Friday, August 24, 2007

The way it used to be

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2007 at 8:54 PM

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Few Atlanta restaurants have the following that Jalisco (2337 Peachtree Road, 404-233-9244) does. The chairs and walls there are covered with little gold plaques commemorating customers' special occasions.

I used to eat there with friends in the early '80s, and at the time it was the best Tex-Mex food in the city -- and the closest thing to authentic Mexican, too, for that matter. A couple of friends still eat there regularly and have urged me repeatedly to join them. I've declined. Something told me I wouldn't care for it after all these years, and there's little I like less than dissing a meal everyone else is enjoying.

But being in the area today, I decided to drop in for lunch alone. Oy. The man at the table in front of me prayed aloud for what seemed like an eternity when his food arrived. When my own lunch special -- a taco, a chile relleno and refried beans -- hit the table, I felt like praying, too.

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I haven't eaten a hard-shell taco in years, so that was a shock itself to see. And I can't stand lettuce on tacos. But under the lettuce was ground beef. When I was asked if I wanted chicken or beef, it didn't cross my mind I would be getting a taco that replicated the Old El Paso style. The chile relleno wasn't too bad, though miniature, and the refried beans, which occupied most of the plate, were slathered with more cheese. In fact, the whole plate seemed to be bubbling with lava-hot cheese. I could feel the calories mounting exponentially with each bite.

Oh well, as a nostalgia trip to remember some old friends, it was worth the surreally anachronistic taco. And the service was great.

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The psychology behind the 'Starbucks experience'

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2007 at 3:56 PM

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The October issue of Psychology Today includes an article about Starbucks' meteoric rise from 100 coffeehouses 15 years ago to 13,000 today. It opens 2,000 new locations each year.

Interestingly, the article relates that Starbucks' original vision did not encourage lingering: "Efficiency, not coziness had been the design goal."

Then, in 1996, the company conducted extensive research and discovered that most people were more interested in "feeling and atmosphere" than in the coffee itself. Most of the article is devoted to describing the psychological means by which the company creates a sense of "warmth, luxury and emotion," in exchange for lots of money.

Some interesting mentions:

Flavors of Frappuccinos are tied to fashion trends. The company attempts to divine next season's trendy colors a year in advance and then develops the right-color Frappuccino. (I sampled a blueberry one this week. I guess we're supposed to be dressing in purplish blue.)

Store design avoids hard edges. Everything is curved. Why does the store use such tiny tables? "Tables are small and round to preserve the self-esteem of customers drinking alone, since a circular table has no 'empty' seats."

The company intentionally developed the annoying language ("grande Valencia latte") for its products, both to add a sense of sophistication and to get consumers always "thinking" in Starbucks-ese, so that they will feel out of place at other coffeehouses. The company even publishes a 22-page booklet of the lingo to help customers "build confidence in beverage ordering." (Photo of Jesus from SubversiveInfluence.com. Check out the post there that specifically reacts to Starbucks lingo and compares the coffeehouse to a church.)

The same issue of the magazine has a feature on the healthful qualities of green and black tea. Who knew black tea "speeds recovery from stressful events, reducing levels of cortisol and diminishing blood platelet activation"? Green tea "mitigates sunburn," and both types may promote brain health. I wonder if they cure erectile dysfunction and depression.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More cupcakes

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2007 at 4:15 PM

I received this e-mail yesterday: "I haven't tried The Cupcake Factory yet, but my fave gourmet cupcakes in town are Sweet Pockets, [404-668-1022]. They have a little shop inside the Irwin Street Market in Inman Park (along with a Jake's ice cream), and are available at a few other places around town. I'm biased because the owner is a friend, but try this month's special cupcake, the almond-raspberry one. I had it today. Delicious. Check 'em out!"

The Irwin Street Market is located at 660 Irwin St., and is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. Sweet Pockets, whose owner/baker is a former architect, also has cupcakes available at the Beehive Co-op (1821-A Peachtree Road), which is open noon-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday.

Let's hear your reports.

