Last Autumn, I moved into a new place and was responsible (for the first time since 2008) for the “yard.”
I put “yard” in quotes because the back is so shaded from the overhang of dense tree branches, it is basically a small, awkwardly-sloping dirt patch. The front is a narrow sliver of ground on one side of the walk leading to the front door and an awkwardly-sloping 8′ x 8′ area on the other.
Mercifully, the HOA takes care of the shrubberies on the other side of the sidewalk running along the front, but neighbors on either side care for their own “lawn” indifferently, so they have the weeds. These weeds sometimes like to come next door to my place to play and thus begins our tale.
Immediately before I moved in, the owner decided to take down a tree that had shaded the front for many years. It was necessary because the tree had become hazardous. So they mulched the stump and after such a long time in the dark, the ground was essentially bare except for a large “elephant ear” plant growing beneath the window.
Having been a container gardener for several years, I set out my pots and wondered whether I should invest in any lawn care equipment for such a little bit of ground. If not, what was I going to do with it?
For the time being I did nothing, however, and in the full morning sun each day, what had lain beneath began to assert itself.
First, three flowering things with tulip-like leaves sprang up. I learned in the next freeze that whatever that was didn’t tolerate frost well.
Soon after, some monkey grass started happening near the front. Toward the top of the lawn behind my large pansy pot, a very attractive ground cover started to spread. (I think it may be the Elizabeth variety of Sedum.)
Then came the weeds.
Dandelion was first. As the autumn progressed, however, so too did the number and variety of native plants.
There were these little plants with dark green, spade-shaped leaves that produce tiny purple flowers. Soon after, some fern-like vines erupted. These had paler fronds with the most beguiling curled tendrils on the end with even smaller purple flowers.
Then came the random grasses (at least two kinds), some kind of spread-y thing that seems to exist just to drape over everything else, thistle, and a bit of clover. Those were ones I kind of recognized anyway.
Because the nights grew colder, the weeds mostly stayed in check with a little hand removal and the ever-so slight application of Round-up. (*Don’t throw things at me YET, bee-lovers. For, this is a story of redemption.)
Then as they tend to do, the days once again grew longer. The frosts ended, but I still had a problem: responsibility for this bit of ground and no equipment. <sigh>
Fortunately, my powers of observation, keen sense of the aesthetic, and total cheapness were all working for me when I decided, I like my weeds. There. I said it. I. Like. Weeds.
They really are quite lovely and mine are mostly fairly short. They grow without any effort from me, survive without me watering them, and the bees* (eh? eh?) seem to like them.
Now my life is different after committing the highest form of suburban heresy. But my plan is a bold one.
I enter a gladiator in the Darwinian competitive fray between the pretty and small and the tall and unattractive. I will weigh in on the side of the weeds I like by hand-removing the weeds I don’t.
My hypothesis is the small and pretty will eventually occupy the entire space and crowd out the others. It may take the entire season before I have enough evidence to be proved correct (or otherwise), but in the interim, I am getting a little exercise, I am saving a ton of money on fertilizers, herbicides (bad! very bad!), seed, and water.
Here is where we are today.
Hopefully, I remember to circle back in late summer to update you on my progress.
It has been about three months since Foodiesaurus went away for her big European food crawl. Therefore, it’s been three LONG months since Foodie’s visit to Florence and, specifically, to Pipistrello Pizzeria and its Pizza Maialona con Bufalo and to Tuscany’s amazing gelaterias. That’s a long time—even for a dinosaur.
So, on one recent Sunday afternoon, Foodie set out to see how Atlanta’s Italian-inspired cuisine would fare by comparison. And it was good!
The first stop was Fritti in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands area near Inman Park. The lunch menu highlighted Fritti’s Verace Pizza Napoletana, but a little lower I hit pay dirt: a locally-available Maialona. The Italian version of this traditional pizza (which you may recall I ate three or four times in eight days while visiting Florence) featured the same toppings, only in Italy the meats were mixed up and the pizza was topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella.
Unexpectedly, the local version segregated each meat into its own triangular zone so when you cut the pie (as you would in Italy), you either ended up with a slice of only salame, only sausage, etc., or at most, a slice with half of one meat and half of another. I must confess, I like the Florentine version better and next time I order the Maialona at Fritti, I plan to request it “scrambled.”
The only other challenge I had with the Fritti Maialona was that the salame read more like pepperoni than the salame served in Florence Otherwise, the Fritti Maialona was terrific. I will certainly be back for more!
