Sarasota and other Florida eats.

Florida spring training kind of sucks, in my professional opinion, because the sites are so far apart and several are wastelands for decent food. I found a handful of decent spots in my week there this year, along with a lot of mediocrity, but I’ll just focus on the good here, including the fact that Sarasota of all places has a decent little food and coffee scene happening.

Baker & Wife is a farm-to-table type of place in Sarasota, recommended to me by a friend who lives nearby, and I was impressed by both the vegetable dishes and, as you’d expect from the name, the dessert. I went with two starters rather than a main, a salad of roasted yellow beets with goat cheese, pesto, and pine nuts, along with crab cakes with a spicy green papaya slaw; of all of that, the only aspect I didn’t care for was the slaw, which tasted too much of fish sauce. The beets were really spectacular, although I am a fan of roasted beets in any form, but I think they pair so well with goat cheese, any kind of nuts, and the salty, bright punch of the pesto. Dessert, I had the “baker’s bannoffie pie,” and I’ll let the menu describe it: “pecan and graham cracker crust, house made banana & vanilla bean pudding, chocolate chips, caramel, cream.” It was that good and then some. It all worked so well together.

Perq is a new third-wave coffee bar in Sarasota, using beans from various artisan roasters around the country, and offering numerous cold-brew and single-origin espresso options along with the usual. It’s a sizable cafe too, unlike a lot of third-wave spots, and they appear to rotate through various roasters – they had a number of I knew from my travels and when I chatted up one of the baristas, he mentioned several other great roasters they’ve used, like heart, Sightglass, Four barrel, Counter Culture, and more.

I had half a decent meal at Selva, a Peruvian restaurant downtown, where the ceviche was very good and the entree I had was not. The ceviche isn’t truly traditional; they have numerous combinations that include various fruits, acids, and types of fish, and the tuna/watermelon ceviche I got had larger pieces of fish than I’m used to seeing in ceviche. It came with a spicy lime sauce for dipping or pouring to taste, and I would recommend using that if you end up here. But the main course was kind of a mess – a duck breast that was cooked very inconsistently, and served with a risotto that was anything but.

There’s also a tiny Buddy Brew location right near Selva, at the entrance to the parking garage downtown not far from Tamiami Trail. I would go to Perq before this, but Buddy Brew is solid.

Elsewhere in the state, I discovered the brand new Foxtail Coffee in Orlando’s Winter Park neighborhood thanks to a scout’s recommendation, and both times I went there was a line out the door. They had four coffees available from different countries; I tried their espresso one day and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pour-over the next, the latter of which came with a roasting demonstration from Iain, one of the owners and a baseball fan as well. It’s right near the old location of the Ravenous Pig, which has moved into the old Cask & Larder space but which I can report is still some of the best food to be had in the Orlando area.

Near the Jupiter complex is a very unassuming little coffee shop and roaster called Oceana, which does a lot of single origins as well but roasts most of them darker than I tend to like. Their pour-over options are the way to go – I had an Ethiopian the first day I was there, and I’ll be honest in that I was so in need of the caffeine I don’t remember much beyond the sheer pleasure of feeling it hit my bloodstream. Pass on the espresso as their extraction rate is way too high and the result is watery.

Merritt Island’s Cuban Island Cafe is worth a stop if you’re in that area, which I’d never visited before; I went for my standard choice, lechon asado, which in this case came with some amazing black beans, one maduro, one tostone, and well over a half-pound of pork.

I’ll also mention Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami, which appeared on a list of the best pizzerias in the U.S. a few years ago that I’ve kept on hand for my travels, hitting more than half of the 48 places they listed. The pizza itself was just average, but I had an escarole salad to start that was tremendous – lemon, anchovies, parmiggiano, and bread crumbs. It hit a little of everything, adding salty, sour, and umami notes to the slight bitterness of the raw greens. They have a few non-pizza options that might be worth trying if I ever go back to have that salad again.

Atlanta eats, 2014 edition.

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.

Pizzeria Vetri and Barbuzzo (Philly eats, part one).

Today’s Behind the Dish podcast featured physics professor Alan Nathan plus my thoughts on the World Series and the two Cuban free agents who just signed.

I’ve now had two meals at Pizzeria Vetri, the latest outpost of the Vetri family empire of Philly restaurants (including Vetri and Osteria), and am thoroughly impressed by their authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas and commitment to simple recipes with a handful of fresh ingredients. The pizzas come with the appropriate char on the exterior, moderate air bubbles in the exterior crust, and enough interior crust to hold together but not enough to support the weight of the toppings (which is correct, oddly enough). That exterior crust was softer than some other authentic Neapolitan pizzerias I’ve tried, but it was a net positive as it didn’t become tough once it cooled.