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Terrific food, low prices, tiny dining room

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2007 at 3:00 PM

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The boutique restaurant lives! We visited Top Floor (674 Myrtle St., 404-685-3110) last week and had one of the best, most affordable meals we've had in quite some time.

The restaurant, located across from the Mary Mac's parking lot and behind Papi's, replaces DaVinci's and is bound to produce long waits because a) the food is killer and b) the space is tiny. In fact, the restaurant derives its name from the necessity of climbing a staircase to get to the main dining room. There are a couple tables downstairs where the bar is located. Fortunately, the restaurant takes reservations and if you're disabled or don't want a lengthy wait, call ahead.

I'll have plenty to say about the food in next week's paper. Pictured here is a duck confit pizza that puts Piebar to shame and a simple plate of asparagus with cherry tomatoes. The dessert menu is especially unusual. It's all chocolate and it's all addictive.

By the way, the restaurant's sign says "Top Flr," as does the menu, but they can't really mean for us to try to pronounce that, can they?

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Calavino's to open in Oakhurst Grill location

Posted By on Wed, Aug 22, 2007 at 2:04 PM

I reported two weeks back that Calavino Donati, owner of the defunct Roman Lily Cafe, is opening a new restaurant, Calavino's, in Oakhurst Village. The actual location is 350 Mead Road (404-270-9575), currently occupied by the Oakhurst Grill.

A "soft opening" will occur this Saturday night and the restaurant should be operating at full capacity by Sept. 1.

I've seen the menu and it reprises most of the Roman Lily favorites. Prices are are low, with lamb chops being the most expensive item at $16. You'll find pasta dishes and salads, too.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Pate that sings

Posted By on Mon, Aug 20, 2007 at 7:53 PM

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If you like mega-portions of pate, head to Violette (2948 Clairmont Road, 404-633-3363). This plate would have literally fed four and I took half of it home.

It was the beginning of our meal last week at the popular bistro opened years ago by the late Guy Luc. The restaurant retains the strong Alsatian influence of Luc, who was one of the most eccentric restaurateurs in our city. Old-timers will remember his original restaurant nearby in an old bank building. There, he hosted prix fixe dinners that featured a waitress who sang at the top of her lungs throughout your meal, not even

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stopping for a breath when she went into the kitchen to fetch a plate.

We visited last week for the first time in a couple of years and found the restaurant doing a brisk business. There was no singing waitress, but there was a duo playing piano and guitar and we had the usual good service. I'll have more to say about the food in next week's paper.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Dumb it down and eat it up

Posted By on Sat, Aug 18, 2007 at 12:23 AM

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Little annoys a dining critic as much as being called a "food snob." Usually, this appellation is compounded with adjectives like "pretentious" and "arrogant." The usual employers of this terminology are the owners of restaurants that receive negative reviews.

A few years ago, I was introduced to someone who immediately blurted, "Oh, you're the pretentious asshole who gave my restaurant a bad review."

"As it happens," I said, "I just filed a positive update on your restaurant."

"Well, I'm glad you developed some taste," he replied.

"And I'm glad you got a new chef," I said.

Snobbery is not the only danger, in my opinion. A perhaps more insidious danger is reverse-snobbery, by which critics and foodies become excessively enamored of the mediocre, as if to prove that they are just regular folks with regular but somewhat adventurous palates. A recent example was the Wall Street Journal's report that Ann's Snack Bar serves the best burger in America. I love Ann's myself and have given her our Best of Atlanta award several times. And I'm happy to see Miss Ann collect buckets of cash from customers waiting an hour to eat in her tiny, inexpensive cafe.

That the Journal gave the award to Miss Ann's "ghetto burger" but actually described a different burger makes me think a bit of reverse snobbery was at play. Eating at Miss Ann's is very much about the working-class experience as much as the burger itself. The phrase "quintessentially American" echoes inside the head with every bite.