Next up was Paolo’s Gelato near the corner of Highland Avenue and Virginia Avenue. Featured on loads of local and national television programs and in magazines galore, Paolo’s truly is the best gelato I’ve eaten in the States. I think in Florence, however, I would consider the pistachio and straciatella I tried the second or third best gelato. All things considered, that ain’t bad and lucky are those (like me) who can get gelato of this quality not too far from home!
In the final analysis, the Virginia Highlands are blessed by Italians doing the food thing as well as if they were home. And we, the citizens of the Greater Atlanta area are the beneficiaries of this largess. You could spend a lot more time on a plane before finding Italian fare this good.
FARM255 IN ATHENS, GA, WINNER OF GLYNWOOD’S 2011 GOOD FOOD ENTREPRENEUR HARVEST AWARD
Co-owner Olivia Sargeant to Receive their Award at a Ceremony in the Hudson Valley and Speak at a Public Forum on October 24 in Manhattan
Cold Spring, NY, October 11, 2011 — Glynwood, the agricultural non-profit whose mission is to save farming, has announced that Farm255 in Athens, GA is the winner of the 2011 Good Food Entrepreneur Award. The Harvest Awards were created by Glynwood in order to highlight innovative work being done on a community level to increase access to fresh, locally-produced food and to recognize leaders across the country whose exemplary work support their regional food systems.
This year all of four of the Harvest Award winners will participate in a panel discussion open to the public to take place on Monday, October 24 at the 92YTRIBECA in downtown Manhattan. Moderated by Glynwood President Judith LaBelle, the winners will discuss their work, their challenges and the models they’ve created to increase their community’s access to locally produced foods. Guests will have the opportunity to speak with the winners at a reception immediately following the event, where they will enjoy small plates prepared with regionally-produced food by top New York City chefs.
About Farm 255–
Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann have created an ingenious model of vertical integration in the sustainable agriculture sector by developing a cluster of businesses that support each other: Full Moon Farms, their own farm operation which supplies up to 50% of the produce served at Farm 255 and also supplies food to 45 families via its CSA; Farm Cart, a food cart that serves “street food” at the farmers market; Farm Burger, two neighborhood burger joints using 100% local, grass-fed beef; and Moonshine Meats, a collective of pasture-based-producers that raise all the meat for Farm 255 and Farm Burger, in addition to operating a CSA for families in Athens and Atlanta, GA. Everything is raised using sustainable and organic agricultural methods. This creative business model has proven to be successful: it supports the owner-farmers of Farm 255, the member-farmers of the cooperative, and the health and wellness of the patrons of their businesses.
Farm 255 also acts as a community hub, serving as a meeting place for those who appreciate locally grown fare and for those who want to learn more about it. Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann consider themselves agricultural entrepreneurs who wear many hats – as mentors for beginning farmer interns, young cooks and service industry professionals; as educators, teaching classes to local Future Farmers of America high schoolers, as well as lecturing at the University of Georgia; and as food activists, providing ongoing awareness about the importance of supporting local food systems to their community.
“We believe,” says co-owner Olivia Sargeant, “that our tireless work within our extended community has been a key piece to introducing the South to a new perspective on farming and food that positively contributes to all points on the food supply chain.”
The complete list of 2011 Harvest Award Winners–
The Glynwood Farmer Award: Sean Stanton, Blue Hill Farm, Great Barrington MA
The Good Food Entrepreneur Award: Farm 255, Athens GA
The Award for Connecting Communities, Farmers and Food: Buffalo Hump Sanctuary, Pine Ridge SD
The Wave of the Future Award: AmpleHarvest.org, Newfoundland NJ
Glynwood’s mission is to save farming by strengthening farm communities and regional food systems. The goal is for small- and mid-sized farmers to thrive, on the land and in the marketplace. Located in the Hudson Valley and operating its own sustainably managed farm, Glynwood’s unique niche is to empower communities to support farming and conserve farmland through its community programs, public education and leadership in environmentally sustainable agriculture. Major Glynwood programs include Keep Farming™, the Modular Slaughterhouse Initiative, the Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, and the Apple Project: Saving Orchards with Cider, [and this year’s organizer of Cider Week in NYC, Oct 16 – 23]. To learn more about Glynwood and its initiatives, visit www.glynwood.org.
For additional information please contact Geralyn Delaney Graham, email@example.com or telephone 281. 980. 6643.
