One-Eared Stag & Cardamom Hill

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I’m writing to you now from Emory Village, a flash from the past, as I prepare to speak to Emory Students at 2 PM, sign books at the Emory Book Store at 4 PM and then hustle over to Empire State South where I’m hosting a dinner at 6:15. There are still seats available, so, Atlantans, please come! Call 404-541-1105.

Now before all of this happens, I want to tell you about two incredible meals I’ve had so far since arriving in Atlanta on Friday. Let’s start with the brunch I had yesterday with Atlanta Magazine food critic Bill Addison at the One-Eared Stag near Imman Park.

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Dinner with Two Atlanta Food Critics at Peter Chang’s

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In 2004, Atlanta Journal-Constitution food critic John Kessler wrote an article about me and my blog called “Welcome to Adam’s.” (You can read it here.)

At the time, food blogging was very, very new and Kessler was baffled and amused by my antics: “Why does this recent Emory law school grad record every meal he eats out — whether a lackluster slice at Johnny’s Pizza or an extravagant tasting menu at Per Se, the new Manhattan sibling to California’s French Laundry? Why does he post photos of everything?”

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The Best Biscuits in Atlanta

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Is there such a thing as biscuit terroir?

In wine, as in coffee, we can talk about the soil and growing conditions of the grapes or beans and how that affects the end product. But with biscuits, there are so many variables–the butter, the flour, the baking powder and the buttermilk–you can’t explicitly tie the biscuits to a place. For all you know that baking powder came from Newark, New Jersey.

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An Atlanta Lover’s Guide To Atlanta

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Dear Matthew,

You are the director of my show The FN Dish and you are a smart, capable, likable fellow with good sense and judgment. Except, when it comes to one subject, you are a big dumbass. That subject is Atlanta.

You may remember that a few weeks ago, there was a plan for us to go to Atlanta to shoot a segment with Guy Fieri and possibly Alton Brown. You told Rachael, who also works on our show, “To get us in and out as fast as possible, I hate Atlanta.” It’s entirely possible that when you said those hateful, hurtful words you’d forgotten that I’d spent 7 years of my life in Atlanta and that it still holds a very dear place in my heart.

“Matthew!” I said. “Are you nuts? Atlanta’s awesome–we should stay there as long as possible.”

“Yuck,” you replied. “No thank you, you can have it.”

Strangely, I felt like I understood your misguided vitriol. I, myself, once had a very limited view of Atlanta. Back in middle school, I’d visited Atlanta with my JCC Teen Tour (yes, I was a Jew nerd) and we stayed downtown, ate at the Hard Rock Cafe and took a tour of the Coca Cola museum. Atlanta, for me, was much like what New York must be to the tourist who stays in Times Square, visits the M&Ms store and sees “The Little Mermaid”: a giant, soulless, corporate entity with no life, no quirk, no spark. I’m pretty sure that’s your slant: you came to Atlanta for work, you stayed in an ugly chain hotel, and ate your meals in sterile silence.

Well, Mr. Matthew, consider this e-mail your gateway to a whole new Atlanta. I will show you, in the next thousand paragraphs, everything you missed and why you are indeed such a dumbass. In fact, I’ll write you a guide. Here’s how to enjoy Atlanta the right way, a proven way. How is it proven? Craig came along with me this weekend for his first Atlanta visit. He was wary at first–“Atlanta?” he asked from the couch when I suggested it, “I dunno”–but, by the end, he was in love. Seriously. He’s doing the dishes right now, let me ask him.

“Craig, what do you think of Atlanta now that you’ve been there?”

“It was funky and edgy and reminded me of Seattle.” Which is high praise because Seattle is where he’s from and he loves it.

So here we go: An Atlanta Lovers Guide to Atlanta.

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MFSushiBar

In Gourmet Magazine earlier this year there was a supplement listing the hottest and best restaurants in every city. When I finally got to the Atlanta section, I was surprised to see–sandwiched between the Ritz Carlton and Seeger’s–a restaurant Lauren often waxed lyrical about: MFSushi.

“It’s the best sushi ever,” Lauren would say. “It’s amazing. Like nothing you’ve ever had.”

