I’m starting with the least famous of the three restaurants where I had dinner, The Lawrence, where the kitchen is run by former Richard Blais protege Chef Mark Nanna. The Lawrence’s menu focuses on local produce in southern-influenced dishes, many straightforward, a few with clever twists, but all easily recognizable to diners who aren’t familiar with (or, God forbid, fans of) Blais’ more experimental style.
I went with small plates at the Lawrence, rather than the very reasonably priced entrees (none over $26), so I could sample more items, which turned out to be a great call because I ended up with a pair of superb salads along with one meat course and one fish. The first salad was the kale “seasar,” using fried smelt as the croutons rather than mixing anchovies into the dressing (which isn’t authentic anyway), so the dish had that umami component but without the stale croutons you’re probably used to finding in most Caesars. The mixed radish salad was a small portion of thinly shaved radishes, including daikon and Cherry Belle, with a light lemon/celery seed dressing, slighty bitter but balanced by the acidity of the lemon juice, and generally a good representation of early spring produce on the plate.
For proteins, I couldn’t pass on the tuna tartare, the Lawrence’s twist on the familiar “spicy tuna” abomination found at most sushi places, where you get the scrapings left over after the tuna fillets are sliced for nigiri, all tossed in spicy mayonnaise so you no longer taste the fish. The Lawrence’s version has diced tuna mixed with a scallion mayonnaise and a spicy sambal sauce, but the fish’s flavor and texture remains at the front of the dish, with the heat from the chili coming afterwards, balanced out from the fat in the mayonnaise. It’s served under a hilariously large rice cracker that doubles as your serving spoon when broken into bits. My server said the baby back ribs starter was their most popular dish (of the small plates, I assume): served with a sriracha glaze, pickled chili peppers, and cilantro leaves, they are fiery, but I was most impressed by how the meat tore right off the bone without falling apart itself, retaining sufficient tooth to give that primal satisfaction that only meat can provide.
And that led me to dessert, my favorite dish of the meal, a chocolate tart with spiced nuts, cinnamon/sugar ice cream, and honey. The tart itself reminded me of one of my favorite packaged cookies from when I was a kid, even though I’m sure I’d despise them now: Stella d’Oro Swiss Fudge cookies, a shortbread thumbprint cookie with a creamy milk chocolate filling. (Fellow New York natives may remember their “no cookies?” commercials, as well as the “breakfast treats” commercial parodied by Patton Oswalt.) Anyway, the Lawrence’s version is a trillion times better – a perfect shortcrust tart with a dark chocolate filling, curried crushed peanuts, and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream with a faint cinnamon flavor. The crust was the revelation, crumbly but not brittle, easy to break into pieces without shattering all over the plate, and the chocolate was dark enough for my tastes but I don’t think it would turn off people who prefer milk chocolate to bittersweet. The entire meal, all five plates, was about $44 before tip.
The first meal I had in Atlanta was dinner at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, where Kiley McDaniel and I opted for the six-course tasting menu rather than trying to pick and choose from all the appealing menu items. It was too much food overall for me, but I didn’t care for the dessert option (personal tastes, nothing wrong with it) so I stopped there. The meal started with an oyster shooter as an amuse-bouche, then led into the one vegetarian course, a salad of beets and strawberries, with house-made ricotta, candied pecans, rhubarb, burnt honey, and bee pollen – a lot going on, but the dish was primarily about the beets and strawberries, with the rhubarb (pickled, if I remember correctly) providing some acidic to balance the sweetness of the two central ingredients. That was followed by the catfish sausage, which was … well, exactly what you’d expect, served over a smoked catfish crème fraiche. Fish sausage is peculiar, I think because lifelong carnivores have programmed their brains to expect a different set of flavors and textures when presented with something that looks like sausage, but this version had that mild, freshly-caught catfish flavor – not “fishy” in the pejorative sense, but I do find even very fresh catfish to have that sort of creek flavor that marks it as fish. It benefited from the searing that’s visible in the photo below.
Jumping forward a little bit, after a seared flounder dish and a “stuffed” quail with andouille sausage (not really astuffed so much as served-with, still very good), we got to the star of the meal: Medium-rare New York strip steak served over braised short ribs. I don’t often eat cow, but when I do, this is what I want, the best-quality beef cooked two ways, both superbly, and in ways that complemented each other, particularly the slightly tannic note from the short ribs (which may have been cooked in red wine, although I don’t think the menu or server said).