Learn more about Glynwood’s work to save farming www.glynwood.org
Geralyn Delaney Graham
Principal | Resources Communications
5230 West 43rd Street I Houston TX 77092
o/ 281.980.6643 | cell/ 917. 826.5094
So I’m in the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and locally-grown is featured even here–in a restaurant called, One Flew South.
Having a farm bacon goat cheese frisse salad and a lovely Ben Marco Malbec. I won’t lie to you: it’s hellaspensive, but at least it’s available as an alternative to the endless chain-restaurant-lined corridors you might have found here just five years ago. Another Ruby Tuesday, I can do without!
Let me just tell you upfront: the life of a food blogger does not suck. Which is a good thing because the pay really does. But every once in a while, gustatory curiosity (and my continuing need for high-quality content) leads me to an event I might otherwise never have noticed. And every once in a while, I have an experience that ends up being pay enough. (Well, almost.)
The Summer Farm Supper No. 4 on Thursday, August 11, 2011, at Farm Burger in Decatur, Georgia, was such an event. And luckily for all involved, it is part of an ongoing a series!
At the helm this evening were two chefs, Ryan Smith of Empire State South and Zeb Stevenson of Livingston Restaurant + Bar, ready to show what they could do with ingredients provided by Farm Burger affiliates Moonshine Meats and Full Moon Farms in Athens, Georgia.
The rest of us were just along for the exquisite ride knowing only that for about $36 we would get something like four courses. Nonetheless, the event sold out completely leaving a decent-sized waiting list of the tardy but hungry.
The menu was posted on the Farm Burger blog two days ahead of time, and I was intrigued. The line-up included parts of the cow and pig I’d never experienced before along with some unusual parts of other animals, too.
Dinner was served at several communal tables set throughout the restaurant and at the bar. I was seated with a group of three and another pair to round out our table of six with a great view of the kitchen.
As my fellow diners arrived, we were provisioned with a pre-appetizer snack of puffed beef tendon dusted with a finely grated, hard, white mystery cheese.
It was paired with a refreshing and delicately sweet fig-rosé spritzer concoction.
Now just where on the animal this tendon was originally located was never revealed but the secret in no way diminished my enjoyment of this oddly alluring treat. (You will note I followed a strict “don’t ask; don’t tell ” policy through most of this meal. It was probably for the best.)
My closest analog with the texture was pork rinds but with a slightly sticky finish you would expect from an ingredient containing so much collagen. There was obviously some delicious fat involved, perhaps tallow, the buttery flavor of which only intensified its beefy goodness. And even though each tendon was about the size of a dinner plate and I was putting them away like I had just returned from a two week stroll across the Gobe desert, I still had plenty of room for the remaining courses—six remaining courses to be exact.
Next on deck was a sampler basket featuring three items, potted chicken liver with a rhubarb mustard, something called “scrapple,” which appeared to be something formed into a cube, enrobed in an herbed crust, and fried then topped with cured egg yolk, and something else called a beef heart “kifto” topped with a bit of crispy beef belly. (You will note, the chefs served not only inspiring food but also gave me an edumacation.)
The potted chicken liver was as you would expect—smoothly pate-like—and the rhubarb mustard was a served atop a subtly-sweet jelly (or maybe it was the jelly. No one at my table seemed able to tell). The scrapple simply reminded me of a really moist baked kibbe—only fried. And the shredded beef heart was an interesting deep red color and velvety texture with an unexpectedly delicate flavor. So far, so good.
But the meal was only just beginning as course one was finally served. This course was to be a cold melon soup redolent of watermelon juice and containing a large, succulent shrimp, a sliver of “lardo,” and sweet, raw onion slivers, served as a “shooter.” (I refused to shoot, preferring a more lady-like sip that allowed me to actually taste this excellent dish.)
Those who did try to shoot it failed miserably, however, as it was a bit too much volume and the shrimp was really too large to allow much success. So, effectively, this was soup was served sans spoon. Alright then.
Along with the soup was a trout “rillette” spread upon on a whole wheat crostini. The rillette reminded me of a really awesome fish mousse—and that is good—because apparently it is prepared something like a pate. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 3 for the chefs to 1 for the foodie. But, hey, I’m on the board.
Next up was a quartered and cherry heirloom tomato salad with slivered and fried pigs ears, basil, and goat cheese in a lovely vinaigrette. Yum. As in each course so far, there was a hint of sweetness about this dish, but as in each prior course, only as a delicate note far in the background. In this case, that note was provided by the perfectly garden-ripe tomatoes and the vinegar.
