you visited, and your wine preferences. He is an astute observer – if you aren't enthusiastic about a dish, he will know it and take care of it, whether you complain or try to discreetly hide your displeasure. Loaiza's staff follows suit, forgoing flourish and fashion for studied hospitality.
Chef Peter Golaszewski runs the restaurant's kitchen, having come to the job from the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead where he was chef de partie. His menu is not ambitious; rather, he aims to craft the type of food that used to be called Continental cuisine and is now usually called French-influenced. But it's not just France that influences this food. A delicious basket of frito misto, sporting fried lemons, onions and calamari, brings Italy into the mix, as does beef carpaccio. In fact, between the steak frites and risotto, we have a thoroughly Continental menu, and the restaurant is quite reminiscent of ones that would have been happy to call themselves that 20 years ago.
An onion-tart appetizer is sweetly caramelized, the richness cut with grilled asparagus and tangy tomato vinaigrette. A lentil salad, also served with fat asparagus spears, is incredibly rich, almost like a vegetarian sloppy joe. I'd prefer a cleaner, more acidic version of French lentils, but the spicing and flavor of this mixture is right on.
Tuna tartar is served in a "stuffed" avocado. Golaszewski has scooped out an avocado, turned its contents into a tangy and addictive avocado cream, then put it back in the skins with the center filled with tartar. It's a little bit clunky in presentation – avocado skins, once they are cut open, are not the most elegant vessels to restuff – and their use makes the avocado-cream idea seem a little hokey. It would be a better dish if the avocado cream were served as a garnish to the tuna, rather than the other way around.
Remember when crab cakes all had that golden, crispy skin? Before they became fancy and all the kitsch was taken out? There's something so satisfying about that flavor, the fried-bread-crumb-honesty of it. The crab-and-corn cakes at the Epicurean pull off that flavor without seeming crass or cheap. The corn adds a harmonizing sweetness and crunch.
The risotto, turned bright green by pureed English peas, is dotted with bay scallops and shrimp, and the delicate seafood offsets the intense spring flavor of the peas. It's hard to stop eating even after the rich dish has filled you up.
The only true disappointment I came across was an entree of steamed trout served over fava-bean succotash. Steamed fish is a hard sell, and the Asian variations are the only ones I trust. Here, it was everything you might hope to avoid – bland, spongy and barely warm. The fava beans were mushy and reminiscent of canned lima beans. We desperately tried to hide our displeasure, but Loaiza's eagle eye caught us, and we did not pay for the entree. Dessert also was taken off the bill as an apology.
And what a dessert! A ginger biscuit, looking very much like the true English scone that Nana would have approved of, was cut open and sandwiched a scoop of crème fraiche ice cream. The slightly sour ice cream was a perfect match for the candied ginger and hard cake crumble of the biscuit.
The restaurant is adjoined by a retail wine shop, and the wine list is serious and very European, with some lovely half bottles and dessert wines accompanied by crowd-pleasers that wouldn't offend the snobs among us. Lunch hours run all day, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., when dinner starts. The room is not often full, and patrons frequently are older. There are a lot of women, lunching with their friends, looking for a meal that is sophisticated without being too modern, too trendy or too expensive. Looking for a room that is quiet and pleasing, with service that is caring and polite. My nana taught me that these are things to admire in a restaurant, and I believe she was right.
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