The margherita is dominated by the bright, sweet flavor of San Marzano tomoates, with huge basil leaves and a few dollops of fresh mozzarella, light enough that my daughter, age 7, could eat five of the six slices and still have room for dessert. I preferred the crudo, with prosciutto crudo, mozzarella di bufala, and shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, which had better balance across all the flavors with a slightly salty profile from the meat and the hard cheese, but the crusts on both were very good and cooked perfectly from char to center.

Vetri also offers a rotating special of Silician-style pizza (thicker crust, cooked in a sheet pan), which often reflects the chef’s caprices on that particular day. For our last visit, the “pizza al taglio” (pizza by the slice) special was roasted quince that had been cooked with red wine, along with fresh herbs including rosemary, and mozzarella and shaved pecorino romano. It was peculiar, a little like a wine-and-cheese course on top of a thick pizza crust, but the sharp crunch of the crust was the main selling point of the slice, with a little dose of olive oil like the underside of a good focaccia (which is pretty much Sicilian pizza dough cooked without toppings).

Vetri’s non-pizza offerings are limited, but they do include a Caesar salad and a “wood-fired” salad, the latter coming with roasted corn, green beans, and chanterelles, along with a generous portion of sliced prosciutto cotto and some Microplaned ricotta salata. With a drizzle of olive oil and a hint of vinegar, it’s an earthy mixture bound by the powerful umami notes of the roasted chanterelles and sweetness of the corn, and far more satisfying than I’d expect an item in the salad section of the menu to be. Vetri also offers a few dessert items and my daughter would like you to know that the fior di latte (sweet cream) soft-serve ice cream is the best soft-serve she’s ever had, although I warn you her affections can be fickle.

My daughter also accompanied me to Barbuzzo earlier this month, a restaurant I’d wanted to visit since coming across their salted caramel budino recipe in Bon Appetit several years ago; I’ve made them four or five times and wanted to compare my results to the real thing. Aside from a small lapse in service, the entire experience was superb, with some huge highlights from the savory part of the menu.

The kale salad was the surprise hit of the meal for me, featuring thinly sliced ribbons of dino kale (a.k.a. Cavolo nero or Tuscan kale or lacinato, it’s all the same damn leaf) tossed in a pistachio pesto dressing, served over a few slices of roasted red and yellow beets with soft goat cheese. I find kale an incredibly versatile ingredient, pairing up well with other flavors from across the spectrum, from bacon to nuts to cranberries or pomegranate arils, so I wasn’t shocked that it played well with pistachio, but was shocked by how much body the pistachios gave to the entire salad; kale can be a little tough, and a little bitter, but the broad coating of the dressing reduced the feeling that this was just a pile of leaves. The only problem with the dish is that the menu refers to it as a roasted beet salad when that is maybe the third or fourth ingredient on the list; this is a kale salad, plus some beets and goat cheese.

Although the various pizzas on the menu were hard to ignore with the wood-fired oven right in my line of sight, I went with the server’s suggestion of the pan-seared gnocchi with bacon, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes, with no sauce but the slight glaze of the bacon fat. The gnocchi were the lightest I’ve ever eaten, strong enough to hold a brown crust from the searing but light enough that an entire plateful was more like an appetizer than a full entree (so it’s a good thing I was full of kale salad by that point). They were powerful bacon-infused pockets that crushed all other comers, the rare example of a plate delivering a bacon punch without delivering a similar blow to your gut. My daughter was satisfied with the burrata plate with several kinds of fresh tomatoes, nut-free pesto, and sliced onions along with a serving of grilled country bread (an add-on for $2), all of which was fresh across the board, even the tomatoes, which surprised me with their sweetness given the time of year.

The dessert … well, the salted caramel budino didn’t quite live up to expectations; the recipe may have changed, but there’s nothing tangy in the version I make at home, whereas something in the mason jar I received at Barbuzzo was, possibly due to the incorporation of crème fraiche somewhere along the line. I can’t say mine is better, since it’s their recipe, but I prefer it without that sour note. My daughter ordered the apple raisin bread pudding with bourbon sauce and malted buttermilk gelato, which tasted strongly of bourbon and, not surprisingly, which she loved. The only real complaint I had about the meal was the 15-minute lag between when we ordered dessert and when it arrived; to a seven-year-old, or her anxious father, that’s a long time. The bread pudding had clearly just come out of the oven, though – it was practically in flames when it reached the table – and their expediter was otherwise on the ball as everything reached the table quickly and at the right temperature. I’d love to go back and sample other parts of the menu, including the pizzas, the other house-made pastas, and the wild mushroom bruschetta and sheep’s milk ricotta starters.

Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego eats.

I had a column up from earlier today looking at which organizations are deepest at each position; there’s a lot of Pittsburgh on there. This week’s Behind the Dish podcast features my conversation with Padres VP and former Mets scouting director Chad McDonald.

I went to Salt’s Cure with a friend during the Area Code Games, just on the recommendation of a reader who thought it was my kind of place – a spot-on suggestion, since restaurants with small menus that change daily are very much up my alley. We started with their cheese plate, featuring a trio of California cheeses, one each from cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milks, as well as a little apricot jam and some grilled bread. As expected, I liked the goat and sheep options but didn’t love the cow’s – a function of my palate, not the cheeses themselves. I intended to eat something light that night but couldn’t pass up the braised pork shoulder over creamy grits with caramelized onions, a meal that photographed poorly but that was perfectly cooked, with the (cheese-less) grits a good balance to the fatty/salty meat and the sweet/tart flavors from the onions. We also ordered the very simple raw kale salad on the side, which was only the second-best kale salad I had that week. My friend got the lamb sirloin with romanos beans and romesco, all of which he raved about – I didn’t try it as I’m just not a huge fan of lamb. For dessert, we had these multi-layered chocolate custards that were rich and dark and not too sweet … I can’t even remember what the other layers were. This was a huge find, just a fantastic locally-focused place with amazing food.

My second swing to Umami burger, first since February of 2010, was just as good as the last time out – their original burger is an umami-bomb, and now they offer ice cream sandwiches that are also pretty spectacular.

I discovered Caulfield’s in January when Bobby Flay tweeted that it was the “best new restaurant in LA,” which seemed like sufficient reason to check the place out. It’s located in the Thompson Hotel in Beverly Hills, but isn’t your ordinary hotel restaurant, with an inventive, seasonally-informed menu that has lots of lighter dishes that don’t sacrifice flavor. I ordered a starter, the albacore tuna and sockeye salmon poke, and a salad, a kale salad with almonds, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, and anchovy dressing. The poke was solid, although the wasabi-ginger-soy dressing overwhelmed the fish a little bit, especially the albacore tuna which doesn’t have a pronounced enough flavor to survive that much salt and heat. The salad, however, was among the best I’ve ever had: thin ribbons of kale perfectly dressed with an umami-heavy dressing (think Caesar dressing, but without the parmiggiano-reggiano), with added texture from the almonds and the smoky boost from the bacon. It was absolutely perfect, and that’s before I consider its high content of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

Over in Long Beach, there isn’t a whole lot to recommend. I went to Koi in Seal Beach for sushi, as I do every year, although I admit it’s a little weird to park across from the hair salon where eight people were killed in 2011. The fish at Koi is outstanding, with a specials board always up showing what’s fresh, and many of the nigiri options come with the sauce of the sushi-ya’s choice.

As for new spots, Lord Windsor Roasters is a new-ish third-wave (meaning lighter roasts) coffee roastery and cafe on 3rd, about ten minutes’ drive from Blair Field. They roast their coffees in the back of the store, with three options available for pourovers each day I was there, as well as their own blend for espresso drinks. The pourover was a little weak by my standards, without much body, as if the grind was a little too coarse, but I loved their espresso for flavor and texture.

I can also recommend Thiptara, a Thai restaurant on PCH right by Blair Field, which has the standard Thai dishes but also has some more regional items, like the yellow pumpkin curry with chicken that I had as an entree. The sauce includes a roasted chili paste as well as the spices you’d expect to find in Thai yellow curry, with a coconut milk base, but it’s the chunks of al dente pumpkin that set the dish apart, bringing sweetness to balance the salty and spicy notes of the sauce. I also had the green papaya salad, with carrot, cherry tomatoes, and string beans in a garlic-chili-lime dressing, which was just mildly spicy. The salad had great color and crunch and everything was obviously very fresh.

The trip to San Diego was a little less successful. Breakfast at the Mission was amazing, as always. Cafe 222 was a mess, the second time I’ve been disappointed there – and thus the last. I drove up the coast a little to visit Bird Rock coffee roasters, where I got a decent espresso (although too small to be the double I’d ordered) and was shocked to see an option for Chemex coffee using geisha beans (which are the world’s most expensive) that cost $9 for a cup.

Dinner at Craft and Commerce was a mixed bag. I had a good salad to start, with citrus supremes, avocado, and sliced jicama, although the fried goat cheese came in ping pong ball-sized chunks that were at room temperature when that should be served warm. They were also out of their signature dessert item, warm beignets with chocolate-bourbon sauce, even though it’s not a yeast dough and could be made to order if need be.

Atlanta eats, 2013 edition.