Course three was thinly-sliced pickled beef tongue, shaved fennel, summer veggies (in this case diced tomatoes, thin slices of raw okra cut on the diagonal, red and yellow bell peppers, and slivered sweet onions), and chili vinegar served family-style on a wooden plank. Once again, the chefs transmuted random organ meat into an unexpected delight.
Only a few of my fellow diners had ever eaten tongue, but we all agreed this must be a great example of it. The tongue had been sliced across the grain and was so thin as to eradicate any hint of toughness and leave only clean meat with a texture that nearly melted in your mouth.
Even more surprising to everyone than how much we all enjoyed tongue, however, was how much we enjoyed raw okra. The diagonal slicing and other mystery preparation resulted in a crispy and totally un-gooey freshness none of us okra-eaters expected.
And then suddenly, it was time for course four. The craziest part of this, the final savory course, was its incredibly underwhelming description and family-style iron skillet presentation. I mean what was so hot about sausage, ribs, and warm barley salad? Well, as it turns out: a lot.
Like the huge burst of incredible fireworks that immediately precede the end of a Fourth of July display, course number four simply blew me away. Without hesitation and unblushingly, notwithstanding all prior praise for pork and pork products previously reviewed in this blog, I can truly say these were the best, ever, to-end-all, to-die-for ribs and kielbasa that shall forever haunt my dreams.
The only consolation is that these unassumingly titled components were so far in a class by themselves that they almost defied the categories from which they sprang, and so, in my mind are set aside—incomparable with any other food sharing those respective names. Hey, if they weren’t, I could never eat pork again. (Yes. They were that good.)
And the barley salad was pretty good too. In fact, in the presence of any other meat, the salad likely would have been star of this particular show. Here, however, it was merely something to pass the time between brief sojourns through the outskirts of pork heaven.
“What was so awesome, then?” you may ask. Well, for starters, the fat of the sausage was practically drinkable. And the meat was sensuously textured, amazingly well-seasoned, and absolutely perfectly prepared. So perfectly, I wondered whether one nanosecond of cooking time in either direction would have ruined its delicately balanced flawlessness. My God! I can hardly believe I’m talking about sausage here.
Strangely, the rib came in second to the sausage in a photo finish. That’s weird to me because I have never before in my life preferred anything to a spare rib. Not that there was anything wrong with this one.
In fact, there was everything right about it. The exterior was almost imperceptibly crispy with a delicate crust of lightly distributed and (once again) subtly sweet sauce. Until now, it had been my experience that most ribs are defined by the sauce and the meat is either good or not good.
In this instance, however, Chef Terry’s restraint allowed the magnificence of the pork to shine through. His delicate application of the condiment enabled this rib to achieve a perfect balance of flavors that elevated both the sauce and the meat to a level I have never known. Truly divine!
After this incredible burst of light and sound, we metaphorically sat around playing with sparklers in the form of the “Goodbye Course” of fried blueberry pies dusted with lime sugar and served with a side of savory whipped yogurt. Again, it was a triumph in any other context.
Following as it did the almost religious experience of course four, however, I couldn’t help thinking of it more as a palate cleanser. Something akin to a nightcap before I hit the road home to mull over all that I had learned at this meal and to swear silently that I will never miss attending another Farm Burger Supper ever again.
As previously announced on Facebook and Twitter, I recently rendered lard for the first time. Here’s an inside look at how that whole thing went down.
It all started on recent a Wednesday afternoon when I visited the Decatur Farmers’ Market in Decatur, Georgia. Among other things, I was looking for a replacement for the lard supplier I had found in Birmingham but lost when I moved away. I had been told Tink’s Grass Fed Beef would be there, but as it turns out, Tink raises pastured pork as well. So naturally, I asked about lard.
“No, Tink’s doesn’t render lard,” I was told, but for $5 they could provide me the fat needed to do it myself if I would come to the Saturday market. I readily agreed and showed up on Saturday hoping to score the goods.
Sure enough, the fat had been put on the truck and off my contact went to retrieve it for me. When she returned, I was presented with a large plastic bag of frozen fat weighing at least 10 pounds. I was simultaneously thrilled and intimidated. But for $5, I could afford to screw this up so I soldiered on—with a 10-pound lump of frozen pork fat in my trunk.