Oh, and I can’t forget the cocktail of choice, the Circuit Hymn: Bourbon, Rainwater Madeira (a lighter, drier variation of regular Madeira), vanilla liqueur, and orange & chocolate bitters, served in an old-fashioned glass with one enormous ice cube. I’m not a straight bourbon drinker, but the combination here amplified bourbon’s better qualities and tempered the smoke note that has always dominated aged whiskeys to my palate.
The third dinner was back to Blais’ place, the Spence, where I’ve spent enough time that my server recognized me from last April. The Spence is conveniently located within walking distance of Georgia Tech’s baseball field, so I was able to sneak in there for a dinner of a few small plates and still make it into the stadium in time for Luke Weaver’s first pitch. I think my favorite plate this time – the menu changes every few days, although there are a few standbys – was the one I didn’t order, a gift from the kitchen since Alex (my server) recognized me: salt-cured sunchokes, quickly fried, served with a romesco sauce, a traditional Catalunian sauce made from pureed nuts, red peppers, and often roasted or smoked tomatoes. The Spence’s version was creamier than others I’ve had, more like an aioli than a pesto, and was the ideal sauce for the sunchokes, like an upscale variation on the popular hand-cut French fries with spicy mayo combination you’ll find at upscale burger joints.
I always try to order one of the two fresh pastas on the menu at the Spence, taking Alex’s suggestion this time of the tarragon bucatini with pulled chicken and grapes – a chicken salad sandwich reimagined as a piping hot pasta dish. A bite with every element in it did indeed evoke the sandwich, but in a much more enjoyable way – I tend to think of chicken salad as a combination of dried-out meat and too much mayonnaise, but this, of course, had neither of those problems. I also loved the white anchovy tartine, with avocado, thinly sliced black radish, and candied kumquats, although I’ve never met a white anchovy dish I didn’t like. They’re natural brothers to avocados, and whatever bread the Spence uses for its tartines and terrines, it is absolutely inhalable when grilled.
Moving on from dinner, I had one lunch of note, meeting a friend for sushi at Tomo in Buckhead, what I’d call solid-average for its nigiri offerings, getting bonus points because the snapper came with lemon juice already on it and the server said not to dip it in the soy sauce – usually a good sign of authenticity. The fish was fresh but not California-fresh, more noticeable in the texture than the flavor. The rolls tended toward the American palate, with lots of inauthentic ingredients, and the spicy tuna roll my friend ordered was, as usual, oversauced with mayonnaise. I’ve definitely become more spartan in my sushi tastes over the years – a seaweed salad and some simple nigiri options are a perfect meal for me – so those of you who enjoy American-style rolls and combinations may enjoy Tomo more than I did.
My coffee quest brought me to Octane Coffee in the Midtown West area, almost by mistake – I’d read they served coffee from Counter Culture, one of the best roasters in the country, but it now appears Octane roasts its own, with single origins for pourovers as well as a blend for espresso that changes regularly. The espresso the day I visited was mostly Brazilian and Peruvian (I think), with a little Yirgacheffe (Ethiopian) to add some citrus notes. I like a little more character in an espresso but the shot was perfectly pulled and had good body to it. Octane also has a few food items, including a very fun “PB&J granola parfait,” with yogurt, peanut butter, fresh strawberry preserves, and granola in it, as well as locally made pastries like the oversized croissant I ordered but couldn’t finish after the parfait. This Octane location, one of five (three in Atlanta, two in Birmingham), serves beer and lunch as well, and the whole vibe is somewhere between hipster hangout and European cafe. They get bonus points for the cashier taking an extra minute to answer my question about the espresso blend with the actual ratio of beans – even though it held up the line for another minute or two, I appreciate the effort.
Sip the Experience was the one disappointment of the trip; they do serve Counter Culture Coffee, but my espresso was watery and bland, and the egg scramble was overcooked to the point of rubberiness. I also found the service unfriendly, not that I’d care that much if the coffee was solid.
One last Atlanta food note: My #sources tell me Top Chef alumnus Eli Kirshtein is opening his new restaurant, the Luminary, possibly in May, in the Krog Street Market development in Inman Park, just east of downtown. It’ll be one of my next stops whenever I get back to Georgia.