My wife and I were in Atlanta last week and ate at Holeman & Finch (dinner), Alma Cocina (dinner), Empire State South (lunch), Bacchanalia (dinner), and White Oak Kitchen (two lunches). My wife was attending a conference at the Hyatt Regency downtown, so the choices of Alma Cocina and White Oak Kitchen were based on time constraints and proximity to the hotel.
I loved my experience at Holeman & Finch. I am one of those rare Americans who happen to enjoy eating offal, which at H&F is mostly included in the “Parts” section of the menu. Although there is more offal on some menus these days than used to be the case, the selection and variety at H&F is an offal-lover’s delight. My wife and I had a trio of pig’s ear bologna, coppa, and lardo. All good, but the pig’s ear bologna was spectacular. We also enjoyed the skillet fried corn with pardon peppers and scallion-lime mayo, the lamb fries (testicles), the pork belly buns, and the veal sweetbreads. The portion of sweetbreads was far more generous than I’ve had at other restaurants, and although they were a little bit drier than I like, the flavor was wonderful. My wife doesn’t like brains, but I do, and I thought H&F’s veal brains with black butter were wonderful. A big bonus was the cocktail that Greg Best, mixologist extraordinaire and co-owner of H&F, prepared for me. Seattle is on the forefront of the craft cocktail renaissance, and I mentioned to my server that I enjoyed a cocktail called “The Last Word,” revived by Seattle mixologist Murray Stenson, who was named the best bartender in America at Tales of the Cocktail in 2010. The server suggested Greg Best’s variation on The Last Word called “Which Way,” which adds some mint to the other ingredients. It was terrific. I also liked the Southern Tier Double IPA and the Founders Red’s Rye Ale. All in all, a wonderful evening of good and interesting food, good drinks, and great service.
I had a good, but not as exciting, experience for lunch at Empire State South. The best dish was perhaps the chilled pepper soup. My wife and I also shared the smoked trout mousse, the hangar steak, the catfish, charred okra, and an ice cream sandwich with beet ice cream sandwiched between chocolate cookies that was weirdly interesting but that didn’t work for me.
Dinner at Alma Cocina was very disappointing. The menu looked interesting enough when I looked at it on Alma’s website, and there were some good ratings on food websites. But in general the food was clumsily prepared and the flavors muddled. For example, I love huitlacoche, but in Alma’s huitlacoche empanada, the huitlacoche was imperceptible in the mish-mash of other ingredients. None of the many dishes I sampled impressed me.
Prior to the trip, White Oak Kitchen wasn’t on my radar, perhaps because it opened relatively recently. But it was right across from our hotel, so it was an easy choice for a lunch squeezed in between my wife’s meetings. My wife’s and my initial meal there was very impressive. Two stars of the show were the Pencil Cob grits with melted Chanterelle mushrooms, in which the flavors enhanced but did not overpower the delicate taste of the Chanterelles, and the Gulf white shrimp, which were perfectly cooked, firm and moist, and robed in delicious tomato butter. The other star of the show was the dessert, consisting of reisling-poached figs served on a lemon-thyme cake with olive oil/vanilla sponge ice cream. Fabulous! My wife had the wild boar pastrami sandwich (I’m always amused by the “wild” designation of farm raised animals) and the BLT deviled eggs, both of which were good even if they didn’t reach the heights of the other dishes mentioned above. Again for reasons of time and convenience, we returned for a second lunch the next day. My wife and I shared the charcuterie plate, roasted cauliflower with chevre hummus, caramel fried chicken, and the B.E.L.T. (bacon, egg salad, lettuce and tomato) sandwich. Although each of these was good, none were as good as the grits and Chanterelle mushroom, the shrimp with tomato butter, or the fig dessert we had on the previous day. I was puzzled by the “caramel fried chicken” which is prepared by first cooking the chicken sous vide with condensed milk to caramelize the chicken and then frying it. Despite all this effort, the caramel flavor escaped me. Overall, though, both my wife and I liked White Oak a lot and would certainly go there again on our next trip to Atlanta. It is a very open, light, and inviting space, and in addition to the good-to-excellent food and a good selection of bourbon, the service on both of our visits was absolutely first rate.
Believe it or not, Bacchanalia was a disappointment. Some of the dishes were unquestionably both creative and delicious – such as the sweetbreads dusted with almonds, the pork loin (which was some of the best pork I’ve ever had), the amazingly creative and wonderful burrata ice cream with toasted oats, and the fig soufflé. But other dishes were not as impressive. The wine pairings were uneven and overpriced for the quality, such as the tempranillo served with the sweetbreads which was bland and didn’t carry enough fruit to balance the acid. However, the major downer was the service. The young woman who was our server was cursed with an ice-cold, robotic personality, and was curt, abrupt, and pushy. Two minutes after presenting my wife and I with the menus, she returned to ask if we were ready to order. We weren’t. Then she returned about three minutes later to ask again. We told her we needed more time. When she returned the third time only about two or three minutes later to ask again, I could see my wife’s temperature begin to rapidly rise, and I knew it was going to be difficult to win back her enthusiasm for the dining experience. This cold, indifferent attitude on our server’s part persisted through the entire meal. As I observed the demeanor of the other servers to see if we just had a bad draw on our server, most of the other servers also projected a stiff formality that didn’t seem to be designed to create a warm, relaxed, comfortable mood. It seemed part of a design to project an atmosphere of seriousness and reverence. Shouldn’t eating be fun? At the prices charged by Bacchanalia, the least thing you want is to be in a constant state of irritation throughout the meal. In addition, the pacing of the dishes was way too fast, and we weren’t able to slow things down. I understand the desire of a restaurant to turn their tables, but not at the expense of a good experience by its customers. My wife and I left the restaurant feeling upset and disappointed.