When I got home, I placed the lump in my refrigerator and set to work trying to figure out how this mass was to be turned into the white, soft, odorless fabulousness so often imitated by vegetable shortenings but never quite matched and certainly not replaced.
In my search, I found this link to a site called, “A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa,” which provided tantalizingly simple instructions for lard-making using a Crockpot, of all things. Included were beautiful pictures showing exactly what I was to do. The lard pictured looked like what I wanted in an end result, so I figured I’d try it for myself, after buying just a few supplies.
Newly purchased cheesecloth and ladle in hand, I followed the author’s instructions as closely as possible with the following results. (N.B. Our gentle reader should now take a moment to familiarize him- or herself with the instructions at the link above. That is so I don’t have to type as much and yet can refer to the article freely whilst pointing out where those self-same instructions may have gone off the rails ever so slightly.)
First, as to the choice of equipment, I was working with a regular, old, Rival Crockpot that was one of the first models to feature a removable crock (circa 1999). Nothing fancy; just low and high.
So I didn’t really get where the “Valerie,” referred to in the first paragraph of the instructions, was coming from advising that unless the Crockpot was “high-end,” low wasn’t low enough and just to “use a stockpot on the stove’s lowest setting.”
In fact, I used both the low setting on the Crockpot and the lowest burner on my late ’80s gas stove, and the gas stove was definitely hotter and harder to control.
Pictured here, is the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. It was still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot. The fat in the Crockpot was on for 16-hours, by contrast, and still wouldn’t burn—no matter how hard I tried—which brings me to my next few points.
Nowhere in the instructions does the author address how much fat she is rendering, but still confidently assures us of process completion in (it appears) just a few hours. This is totally misleading!
Time to completion is (I hypothecate) likely dependent on the quantity of fat to be rendered. In my case, I rendered for 8 hours on Day One; got tired and put the lid on the removable crock, placed it in the refrigerator, took it out the following day, and rendered for another 8 hours before “finishing.”
It seemed to go faster once the volume was reduced (but that is by no means a scientific observation). At no point did the “cracklings” get crispy as described, however, which brings me to my next observation.
The author discusses the possibility of a “piggie” odor in the finished lard but attributes the off-flavor to “burning” the cracklings. I believe that attribution is only partly true. In other words, the reason I believe my fat never crisped into cracklings (and therefore did not burn) and the reason I didn’t have any piggie odor to my lard is the same—Tink’s did a great job in giving me very little meat and skin with the fat.
What little protein there was, I trimmed away and rendered separately as an experiment.
Sure enough, the lard separately rendered from fat and protein did have a strong piggie scent.
The purer fat did not.
The purer fat also did not produce cracklings, which I now believe must contain a good percentage of protein to crisp and brown or to “burn” if allowed to cook further. Or maybe my cracklings sans protein did not burn because of my next observation.
At no point are we instructed to stir, fold, or otherwise turn the contents of the crock. I did it anyway, for better or worse, because it seemed the fat along edges and bottom was definitely turning brown while the fat in the center remained raw and unchanged. Maybe this is why I didn’t get the “separation” of fat from cracklings or the crisping she described, but after a few hours, I wasn’t seeing that happen anyway so I erred on the side of not causing a fire (I guess).
Now, for what went right. As an initial matter, using the Crockpot is a stroke of genius. A virtually odorless process that was totally controllable, the end result of rendering in the Crockpot was just was as article described.
The crock also seemed to make it easier to manipulate the fat than any oven-based method I’d read about, as it sat open and reachable right on the countertop, and yet was still gentler-heating than my stove-top experiment. In fact, it was a happy compromise of the benefits of both traditional methods. And when I got tired of rendering, I put on the glass lid and stuck the crock in the refrigerator so I could restart it the next day.
Also, grinding the fat as the author suggests seems to have facilitated a more even release of oil. Because I found the instructions online (including the suggestion to ask the farmer to grind the fat for better results) only after I’d already received the fat, I hadn’t asked Tink’s for pre-ground fatback. But perhaps that was better anyway. Grinding it myself gave me a chance to trim off the protein beforehand, and grinding wasn’t such a big deal using the little chopping attachment to my Cuisinart stick blender and would have been even less of a big deal in a real food processor.
After reading the instructions, I naively assumed lard making was simply a matter of heat-for-a-few-hours-strain-pour-chill. Not so! I was totally unprepared for the huge chunk of time rendering this amount was going to take out of two days.
