Thursday, March 31, 2011

Remembering 'Ole Lester'

Posted by on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 5:24 PM

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Browsing the Net for restaurant news, I came across this blast from the past — from August 14, 1964, to be exact. It's an article in the Milwaukee Journal entitled "Segregationist Closes His Restaurant."

It's hard to believe that it wasn't even 50 years ago that Atlanta's restaurants were severely segregated. Lester Maddox, the subject of the article, owned a popular restaurant called the Pickrick, which specialized in fried chicken. On Saturdays, the AJC published an advertisement for the restaurant that mixed Maddox's rants about desegregation and states' rights with descriptions of his menu.

"Pickrick drumsticks" became his racist trademark. They were axe handles of the type he brandished at uppity black people who tried to enter his restaurant. He sold them to diners as souvenirs. Some time after he closed his restaurant, he had a shop in Underground Atlanta where he continued to sell them.

Shockingly, Maddox ran for governor in 1967 and, thanks to the Georgia General Assembly, won. He was an international embarrassment, in part due to an Esquire article by the most ferocious bitch of New Journalism, Rex Reed. Weirdly, it's indisputable that Maddox did more to desegregate Georgia's state government than any preceding governor. "Ole Lester," as he was known, later served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Jimmy Carter, an entertaining match made in hell.

There were other restaurants in Atlanta where the civil rights battle was waged, including Leb's, even before the Pickrick. Institutionalized racism flourished at Aunt Fanny's Cabin well after the Civil Rights Act and Pascal's was the hangout of most of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Q&A with Top Chef Richard Blais

Posted by on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 3:56 PM

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  • Courtesy Bravo TV
Besha Rodell: Hi there, and congratulations. We're all so excited that you won.

Richard Blais: Thank you. It's nice to hear a friendly voice.

BR: So, Tongue and Cheek. When does it open?

RB: Ha! I mean it's a name that I would love to use, but maybe I played that card and I wont be able to use it. I think that the restaurant, whatever it's called, opens sometime within the next year or two.

BR: Here in Atlanta?

RB: Well that’s a question that depends on whoever else wants to get involved with it and sign a check for it, or help sign a check for it. I’d love it to be in Atlanta, or any big city for that matter.

BR: You said something that really struck me on the show last night - “It’s not about me, it’s about the guest.” I wonder if that’s something that has changed for you in the last couple of years.

RB: Yeah I think for sure. You know my well-documented history in Atlanta, and then going on my first run of Top Chef...I think at a certain point over the last couple of years I realized that some of the things I was doing might have been to show people I could cook or show people that I know technique or that I know how to use a gadget. At the time none of it was ever my intention to get away from food or flavor, but at this point in my career I’m just as happy roasting a chicken as I am dipping horseradish ice cream into liquid nitrogen. It's been something I have struggled with over the last year in particular and something I very much wanted to express in this run of the show.

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'Top Chef' All-Stars, the finale: The restaurant of our dreams

Posted by on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 10:54 AM

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  • Courtesy Bravo TV
The restaurant of your dreams!!! From the get go, putting aside my...ahem...lackadaisical (?) attitude towards the season, there's been something personal about this dumb show for me. Why? Because despite everything, I still think Richard Blais should have won Top Chef. Since the beginning.

Maybe it's my Atlanta bias. After all, I think Kevin Gillespie should have won his season as well. But it's more than that. Richard Blais, despite his tenure in this town long before I ever arrived, is the chef I've had the most interaction with, and I don't mean personal (I kinda met him, once. It was odd and awkward). I reviewed Element right before he left to do Top Chef the first time around. I watched that season with a rabid fervor. As a critic, this dude is exactly what you hope for. He's brilliant, and imperfect, and frustrating, and his food has a style and tension that makes for good subject matter. Right now, in the midst of the worst dry spell (of things to write about) in my restaurant reviewing career, I would kill for a character with the talent and drama of Richard Blais.

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He walks with me and he drinks with me

Posted by on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 8:41 AM

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Best sandwich ever

Posted by on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 5:03 PM

I've mentioned Holy Taco a few times lately, and I have to do it again.

Last night, I dropped by and had one of the best sandwiches — a torta — I've ever tasted, I think. It's made on an oval of slightly crispy bread and holds a fat hunk of short ribs, slightly pickled slices of turnip, Manchego cheese and an "arbol aoili." I also found juicy peppers — piquillos, I think — and a few pink peppercorns.

You really need to try it. I also ordered the restaurant's flawless elote and forced myself to try dessert too. It was a skillet of halved pears with golden raisins and a thin dulce-de-leche sauce, along with a stick of cinnamon. Very healthy, I think....

I recently paid a visit to Grant Central in Grant Park and ordered a kind of weird special of trout over linguine doused in olive oil with capers. The strangest part of the dish was a bundle of asparagus — at least eight thick stalks — held together with a band of prosciutto.

I couldn't figure out how to eat it and asked the server. She shrugged. I tried using my fork but couldn't really get at it. So I ended up picking it up and gnawing on it. I usually eat individual stalks of asparagus with my fingers, but this required a fist. Very tasty, though.

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"Top Chef" All-stars finale tonight

Posted by on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 1:11 PM

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The Buckhead Theater is holding a viewing party for tonight's Top Chef finale. The first 500 folks will be admitted, and the party is free.

