The marquee meal of the trip was Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais’ new “haute doggery,” HD1, located in Atlanta. I went with the Eastbound and Down dog, given its baseball theme and the presence of pulled pork as one of the toppings on the hot dog, along with sweet mustard and cole slaw, and it didn’t disappoint. As you’ve probably heard (I’ve said it enough recently), I ended a ten-year boycott of hot dogs with this meal; I gave them up because, as I told Chef Blais when he came on the podcast last month, in most cases you just don’t know what you’re eating when you get one. I’d also had too many mediocre or worse hot dogs and found that I always felt lousy after eating them, so the easy solution was to just cut them out. HD1′s hot dog was worth making the exception, bringing back a lot of (possibly constructed) memories from childhood – this is what I think a hot dog at the ballpark used to taste like, even though I know it was certainly never this good.
The pulled pork worked surprisingly well as a supporting player, bringing smoky and savory elements that made the final product more complex, so it felt more like real food as opposed to fast or junk food, while the thin layer of mustard gave the sandwich a much-needed sharpness. The waffle fries come with a sweet/spicy maple-soy dressing that defied my palate’s expectation of sweet/salty/sour (that is, ketchup); most potatoes aren’t that flavorful, so the bold sauce works really well on the blank canvas, although I ended up adding salt to mute the sweetness (I love maple syrup, but it is really sweet). The homemade pickles were actually the better of the two sides – large chunks with a subtle yet strong spicy finish. I was there just before 2 pm on a Wednesday, so the place was pretty quiet, but I like the décor and the vibe – the seating is mostly communal – and with a pretty broad menu that features various sausages (I’d like to try their Merguez, made with lamb), at least one vegetarian option, a good beer/wine selection, it seems like a good place to head with a group.
I followed several reader recommendations to hit Atlanta’s Antico Pizza, serving thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas reportedly in the tradition of Naples, itself the pizza capital of Italy (although regional variations abound). Antico’s pizzas are very good, a 55 on the 20-80 scale, a little too spongy in the crust, with high-quality toppings cut way too large for the pizza; the fennel sausage itself was fine, but balls of sausage the diameter of a half-dollar are too big for any kind of pizza, much less a thin-crust variety. That sausage is the star player on the San Gennaro pizza, along with sweet red peppers, cipolline onions, and mozzarella di bufala, a classic combination that, while tricky to eat, brought a solid balance of salty and savory flavors on a spongy dough.
They make several claims that they’re serving “authentic pizza napoletana,” and while what they offer is good, it’s not authentic. There are fairly specific guidelines on what authentic Neapolitan pizza comprises, including a thinner crust than what Antico offers (it should be 0.36-0.44 cm thick, specifically), a wetter center, smaller toppings, and usually fresh mozzarella rather than what I assume was the low-moisture mozzarella Antico used on the pizza I got. This is more a Neapolitan/New York-style hybrid, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Antico offers a very reasonable value ($21 for one pizza that was two meals’ worth of food for me) for what is at heart an artisanal product, but it’s not as good as Scottsdale’s ‘Pomo, which is actually certified as authentic (take that for what it’s worth – I may be Italian by descent, but I lack faith in any sort of Italian authority) and meets the requirements for authentic pizza napoletana. And ‘Pomo isn’t even the best pizza in the Valley.
Macon eats were generally unremarkable; the best meal was at the Bear’s Den, offering southern comfort food in a meat-and-two format, with the fried chicken at least above-average (very crispy crust, not too greasy) but the fried okra very disappointing (crust was soft, inside wasn’t evenly cooked) and the cornbread dressing somewhere in between. Breakfasts at Market Street Cafe and at Jeneane’s were both generally disappointing; Market Street Cafe did have a decent biscuit, but that’s about it. I did have a place in mind in Baxley, Georgia, where Byron Buxton plays – K&L Barbecue, where they serve the meat on a baked potato – but the game ran over three hours, by which point the restaurant was closed, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in Baxley again.
Moving on to Greenville, SC, one of the coolest towns I’ve come across in all of my travels – in less than 24 hours I was thinking about whether I could live there, and leaning towards ‘yes’ – after leaving the gorgeous Fluor Field and hitting Main Street at around 10:15 on a Wednesday night, I was shocked to find few parking spots open, plenty of people milling about, and a number of bars and restaurants still open or just closing up. I ended up at Stellar Wine Bar, which offers a small menu of appetizers, tapas, and entrees, and what they do offer they do very well. The server was a little thrown by my open-ended request for suggestions – I told her I eat just about everything and wanted to try two smaller plates rather than one entree – but eventually gave me her five favorites, from which I chose two.
Their veal “paté” is actually a terrine of seasoned ground veal wrapped in bacon and sliced thinly, served with crisp slices of pretzel bread (termed ciabatta on the menu, but that’s not what I got on the plate), spicy whole-grain mustard, diced white onions, and cornichons. It was a tricky dish to eat – the cornichons had no intention of cooperating with my plan to get every element into one bite – but, even as someone who prefers meat dishes hot rather than cold, I was impressed by the layering of flavors and the perfect seasoning on the meat, although the presence of cold, soft bacon on the outside didn’t do much other than hold the thing together (sort of).
The diver scallops over cauliflower puree were perfectly seared, perhaps slightly overcooked in the center but not to the point of toughness, and the cauliflower puree was light and a bit creamy, giving a richness to contrast to the lean scallops. For dessert, I took the server’s suggestion of the flourless chocolate torte (over chocolate mousse or bread pudding), which was dark, rich, had a hint of cinnamon, but was a little too dense, to the point where it was hard to cut or chew.
For breakfast, Marybeth’s promised a slightly more upscale take on basic breakfast items, with my meal somewhat hit or miss. The scrambled eggs with goat cheese and basil were made to order but so massive (it had to be at least three eggs, probably four or five) that they were overcooked on the edges while soft in the center. The hash browns, however, were superb, perfectly browned on the surface, soft and fluffy inside, and not greasy in the least. Just add salt and go.
Final stop was Baton Rouge, good for one meal and one dessert. The meal was very ordinary, Sammy’s Grill on Highland (a reader rec) – the gumbo was thin and the grilled shrimp po’ boy, while made with very fresh shrimp, desperately needed some kind of seasoning. Also, they didn’t hollow out the bread, which I thought was part of the definition of a po’ boy, although I could be wrong about that. Dessert was better, at Rue Beignet, apparently the upstart in competition with Baton Rouge landmark Coffee Call; the beignets (a photo of which I posted on Twitter) were extremely light and airy inside, crispy and brown on the outside, although without the powdered sugar they didn’t have much flavor beyond that of “fried dough” – not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. They also served the obligatory weak cafe au lait, which I would never drink anywhere except in Louisiana. One warning – Rue Beignet isn’t open as late as Coffee Call, but they did serve me even though I arrived just a few minutes before closing.