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I find myself similarly seduced — almost. I love the fried chicken at Popeyes, but I certainly wouldn't call it the best in the city. Similarly, I love the Pot 'n' Pan (1865 Piedmont Ave., 404-874-0340) for breakfast on weekend mornings, but I wouldn't call it the best breakfast in town.

I always get the same thing there: two eggs scrambled with feta cheese, bacon, grits and a biscuit. It's yummy, but there's no question that a large part of the appeal is the crowd. Midtown boys who have been out all night mingle with young marrieds, drag queens, professional types, blue-collar workers, ad infinitum. Indeed, the staff itself is largely Asian. It's so, you know, democratic.

We pride ourselves on being a classless society, so many of us reflexively detest anything that smacks of elitism and we constantly look for something "real" or "authentic." Forrest Gump, a dumbed-down philistine with banal tastes, would be the ideal chef in the culture of reverse-snobbery.

But the banal isn't more "real" than the extraordinary. It's just safer. Indeed, its vaunted preservation reinforces class differences rather than transgressing them.

I'm not taking a stand here for a particular perspective, but I do think it's helpful for us to examine what animates taste. Reverse-snobbery is no more laudable, no less classist, than snobbery itself.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Marcus Samuelsson to save Starbucks from itself

Posted By on Fri, Aug 17, 2007 at 9:30 PM

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I was blogging at the Ansley Starbucks today, lunching on an arugula salad with goat cheese from MetroFresh. It's full of intensely flavored strawberries and intensely flavorless plum slices. ("This is the prettiest salad I ever did see," the counter person told me.) I ate it along with a triple-macchiato that the baristas here are nice enough to make for me in a real ceramic cup.

I just met a bunch of Starbucks marketing people who told me that celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson will be giving a cooking demonstration here 1-3 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 13. Samuelsson will be cooking recipes from his new book Discovery of a Continent, which will also be available for purchase (and autographing).

The good news is that Starbucks will be selling two new pastries created by Samuelsson starting Aug. 28. They are chocolate-cinnamon bread and a caramelized apple-pecan pastry. These were designed for pairing with two new coffee blends, Ubora and Joya del Dia.

I'm calling that good news because, as I told the marketing peeps, most of the Starbucks pastries suck — especially the croissant, which tastes like misshapen, spongy white bread. I asked them exactly where the monstrosity is made, but nobody seemed to know. Considering that you can buy flawless croissants about a mile away at either the Bread Garden or Alon's, it seems Starbucks might want to try what Whole Foods is doing with produce: Buy local.

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Eat well, don't die

Posted By on Fri, Aug 17, 2007 at 9:17 PM

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Slogan of the week: "Food to diet for!" I've not tried this service's prepared meals, but it looks like a convenient way to eat healthy, lose weight and enhance your sex appeal for a reasonable cost. You can pick up meals at sites throughout the Atlanta area. Check out their website: Fresh 'n Fit.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

He got GameDay

Posted By on Wed, Aug 15, 2007 at 6:40 PM

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Pableaux Johnson was absolutely giddy. One of New Orleans’ most passionate food and travel writers, Pableaux was giddy with the excitement over the completion of his labor of love, Eating New Orleans: From French Quarter Creole Dining to the Perfect Poboy. The book was an exhaustively researched guide through the food-and-cocktail culture of the city, from the little hideaway neighborhood joints all the way up to the old warhorses of the Quarter. But Johnson’s excitement was short-lived. Eating New Orleans was published June 21, 2005 -- two months before Hurricane Katrina. It is now a very nice literary time capsule for the former James Beard Award nominee.

Over the past two years, Johnson -- who in full disclosure I must confess is a friend of mine with whom I shared more than one evacuation experience out in his native southwest Louisiana -- has busied himself with his steady gigs with the New York Times and Bon Apetit. But now he’s really rebounded with a different culinary tour altogether. Last month, Johnson produced ESPN GameDay Gourmet: More Than 80 All-American Tailgate Recipes. Published by ESPN Books with lots of football-friendly help from network sportscasters Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso, GameDay Gourmet is a breezy collection of cutely named football-season recipes.

Continue reading »

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