Tomorrow I'll be grouching about the finale here on Omnivore as usual, and later in the day I'll have a chat with Mr. Blais. The Q&A oughta be up by mid afternoon. However, if Blais doesn't win the season I swear off Top Chef forever and ever. So there.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back to Beignet

Posted by on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 3:45 PM

UPDATE BELOW (March 31)

I went back to the Beignet Connection for lunch Monday, anxious to try the new restaurant's crawfish etouffee. A couple of bites satisfied me as much as the jambalaya had a few days earlier. The etouffee was made with a flavorful, dark roux.

I got to talking with the owner, Tony Martin, who explained that he had been manager of Huey's (R.I.P.) for about 10 years. I said I found the food here far superior to anything I'd ever eaten at Huey's. That led him to call the chef out to talk to me.

His name is Mike Jones and he turns out to be a consultant who has worked with many restaurants around the South, including Huey's and McKinnon's Louisiane. I noted to him too that the food here tasted far better than it did at either of those restaurants.

He didn't blink an eye and explained that as a consultant he can spend weeks working with a restaurant on its menu and kitchen talent. "I can get everything just right," he said. "Then I come back six months later and the restaurant is doing something altogether different. It's very frustrating."

He said, however, that the chef he is training at the Beignet Connection has worked with him for quite a while and he doesn't expect the quality to drop. Also, part of his role working with Martin is developing a franchise plan. "So I'll be around a good bit," he said.

I asked him, by the way, why the restaurant's menu describes the cooking there as "nouvelle creole."

"I have no idea," he said. "As far as I'm concerned it's good old, traditional Nawlins cooking like I grew up with."

UPDATE: I stopped by the restaurant Thursday to try its muffaletta. While I found it satisfying, I was shocked to find black olives — not kalamatas — used in the olive salad. The bread, topped with sesame seeds, was a little soft. I'm sure NOLA foodies can make a better judgment than I can.

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Beware the Cake Hag

Posted by on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 3:15 PM

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  • ww.cakehag.com
Today, I visited the Cake Hag's new location (575 Boulevard, 678-760-6300) in Grant Park. The shop used to be located next to Lunacy Black Market downtown and was infamous for being basically invisible, with no sign.

Things haven't changed much in that respect. The shop is located in an old church and it took me 10 minutes to actually to find it. It's on the lower level of the building, accessible from a door in the back. Signs will be posted soon.

A church is a peculiar place for a hag — or for the evil hags of folklore, anyway. Fortunately Maggie and Katie Sweeney are just the opposite of hags, being incredibly sweet but no less capable of casting a spell on customers with their delicious baked goods.

There's no retail counter here. You simply walk into their kitchen and pick what ever is available or order for pickup later. Cake is the thing here, of course, but today, I bought three differently-topped kolaches. Two were sweet — one topped with homemade lemon curd, the other with raspberry preserves. The third was savory, topped with eggs florentine. All three flavors rang crystal clear.

I shared them with a friend who compared the bread to hamburger buns. I can sort of see the comparison. The bread is spongy, yeasty and slightly sweet. It's dry enough that I would like more topping, but I managed to consume most of them with no problem. And they are only $1.50 each.

I also ate a gluten-free cupcake made with carrot cake that dispelled all notions that gluten-free baking is inferior. Finally, I ordered a brownie that my friend went crazy over. It was barely gooey with a caramelized, slightly crusty surface. I want another right now.

I've only tasted the shop's cake once, months ago, when a friend brought me a slice. Talk about serious spell-casting, the cakes could easily lead you down the primrose path to contented obesity.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

The secret behind Taco Bell's tasty tiny shrimp

Posted by on Mon, Mar 28, 2011 at 11:04 AM

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  • Taco Bell
Since Taco Bell has been the subject of so much negative press about its beef filling, it deserves an objective review of its new shrimp burritos and tacos.

Thank God, I don't have to do that. Francis Lam of Salon.com already has. He was surprised by the flavor of the shrimp:

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to find any shrimp flavor at all in these guys. Usually shrimp this size are too immature to develop much real taste or texture. And while the size-obsessed may gripe over their puniness, a few bites that included all the various ingredients really kind of convinced me of their size-appropriateness; they're part of the harmony of the burrito mélange.

Finally, he solved the mystery of the tasty tiny shrimp:

I got to wondering how they could find small shrimp with so much flavor. I checked Taco Bell's ingredients list, and, sure enough: "chicken broth" and "natural flavor." One means that they're not quite the purely pescatarian delight you may have been hoping for; the other means "better living through chemistry."

Sigh.

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A great first meal at the Beignet Connection

Posted by on Mon, Mar 28, 2011 at 10:40 AM

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Here's a quite pleasant surprise.

We went to dinner at the new Beignet Connection (349 Decatur St., 404-525-5295) in the Pencil Factory Saturday night. This was literally the second day they were open and the restaurant was all but empty.

But we had very good food, including a gumbo with a seafood broth of a quality you just don't find in our city. I ordered jambalaya and it too exceeded my expectations. The tomato sauce was fruity and slightly tinged with garlic. The rice was full of chicken, shrimp and sausage. Every ingredient tasted like it had been just cooked.

The menu — self-described as "Nouvelle Creole" — includes lots of seafood, but there's also a grilled ribeye, topped with Gorgonzola, that Wayne ordered. I liked my dish a lot more, but the steak was a bargain at $16.95.

Of course, we ordered the signature beignets and polished off six of them without batting an eye. You might want to ask for extra caramel sauce — sweet, sticky and full of pecans.

The restaurant is open for all three meals of the day, so there's lots more to explore on the menu. I hope the rest of it as good as our first meal. I'll be writing about it in "Grazing" soon.

Warning: The website warns that this is Creole, not Cajun cooking, and doesn't feature fiery flavors. You can add hot sauce, of course.

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