As we're walking out the door after lunch at Urban pL8, the new café on Huff Road in the former Pangea location, the cashier/waiter/food runner yells out, "Hey! Can you guys wait one second?" He's fumbling with something in the semi-open kitchen, located behind the bar in the high-ceilinged, loft-like space.
We stop, wondering what he could want. Did we forget something? Had we done something wrong? He rushes around to the counter, and, leaning over, clutching two brown paper bags in his hands, presents an offering. "Fresh baked cookies!" he explains.
Those cookies, melting and warm and comforting, say a lot about Urban pL8. There's a true spirit of goodwill at the restaurant, an aim-to-please attitude that's both earnest and endearing. The execution of that goodwill isn't always achieved with panache, but it's hard to resist once it gets to you.
Urban pL8 is owned and operated by Betsy Pitts, who's spent time in the kitchens of Bacchanalia and Floataway Café. But don't let her high-falutin' credentials lead you astray. Urban pL8's goal is to be a neighborhood lunch and occasional dinner spot (it's only open for dinner Friday and Saturday nights), not an upscale scene. Pitts' staff is affable, attractive, and often flummoxed. The whole place has a kind of thrown together feel, like a lovable family who set out to start a business and is trying really hard despite not knowing exactly what they're doing.
(Photo by James Camp)
When I walked through the door of the new Zen on Ten Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar (1000 Northside Drive at Tenth Street, 404-879-0999), I was to my surprise immediately greeted by the owner and introduced to the bartender as his "best customer."
That was a bit of hyperbole but it's true that I have eaten regularly at Tom Phing's original restaurant, the King & I at Ansley Square, for most of the 30-plus years it has been open. It was among the first Thai restaurants in Atlanta, opening long before the cuisine became the city's favorite ethnic food.
I have many bittersweet memories of the King & I. It was the place I frequently went with friends after the countless funerals we attended in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. In fact, I dined there every week for several years with three friends, all of whom ended up dying themselves. But my memories aren't all painful. I attended as many birthday dinners there, too, including one of my own, after which the police detained me. Long story.
Zen on Ten is Phing's most ambitious project yet. He opened (now defunct) Pad Thai in Virginia-Highland some years back and was involved with his brother in establishing Mali on Amsterdam. Phing confided to me that part of his motivation in opening Zen is his fear that Ansley Square won't be around much longer. He said all leases there have a six-month cancellation clause.
(Photo by James Camp)
This will be my last Talking Head post for the foreseeable future, so I'll close out 2009, like most years, by recalling the best of the year from a Georgia perspective, and casting an eye to the great things to come.
Best of 2009. Here are my Top 10 beer moments of the past year, including my favorite new beers.
1. The Rebirth of Sierra Nevada - Not content to sit on his well-deserved laurels, craft beer pioneer Ken Grossman (or some of the youngsters that have taken hold of the reins) busted out in a big way in 2009, with two new year-round gems, Torpedo Extra IPA and Kellerweis, that are destined to be classics, a slew of hop harvest seasonals that included an "estate" beer brewed with barley grown on site, and the late-year release of Life and Limb, a collaboration with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. Here's hoping for more of the same in 2010.
2. The Beermuda Triangle - Octane Coffee Bar and Lounge has one of the best beer selections of any bar in the city, much less, any coffee house. Being joined by a top-notch brewpub (5 Seasons Westside) and beer store (Hop City Craft Beer and Wine) within a literal stone's throw made the corner of Marietta and Howell Mill Road a swirling vortex of beery goodness.
3. Ommegang Adoration Ale - Among the best interpreters of Belgian style beers in America (thanks to their close association with Duvel), Brewery Ommegang has stepped up with a Christmas beer that stands with the best from the Old World. Fruity and spicy like a holiday wassail, with a cheek-flushing warmth, Adoration should be a regular winter warmer for Belgian beer lovers.
Oh, 2000. How quaint you were. How innocent. How oblivious to such ills as tornados tearing up downtown Atlanta, drought drying up Lake Lanier, and rains causing creeks and rivers to rage, destroying homes, roads, businesses and lives. This was back before the housing market tanked and unemployment soared and nightlife (in Atlanta at least) soured even before terrorists crashed planes into NYCs skyscrapers.