This always seemed suspicious to me. Sushi is sushi. All raw fish tastes the same.

So tonight, when my friend Jimmy and I were making plans he said he was in the mood for sushi and I said: “How about MFSushi?”

Jimmy paused and said: “Yes, actually, that’s a good idea.”

Usually, sushi-goers in my circle of friends will sushi-go at RuSan’s, a perfectly respectable sushi joint with locations in Midtown and Buckhead. But tonight was special. Tonight we would eat the best of the best. I made the reservation for 8:30 and began my preparations. These entailed belting “Old Man River” at my piano and eating some Blackout guacamole.

Finally, the witching hour arrives. I drive down Ponce until I see the awning I have driven past so many times. I turn left and encounter a mess of a valet parking situation. I sit in the car for 10 minutes before someone finally takes my keys. (*As an interesting side bar, I have a weird thing where before the valet gets in my car I turn my CD off or put on the radio so they don’t judge my taste in music. You’d do the same thing if you had my taste in music.)

Walking up to the restaurant, I snap picture of the awning:

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I sneak in the door and Jimmy is waiting inside.

“Were you waiting long?” I ask.

“No,” he answers. “But good thing you made a reservation. There’s an hour and a half wait!”

The hostesss leads us to our table. Here’s what the place looks like:

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As you can see, the interior is very fashionable. Atlanta’s crem-de-crem are noshing on raw fish, and Jimmy and I fit right in.

Well, maybe we don’t fit right in, but we scrape by under the radar. The menus are brought and we begin our gameplanning.

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“Do you want to get two rolls each and share them?” asks Jimmy.

I find this plan rather worrisome since what if I don’t like what he orders? So I ask the waitress for advice.

“Well,” she says kindly, “I suggest that you order two rolls each and share them!”

“Brilliant!” I say.

Jimmy shakes his head.

So Jimmy orders the crunchy roll and the rainbow roll. I order the shrimp tempura roll and the tuna roll. But first, we order a ginger salad.

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I really like ginger salad. Or ginger salad dressing. When my friend Dana and I went to NYU for a summer, we were obsessed with the ginger-carrot dressing at this place called DoJo. So tonight, I really enjoyed my ginger salad.

“This is a good ginger salad,” says Jimmy.

The salads are taken away. Time passes. I think too much time passes.

“It’s been a while,” I say.

“No it hasn’t,” says Jimmy, pointing out that the people next to us, who just got their food, had been there before us. Before I can refute him, our food is brought.

Here is mine:

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Here is Jimmy’s:

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The verdict?

“This is really good sushi,” I say.

“Yes,” Jimmy agrees.

We scarf down 8 rolls from our plates and then swap.

“This is really good sushi,” I say, eating from Jimmy’s plate.

“Yes,” Jimmy agrees, eating from mine.

The sushi is gone.

Was this the best sushi of my life? Yes, most certainly yes.

But, to be honest, after tonight I realize that I’m not so much a sushi person. I like eating it, but I would never go out of my way to eat it. And I would never pay an exorbitant amount of money for the world’s best sushi. I’d rather have a really good steak.

The waitress, reading over my shoulder, begins to cry.

“There there, sushi waitress,” I say. “I didn’t mean it in a mean way.”

She scurries off with our credit cards.

“That was a good meal,” says Jimmy.

“Yes,” I say.

I stare at the empty plate.

“It certainly was.”***

*** Please forgive this strange ending. It is 3 AM and I have no idea how to end this. Thank you.

Blais Restaurant (Atlanta)

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Let me spill the beans right away: after tonight’s 26th course a man with spiky hair and a white soccer jersey came over to our table.

“How was everything?” he asked.

“Wonderful,” I said.

“Amazing,” said Lauren.

“Good good. Well,” he continued, “I’m Richard Blais.” He shook our hands.

For a sense of how accomplished Chef Blais is, check out his profile on the Blais Atlanta website. He has worked at the finest restaurants in the world: The French Laundry, Chez Panisse, and El Bulli to name a few. Now he was hovering over our table.

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Lauren said.

“Everything was delicious,” I said.

