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The Great Pickler: Holeman & Finch Public House
$25 for five items of your choosing, plus accompaniments
Holeman & Finch prides itself on parts and pickles, both of which harken back to summers on the farm and the whole notion of preserving something good. This pride shows itself in the fact that there is a "chef de charcuterie" — James Ellington — who runs the charcuterie show. And Holeman & Finch's plate certainly fits the description of something good. The most heavenly bite of this smackdown arrives in thin ribbons of six-month cured "black label" lardo, which alights on your tongue like an angel out of the fields of Provence, leaving a trace of all that is good in this world on your fingers as it melts ever so slightly between the plate and your mouth. Head cheese here is an elegant affair that makes other head cheeses look like the morning after a messy frat party. The bresaola also kicks bresaola butt, eminently beefy and earthy with a peppery edge. Indeed, every item seems to reach near the pinnacle of what its type can be. Nothing is shocking or particularly unique, but everything is simply right. Pickled ramps and sweet, snappy chow-chow (not to mention Holeman & Finch's ever excellent bread) pair perfectly with the meats, again showing the interplay possible between the Southern staples of parts and pickles. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-948-1175. www.holeman-finch.com.
The Notorious P.I.G.: Local Three
$15 for a slightly smaller plate of five selections, plus accompaniments
The Notorious P.I.G. nickname here is Local Three's own name for its charcuterie plate, an admittedly bad and brilliant play on pig that is totally consistent with the restaurant's pop culture playfulness. Local Three's charcuterie plate is less expensive than most of the other contenders' plates, but the portion sizes are also a bit smaller. Chef/partner Todd Mussman is a longtime charcuterie devotee and has a revolving rotation of items from which to choose for the daily P.I.G. Eastern European sausages seem to be a particular strength, as evidenced by both a delightfully smoky Polish sausage with a great snap to its casing and a similarly good (though very similar) Romanian sausage. Both of these also pair particularly well with the smear of French violet mustard that Local Three provides, a richly floral and slightly fruity example of an accompaniment that amps up the flavor. Other entries, though, prove less enticing. The "city ham" is mild-mannered and boring, maybe suited for a sandwich, but not able to shine on its own. A pork and garlic terrine is the kind of rough, gelatinous composition that reminds too much of, dare I say it, dog food. Needless to say, we did not lick our plate clean. 3290 Northside Parkway. 404-968-2700. www.localthree.com.
El Chupacabra: Pura Vida
$14 for a four-item plate, additional items available individually
Chef Hector Santiago brings a passion for peppers to his Puerto Rican-influenced charcuterie. Ghost peppers show up in an "evil coppa," a rich morcilla (blood sausage) is accented by a sweet and tangy miso pepper purée, and smoked paprika makes its way into a fragrant chorizo. Thanks in part to those peppers, and also to the decidedly Latin American style, Santiago's charcuterie is easily the most distinctive in town — the flavors are bold and funky, the slicing thick and rustic. The Puerto Rican morcilla is one of the most intense charcuterie experiences around, and delightfully so, the earthy funk of the sausage playing nice with the balanced sweet heat of the pepper purée. Smoked goat and pork show up in tender slices of "chupacabra," accented with a short, sharp burn of spice. A rustic porchetta di testa (that's pig's head, y'all) proudly features crisp and crunchy slices of pig's ear around the edges. This plate stands apart, and also perfectly captures what makes Pura Vida one of the city's most compelling chef-driven restaurants. 656 N. Highland Ave. 404-870-9797. www.puravidatapas.com.
The Judges: Besha Rodell, Food Editor, and Brad Kaplan, Cheap Eats columnist
Judging the Charcuterie Smackdown was a strenuous task (OK, not really, unless you count working off all that protein and salt as part of the task). Four of our six contenders put up a great fight, each showing distinct strengths, each showing what a wonderful thing a plate of charcuterie can be. That said, one contender did rise above the rest. Can you guess our winner?
Enough with the suspense already. Our Charcuterie Smackdown winner is the contender that simply wowed us the most, had the most perfectly executed meats, and provided top-notch accompaniments to enhance the experience. It's the one, the only, the Great Pickler!
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