But the aughts werent for naught. There was some good news in the past decade, predominantly in the form of technological time-sucks and cultural growth. Seriously, do you remember life before Gmail, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook? Do you recall an Atlanta devoid of smartly crafted cocktails, chef-driven restaurants, DIY arts collectives, and such staples as Trader Joes, H&M and IKEA?
Most important, though, are the intangibles that injected deeper meaning into our lives: the camaraderie that followed the devastation of 9/11, the pride that accompanied the election of President Obama, the in-it-together attitude that has risen from the decade of disappointment and challenge. Is Atlanta the better for it? Did we collectively learn from the highs and lows of the 00s? In some ways, yes. In others, no.
How well do you know the past decade? Correctly guess the relevance of the images on the cover of this week's paper and win an amazing prize!
Want to show off your knowledge of Atlanta, wow your friends and enemies, and earn the respect of Creative Loafings immensely powerful staff? Heres how: Shoot us an e-mail in which you explain the meaning of each of the photos printed on the cover of this weeks Decade in Review issue. The more photos you can describe and the better the description the greater your chance of admittance into an elite inner circle of immeasurable privilege. The three participants with the best responses will be announced Monday, Jan. 4, on clfreshloaf.com and will get to choose from an array of pretty decent prizes, including tickets to the Hawks, the Thrashers, Muse, Bon Jovi and Slayer/Megadeth, as well as a theater preview or film screening with Arts Critic Curt Holman. Deadline: Monday, Jan. 4. Send your guesses to email@example.com.
How about some creme brulee made with Thai coffee? It's the signature dessert at the new Zen on Ten Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar (1000 Northside Dr. at Tenth St., 404-879-0999).
The owner is Tom Phing, who also owns the King and I, one of the city's first Thai restaurants. It opened at Ansley Square on Piedmont Road about 30 years ago.
Zen on Ten, as the full name suggests, features a broader menu than the King and I in that it includes Japanese dishes, principally sushi and sashimi, as well as Thai specialties. My favorite dish has been this radiant plate of yellowtail with serrano chilies, a bit of garlic and yuzu soy sauce and parsley puree.
Look for more in this week's "Grazing."
(Photos by Cliff Bostock)
Here's a kind of kinky riff on a popular dish from the past (above). It's Ria Pell's version of Beef Wellington, featuring a Guiness-braised short rib inside a pastry shell. Pell, who owns Ria's Bluebird, is serving this dish at her new restaurant, Sauced, which opened in Inman Park on Monday.
Sauced is delightfully designed with curved banquettes, wood paneling and lamps from the early '60s. Taxidermied fish and antlers, along with copper mallards, decorate the walls.
There's a full bar.
We also ordered rosemary-skewered chicken livers (with fennel-apple jam); a Caesar salad made with char-grilled romaine lettuce; and blackened cod with grits, fontina cheese and tomato chutney.
Dessert was this "lemon Moon Pie," made with lemon mousse between two ginger cookies dipped in white chocolate. It was yummy, but the cookies were so hard we had to stab them with a knife to break them up.
One warning: the restaurant only accepts cash. There is an ATM in a cabinet on the patio. This seems to be a trend. Nearby Thumbs Up has long required cash, as does the new Pizzeria Vesuvius.
I'll have more to say in a few weeks in my "Grazing" column.
(Photos by Cliff Bostock)
Here's a holiday nightmare that took place at Livingston. I've eliminated names, but confirmed the identity of the writer. Because of length I have not used the usual gray type we use for quotes:
I just had the worst restaurant experience of my life -- by far. I am furious, and I don't know what to do about it.
We'd made reservations for 7 pm tonight for my sister's birthday at Livingston. My wife, my two-month-old baby, my mother-in-law, my mom, my sister and me. I was so looking forward to it because of what I've read about Livingston.
But it turns out, the Livingston bar was having a very, very VERY loud party for Lady Ga-Ga, who was playing across the street at the Fox. There was one of those vinyl signs for Q-100, as well as a radio van out front -- very unusual for a place like Livingston, but you get the picture. LOUD. Night club, DJ, radio promotions, LOUD.