But, at the end of the (second) day, I got a gallon of really high quality lard for my $5 and am happy to have one half gallon of lard in the fridge and another in the freezer. In the final analysis, I will definitely render my own lard again—but hopefully not for another year or so.
The Original Pancake House. If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven by, like, 53 of these and never once stopped. Well, I’m here to tell you, my friend: quit doing that!
One reason I’ve never stopped, other than the low-carb diet since 2003, is my apparently whack belief that one pancake/waffle/denny’s/shoney’s establishment is more or less like another. And usually, that has been the case. But The Original Pancake House on LaVista Road NE in Atlanta (or OPH(L) for short), may be the exception to the rule.
My first visit to OPH(L) was during a mid-morning peak time one recent Saturday; the next was a “shoot-a-canon-through-it” mid-morning weekday. Both times I sat at the bar. Both times I placed the same order: two eggs over easy, sausage, three pancakes with sugar-free syrup, coffee, and water.
(You can infer from this that I enjoyed the first breakfast so well that I just wanted a repeat, and not that the menu was in any way not pages and pages of deliciousness described. It certainly was the former.)
Whereas most “diner” eggs are greasy and/or over-cooked, OPH(L)’s over easy was textbook with a perfectly soft, not overly runny interior. (Frankly, I wish I could make them as well.) Whereas most “diner” sausage is a dried-out, crusty, rubbery puck, OPH(L)’s was tender yet cooked through, perfectly-seasoned, and moist with what seemed like actual pork fat. Mmmmm.
Now I come to the pancakes served with authentic—wait for it—butter. These were probably among the very best examples I have ever tried. They were not oversweet, dry, chewy, loose, wet, lumpy, or any other bad thing. In fact they were cakes of steamy, firm, buttery pure love.
Now granted, being a Louisiana dinosaur, I happen to think the pinnacle of pancake syrup is Steen’s Cane Syrup, a kind of Cajun blackstrap molasses. So I’m admittedly no maple syrup connoisseur. But to my taste, even the sugar-free syrup they served (I forget the brand) was actually indistinguishable from real maple syrup in taste and texture.
What’s more the coffee was fresh, strong, and bottomless, and the service was reasonably attentive and welcoming. Sitting there at the bar was like a trip back to a simpler time when people enjoyed a little gossip with their brunch. Apparently, that hasn’t changed much along with the now-retro 1950’s décor.
All-in-all, I found the Original Pancake House to be a great way to spend both the morning and about $10 a head.
Along with pork, another favorite of mine is Thai food—especially if there’s pork in there. Before now, Thai in Atlanta meant just one thing to me: Nan in Midtown. But now I not so sure. You see, there’s another Thai in town. A small chain of just two restaurants called, Top Spice. And you know what? They’ve won all those great reviews fair and square.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Nan rocks! First of all, it’s one of the prettiest restaurants around. But the décor isn’t the only thing working for Nan. The kitchen cooks as good as it looks, featuring text book examples of coconut soup and various curries and top shelf, prime ingredients in their translations of traditional dishes.
All of their dishes are incredibly fresh and the elegant portions, while not overlarge, are satisfying. To finish, just about any of the desserts are to die for—but be sure to try the Three Flavors Homemade Ice Creams.
And for the PGA fan, there is a photo gallery of pro golfers near the entrance that are a who’s who of rich and famous diners. Apparently, the owners have some kind of Vijay Sing connection. So if you want to eat where some of the top PGA players hang out when they are passing through Atlanta, be sure to try Nan.
If there is any issue with Nan, it is the fine dining ding to your wallet prior to departure. And that valet parking is really the only way to enter. So what’s the budget-minded or the self-park-er to do for good Thai? The answer clearly is Top Spice.
Located in the renovated Toco Hills strip shopping center and with a second location at Akers Mill, Top Spice is a legitimate alternative to Nan for most occasions. I visited the Toco Hills location for lunch and dinner.
At Top Spice, even the top shelf drinks are reasonably priced. I enjoyed a generous Grey Goose vodka at my evening meal for around $8.
I started with Fresh Basil Rolls on each occasion and found them very fresh and containing a reasonable balance of protein to rice noodles. And the accompanying plum sauce with chopped peanuts is excellent as a dip or a between course snack—Kidding! (Not really).
My first entrée was from the Thai menu. I ordered the Soft Shell Crab dish at the recommendation of my waiter, and it was awesome! The crabs were (again) very fresh medium-sized blue points and you get two of them. The crabs were properly cleaned of fat and gills, lightly-crusted, deep-fried, and served in green curry with small but juicy shrimp and tender-crisp asparagus.