Now up until this point, we had the sneaking suspicion that the restaurant thought I was a food critic. Granted, in a very minor way I am a food critic, but writing a few reviews on the internet seems incredibly minor compared to the work of our nation’s real food writers: William Grimes, Ruch Reichl, John Kessler. We thought the suspicion stemmed from the fact that I was taking pictures of every course as it was brought out.

Lauren continued: “It’s really great how laid back it is here. Everyone is so friendly.”

“Yes,” I said. “Just a few months ago I went to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and had an awful meal; everything was so formal.”

“Yes,” said Chef Blais, “I know.”

An awkward pause.

“How do you know?” I asked, incredulously.

“I read your review on eGullet,” he answered.

My stomach was in my throat. Say what!?

You see, several months ago–after our Charlie Trotter’s disappointment–I wrote a somewhat scathing review on eGullet–that launched a 12 page debate over the merits of my amateur perspective on fine dining. As exciting as this was, it always seemed a very contained esoteric debate in a cultish foodie world. Now this star chef was saying he read my review?!

“I actually read it to my staff here when we opened,” he continued. “So that they wouldn’t be so formal.”

Lauren burst out laughing.

“We also told the waiter not to follow you to the bathroom tonight,” he laughed, “even though we usually do that, because you wrote about that in your review.”

My ego, at this point, floated out of my body and began dancing the dance of the cocky monkey.

“Stop it, Ego,” I said.

Chef Blais lingered a little more. It seemed clear that he knew I would be writing a review. Was he nervous? Did he fear me? How powerful I had become!

And yet he had nothing to worry about. Lauren and I both found everything up until that point (and after) to be beyond spectacular. Our dinner at Blais was among the best I’ve ever had, and surely the best meal I have had in Atlanta. I say that having eaten at Seeger’s (which was cold and overly formal) and Bacchanalia (a vague distant memory that conjures very little in the way of nostalgia). Each course was a magical sensory experience–the most dazzling flavors melded together in ways so imaginative that each tiny course was an event.

“Well,” I said, “I’m kind of freaked out right now, but thanks for reading my writing.”

“No problem,” he said as the waiter placed down our 27th course.

“I’ll let you finish your meal.”

* * * * * *

So with that ego-trip out of the way, let us shock you with our food consumption. According to our waiter (who, by the way, was also fantastic: incredibly friendly, helpful and informative–appropriate since the chinese tattoo on his wrist is the word for “teaching”) the kitchen was shocked that we ate everything. “They were taking wagers back there,” he said, “as to when you would conk out.”

“Not us,” said Lauren, “we’re troopers.”

And for your visual pleasure, I captured every single course in the 31-course line-up. If you do the math, I think it will fall a little short but that’s only because some of the courses were served at the same time. And to be honest, I could not have put another thing in my mouth if they paid me. Since describing each course to you would take an eon, I will simply label each picture and let you enjoy the visual stimulus that was our meal. Suffice it to say, dining at Blais was an incredible treat and a dining experience that I highly recommend. And I’m not just saying that because I know the chef.

THE 31 FLAVORS MENU

Quail Egg, Maple Flavor

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Crispy Chicken Skin, Gravy, Pickled Collards

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Shrimp, Polenta, Amaretto

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Asparagus, Parmesan, Caramel

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Sweet Tea in 3 Textures

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Caesar Salad

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Salmon Eggs, Vanilla Caviar

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Oyster, Cocktail Sorbet

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Tuna Belly, Frozen Wasabi

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Veal Jelly, Vermouth, Horseradish

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Sweet Potato, Ranch Ice Cream

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Fried Squid, Smoked Paprika

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Sangria

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[Not exactly sure. The menu they gave us says “Inflated Salt Cod” but I think this is a clam.]

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Barely Smoked Hamachi, Yuzu

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“Vitello Tonnato”

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Sea Scallop, Edamame Ravioli

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“Impasta”

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Turbot, Almond Gnocchi, Orange Rind

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Wild Striped Bass, Short Ribs

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“Pink” Duck Breast, Aromatic Vapor

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Slow-Cooked Lamb Loin, Cashew, Coconut

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Cheeseburger, Foie Gras Milkshake** (This was the highlight of the meal! So funny and absolutely delicious.)