I’ve got a new draft blog post up on likely top ten pick Austin Meadows of Grayson High School. Also, if you missed my review of dinner at The Spence, Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais’ newest venture, you should head there first. I was still thinking about that meal two days later.

I did have another memorable dinner in Atlanta, at Decatur’s Cakes & Ale, which has twice made Bon Appetit‘s list of the ten best new restaurants in the country (they bent the rules and listed it again in 2012 when C&A opened a new location with a bakery attached). The name is accurate, as they sell both cakes and ales, but the standouts on their menu involve local produce, factoring heavily in every dish.

After a helpful chat with the server, I went with three smaller plates instead of a single entree, paying a few dollars more (maybe $3-5 more) but getting more variety and I think more food overall. The menu changes frequently, so these items may not be available a few weeks from this review. First up was the house-cured lardo on crostini with browned broccolini, mirin, and a side salad of tatsoi, a green leafy member of the Brassica family with a mustardy flavor. The lardo was indulgent, of course, infused into the bread by the heat of the latter, but balanced with the acidity of the mirin and slight sweetness of the caramelized, crispy bits of the baby broccoli. I could have done without the tatsoi salad, however, which was also very acidic and more than the plate required, but the crostini were unforgettable right down to the golden color where the lardo had melted into the bread.

Next up was a verdant spring salad of baby golden beets, sliced radishes, kohlrabi matchsticks, shaved celery, frisee, and sliced almonds, tossed with a rhubarb vinaigrette and served over creamy fromage blanc (a white farmer’s cheese). Hugh Acheson would have approved of this salad: it had texture, it had color, it had sweet and bitter elements, and it had a light tang from the dressing. I doubt I’ve ever eaten a salad faster and it certainly didn’t advertise itself as “health food,” even though it was an antioxidant bomb.

The third small plate was the polenta verde with roasted asparagus, a fried egg, and a small salad of frisee, roasted (I assume) shiitake mushrooms, and pancetta. The polenta was rich and creamy but still had some tooth to it, and could have stood as a side item on its own. The asparagus spears were cooked perfectly, tender but not mushy or stringy, and played well with the polenta and the salad. The one disappointment was the sunnyside-up egg, which was overcooked; the yolk was congealed underneath and didn’t run, which meant no sauce for the asparagus. It’s harder to poach eggs to order than fry them, but a poached egg would make this dish more cohesive. You can bury me in that polenta verde, though.

I mentioned to the server that “I was told there was cake,” which produced a dessert menu featuring an item called Coffee & cream: a layered torte of devil’s food cake, espresso-chocolate mousse, and praline crunch underneath, served with a smear of dark chocolate fudge sauce. This dessert could have been designed especially for me – rich, dark, slightly bitter underneath the sweetness, featuring two of my favorite flavors, chocolate and coffee, together. The hazelnut gelato on the side was nice but unnecessary as a potential obstacle between me and the chocolate.

I should also mention the solid cocktail menu, featuring the Welcome Wagon – Gosling’s Black Seal dark rum from Bermuda, Aperol (a low-alcohol amargo similar to Campari), aquavit, lemon bitters, and ginger ale. It sounds like a lot of alcohol, but the flavors worked well together for a warm, rounded punch. I also tried a local beer, a red rye ale that I believe was from Terrapin Brewery in Athens, although from their site I’m not sure if that was the Mosaic or another offering.

Moving away from fine dining to Q, I had the chance to meet a friend at Fox Brothers BBQ, not far from Cakes & Ale’s location in Decatur. Fox Brothers’ menu is straightforward Q, but to their credit there’s some attention paid to seasonal items – they won’t serve fried okra out of season, for example. The chicken fried ribs starter was a new thing for me – just what it sounds like, smoked ribs, cut up and deep fried. They were surprisingly un-greasy, probably fried very fast at a very high temperature, and of course, very, very delicious. At the server’s suggestion I got the sliced brisket plate with tater tots and collard greens. The meat was a little dry but had a powerful smoke flavor, as much as any brisket I’ve ever tried, even though the smoke ring itself was small. The point of smoked meat is to taste the smoke as well as the meat, so Fox Brothers hit on that. The sides were solid, and I mostly had to stop eating them because this was an absurd amount of food. It’s good Q for anywhere, but in Atlanta, which seems to be a Q desert, this was superb.

And if you find yourself in Sylvester, Georgia, down in Worth County south of Macon and west of I-75, I can recommend Fat Boy for some solid Q as well, with very good “chipped” (shredded) pork at really reasonable prices. I’d skip the fried okra there, though, as it clearly came from a freezer bag. Several sites suggested Pap’s in Sylvester for fried chicken, but it appears to be abandoned and the phone has been disconnected.