Although the crabs were quite filling, I took a bullet for the team and ordered dessert. The very helpful waiter explained that two of the desserts were made in-house—the Kaya Pencake and the Sticky Rice with Mango and both were especially good. I went Sticky Rice and was not disappointed.
On the plate was a beautiful presentation of a molded warm rice cake topped with a smattering of toasted blond sesame seeds, a fan of expertly sliced mango, and a small ramekin of warm “coconut syrup” that tasted like my idea of sweetened condensed milk if it were made with coconut cream instead of dairy.
The combination was intoxicating. Each bite of rice dipped in sauce was heaven. And amazingly, the rice and syrup stayed warm until the end. Oh, yes, I did finish it! And I took my time savoring each lovely grain.
For lunch, the budget-minded need fear not at Top Spice, for there are lunch specials which are all of the quality of the dinner menu but at a fraction of the price. This menu includes such dishes as Pad Thai. I enjoyed the Nam Sod from the regular salad menu, however.
The only complaint I have about Top Spice’s interpretation of this classic dish is their handling of the raw cabbage side which they serve quartered and almost unimpenetrably solid, like a cabbage brick. I have enjoyed cabbage served as more of a cup containing the minced pork mixture in the past, which I eat like a salad.
Otherwise, this is probably the best Nam Sod I have ever had. Very balanced and not overly sweet, it is spicy without blowing your head off with chili. If you are into this dish, you definitely should give it a try here.
Oh, and despite its location, Top Spice is beautiful too. Dress is casual to business casual, and the atmosphere is elegantly relaxed. In 2007, Top Spice apparently got a lot great press and was awarded Best of City search and rated by Zagat.
In the final analysis, whether you want high-end or really high-quality but not so fussy, Atlanta has Thai covered. For the big spending golf/Thai fan, there’s beautiful Nan. But if you want great Thai without the sticker shock or if you just enjoy Malaysian, Top Spice is the clear winner.
In 1976, when I was a wee hatchling, I had an abdominal surgery that required me to live for a week on the contents of I.V. bags and an apparently limitless supply of neon green Jello. Once healed, I was allowed to pick my favorite food to end this weeklong abstinence. (Kind of like the opposite of a prisoner’s last meal.) All-American, patriotic kid that I was, I chose the hospital hamburger and fries.
Now, if you’re probably thinking, “ugh,” I certainly don’t blame you. But let me tell you, that hamburger was the best, most succulent, sweetest, flavorful, fresh ground bit of heaven I have ever experienced on a bun—until now.
Farm Burger on West Ponce de Leon in Decatur, Georgia, has opened my eyes to what flavor a lowly burger is still capable of. The measures they have taken to ensure your burger enjoyment are total extraordinary and involve taking the Chipotle concept of using locally-sourced meats and produce to the next level. In short, they raise their own grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, and fabulous vegetables on farms in nearby Athens.
The first time I visited Farm Burger, I was struck by its cool, unpretentiousness and the overcrowded parking lot. The restaurant shares a building with dry cleaners, so after a certain point in the evening, all the parking is for the burger joint. And that’s what it is—newer, cleaner, and hipper perhaps, but still retaining that comfortable, familiar burger-joint-hangout vibe.
Upon entering, you are supposed to line up on the left next to stacked cases housing a very interesting beer selection and review the paper menu found in baskets along the wall and the chalk board describing the specials. You can order at the front or skip the line and take your seat at the friendly bar.
The basic burger costs $6 and is available with a wide variety of toppings and sides making possible several thousand different burger combinations. The toppings range in cost from “free” to $2 extra if you go really exotic. (I was unclear if the listed price was per topping or would allow you to choose as many as you want from the list. The free stuff is so interesting, I haven’t felt the need to find out yet.) All rings and fries are real and made in-house. Go figure!
There are also lunch and daily combos and special “blackboard burgers” available every day. You could also choose from their snack menu, which looks awfully yummy in an odd sort of way. And for dessert are ice cream floats, including one of my favs, a Young’s Chocolate Stout float. (Beer and ice cream, I know. But it really works.) Farm Burger also offers an alternative veggie burger, but why? why? why would you do it?!
My first burger there was pretty simple—medium with iceberg, red onions, house pickles, and FB sauce—hand cut fries on the side and a Young’s Chocolate Stout. [Intake of breath] *sigh* Fabulous.