The thing is it was just as loud in the dining room as in the bar -- I guess they're basically the same room. And I mean LOUD. Like nightclub LOUD. We were on the opposite side of the dining room from the bar, but it was just as loud -- or maybe it was louder because the sound was vibrating off the wall.
We told the waitress we were pretty disappointed, and she gave us one of those meaningless (and therefore insincere-sounding) "well, we really do apologize." That was it. No "please have an appetizer on us." No "would you like to come back another time and we'll be happy to provide you with a free entree." Nothing to say that the restaurant actually was sorry.
I told her that I couldn't believe that was all she could say about something that was utterly inappropriate in a restaurant like this -- that we were expecting a very different experience and had a baby with us. She got the assistant to the assistant manager (or something) to come.
Guess what he said? "I really do apologize." Then he said they really didn't have any control over what was going on in the bar, which immediately struck me as a bit insincere because the bar is part of the restaurant. And I pointed out (gingerly), "Well now it is part of the restaurant isn't it?" and he said "Oh, yes, I suppose it is!" Umm, yeah.
It being Monday night, there weren't that many people in the restaurant. But the bar was packed. So I guess they figured they could abuse the largely out-of-town guests in the restaurants. Unbelievable.
We were determined to block out the sound, but it really couldn't be blocked out. This was LOUUDDDDD!!! I mean like THUMPA-THUMPA-THUMPA bass beat BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, DJ-spurring-them-on-to-"PARTEEE-SOME-MORRRE"-loud. I really was having a hard time focusing on the menu, but my wife saved me from making a decision because she said she thought she needed to take the baby home.Really, that was our only safe option (baby-book guideline: baby shouldn't be in an environment where it's so loud that you have to yell to hear each other).
The waitress came back by and we told her we were leaving. She again gave that insincere "really do apologize" line -- at which point I said: "Y'know, no offense intended, but I'm really sick of hearing everyone apologize. That's pretty meaningless." At which point, she said, "Let me get the assistant manager."
So we're all getting up to go, but before I can get up out of the booth, this guy comes over, and puts his hand on my elbow, which is resting on top of the cushioning in the booth, and introduces himself as Bart, the assistant manager. He yells (he has to yell because the music's so loud): "We really do apologize."
And I say, "Well, couldn't someone have told us that this was happening when we made the reservation?"
And he yells: "This party was planned for a long time. It was on our website and everything." Of course, we never went to the website, but that's kind of the point: They could have warned us.
Me: "I guess I'm amazed that you haven't offered us anything in return for our troubles."
Him: "Well, I guess we have nothing to talk about" and starts walking off.
At that point, I'm pretty darned perplexed; I certainly didn't say anything to warrant that kind of treatment. I did raise my voice, but that's because one had to raise his voice in this environment.
Me: "What do you mean nothing to talk about? You can't offer us something for our troubles? It's Monday, you've ruined our evening. I've got a baby with us. We have no where else to eat in Midtown, and I would think you'd at least offer us a coupon for a couple of meals on you or something."
And he comes back over and puts his hand on my arm again and starts saying something. But I'm looking at my arm and wondering why the guy is touching me and I say softly after a moment of looking at his hand on my arm: "Could you please not touch me?"
Immediately, he spins around and trots to the hostess, whose nearby yelling, "Call security!"
We were leaving! The guy kept touching me! And because I was uncomfortable with this obviously agitated manager laying his hands on me, when I myself already was furious, he says: "Call security." I guess he thought better of it, because security didn't seem to be coming. But the thing is we were leaving. And what really was unbelievable was he was the one touching me. I hadn't moved.
As I left, I got the manager's name from the hostess and wrote it on a card, and the assistant to the assistant came back up front: I told him that Bart was entering "lawsuit territory" by taking such actions. But when I think about it, it could even fall into the territory of assault under the law. At any rate, my point isn't to get all legalistic about it.
But damn! After they create this horrible situation, the guy then assaults me and then threatens to call security -- as we're perfectly peacefully trying to leave!
We obviously weren't the only people upset. Another couple appeared to leave before eating. And as we left, I saw Bart rushing back and forth between the bar and his waiters, looking very stressed out.
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