I had begun to doubt the world’s ability to bring me a burger like this. I had begun to believe I would never again experience the crispy, slightly smoky exterior with perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful, grassy sweet interior of a proper ground beef patty sandwich ever again.
The vegetables too were crisply fresh, without blemish, and proportionally-sized, and the bun was buttery toasted. Most importantly, perhaps, the dressing atop the burger enhanced and did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the meat, which is clearly the star of the show. The fresh fries obviously cooked in fresh oil served admirably to create an interval between bites of burger helping me appreciate the next bite even more.
On my next trip, we sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the beautiful evening, and watching the dry cleaner’s customer’s pick-up at the drive-thu. Strangely, the setting did nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the meal.
I started with beer-battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo, and got the daily combo burger which came with fries. The rings were outstanding. Beer-battered in the tempura-style, they were light, crispy, non-greasy, and perfectly complemented by the mayo. My companions got fried okra which was similarly battered and properly fried but served not as “rings.” Each piece was cut longitudinally, instead, allowing us to experience the okra spear in a totally new way.
The burgers did not disappoint either. Mine came with aged, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion, bacon, lettuce, and spicy mustard. Once again, ummmmm.
In short, it seems this burger can do no wrong. It has the power to cure the sick, help the lame to walk, bring home the bacon, and fry it up on a pan, whether dressed simply or done up in the most modern fashion. Like the perfect wingman, the sides complement without competing. I will be back to Farm Burger so many times, they’ll have to name a booth after me.
Barbeque is to Alabama as gumbo is to Louisiana as chili is to Texas and so on. In other words, people living elsewhere generally think that’s what we do best (or possibly at all).
So naturally when I moved to Birmingham in 1996, I was on the prowl for the best of the best authentic slow-cooked spare ribs I could find. Then, as now, there were a large number of barbeque joints to choose from. But having sampled the famous, like Dreamland Ribs, and the not-so-well-known, like Full Moon, Golden Rule, or Johnny Ray’s, there was one barbeque joint I kept coming back to—the then-10-year-old local chain, Jim ‘N Nick’s.
And that was weird in a way. I mean, how does a restaurant owned by a Greek-American kid who worked his whole life in an Italian restaurant end up making the best barbeque in the biggest city of a state known for the stuff? Who cares. He just does—still—to this day—15 years later.
In fact, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q is better than ever and is no longer just locally known. Everybody in the world now knows about Nick Pihakis (the aforementioned Greek kid). He is a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. That’s right. Pihakis v. Steve Ells of Chipotle, Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, etc.
If a James Beard Award nominated barbeque joint seems impossible, it’s only because you’ve never eaten at Jim ‘N Nick’s. The Hamburger Dave or The Burger 1920, a Company Salad with shaved Parmesan and pulled pork, a big, meaty rack of 14-hour spare ribs, an onion ring appetizer or side, creamed spinach or spinach and artichoke dip, the smoked pork hot links, hand-cut fries, lemon icebox or chocolate or coconut cream or pecan pie, and even the complementary cornbread muffins are all the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere. Moreover, at a time in our collective culinary history when the norm is for quality to tank as expansion occurs, Jim ‘N Nick’s has done the exact opposite.
Back in the day, 11 years ago, for example, my favorite Jim ‘N Nick’s was on Highway 31 near the Riverchase Galleria. It was head and shoulders above the others. And even as late as three or four years ago, the Highway 280/Greystone location was still my least favorite of the Galleria, Five Points South, or Highway 280 alternatives.
But then an unexpected thing happened: the quality got substantially better at the Five Points and Highway 280 restaurants. Now they are all my favorite locations. Hmm.
In other words, as this chain has expanded, the consistency between locations has not only improved but the overall food and even the décor is now better than it ever was. Could Jim ‘N Nick’s recent emphasis of locally-sourced ingredients have anything to do with it? I think so.
And diners are not the only beneficiaries of this constant emphasis on improvement at Jim ‘N Nick’s. Jim ‘N Nick’s has also benefitted ’cause, let me tell you, a similar salad at another fine local barbeque establishment goes for a good bit less than the one at Jim ‘N Nick’s and yet no one cares. People literally stand in line for the good stuff.
So, 25-year-old barbeque chain, exceedingly great food, local ingredients, higher than average prices, James Beard Award semi-finalist, and lines to get in the door. Yup. That about sums it up.
In short, Pihakis and company have found a way to raise the bar in barbeque. What’s not to love?