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Egg Cream, White Truffle/White Chocolate, Sesame Creme Brulee

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Olive Oil, Lemon Sorbet

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Warm Parsnip, Ginger (Sorry, I started eating this one before I realized I hadn’t taken the picture yet)

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Oozing Chocolate, Black Olive, Red Wine (and Birthday Well-Wishes)

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And, the final note struck was perfectly charming and perfectly funny. A square of gelled Tang floating on a white plate.

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Thus ended our birthday meal adventure. Excuse me now while I keel over and die a happy death.

Atlanta Farmer’s Market

“I can’t believe you’ve never been to the Farmer’s Market,” says Katy. “You’re the Amateur Gourmet!”

Her husband, Josh, agrees. “It’s really embarssing for you,” he says. “It’s like this horrible secret that no one knows about.”

Chris expressed similar sentiments last night. “It’s like you’re living this big lie.”

So today I finally broke and called up Josh and Katy and said: “Fine! Fine! I’ll go with you to the Farmer’s Market!”

Granted, I said this while the phone was still ringing. When I finally got through I casually mentioned a possible Farmer’s Market visitation, and Katy immmediately jumped.

“So you’re saying you want to go to the Farmer’s Market?” she asked enthusiastically.

“I guess that’s what I’m saying,” I replied.

“Well well well,” she said proudly. “Our little boy’s all grown up.”

So I made my way–ah, let’s do this in present tense–I make my way over to Josh and Katy’s and they are outside waiting.

“He’s here!” they sing in unison.

“I’ll follow you guys there,” I say. “I want to go to Border’s afterward.”

“Ok! Ok!” They get into their car. I get into mine.

We begin driving. The weather is rainy. I begin to wonder if today is a good Farmer’s Market day and then I remember that, according to Chris, the Farmer’s Market is indoors.

Here’s a picture of the drive:

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Finally, we get there. Josh and Katy point the way:

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“It’s over there!” they inform me.

“Can you guys stop talking in unison?”

They nod together.

We make our way over. Here is the last picture I’m officially allowed to take:

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After that, there is a sign that says “NO PHOTOGRAPHS! NO VIDEO RECORDING!” I find this rather odd for a Farmer’s Market, but I don’t say anything.

So we begin walking the aisles. Josh and Katy have an agenda: groceries to buy, things to plan. I am just there to watch.

“Aren’t you going to buy anything?” asks Josh.

“Nah,” I say. “I’m just here to look.”

“Ohh, come now,” says Katy. “Surely there must be something you want to buy.”

They lead me over to the spices.

“Look at these spices!” they say. “Look how cheap they are! And look how much you get!”

“Yes, they are cheap,” I say. “And you do get a lot.”

They lead me down the produce aisles.

“Look at all this produce!” they cheer.

It is true: there is a lot of produce. And the value is great. There are many people there scooping up produce by the armful.

“Ahh!” says Josh. “I know!’

He scampers off and returns with a yellowish ball with five fingers coming out of its head.

“What is it?” I ask.

“It’s a hand of Buddha! For your website! A strange fruit!”

I accept the Hand of Buddha, despite my Jewish upbringing, and begin to have fun.

“Whoah!” I say. “Look over there! Fish!”

Josh, Katy and I run over to the fish section. There are live crabs snapping at children, lobster tanks, and giant glass aquariums with huge fish floating sadly in limbo.

“Oh my God!” I say. “Look how big that fish is!”

“You see!” says Josh.

“You see!” says Katy.

“The Farmer’s Market is great!” they say in unison.

“I know!” I say.

“Hey!” I add. “Let me take a picture!”

“But…” says Katy.

“I’ll do it covertly,” I promise.

I sneak the camera out of my pocket and snap this shot as Katy and Josh scout out for the fuzz.

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“Quick, run!” they say, and scurry off with their wagon.

I watch them scurry into the parking lot, tying the wagon to their car with rope and hopping in like Bonnie and Clyde. The speed off as the Farmer’s Market police chase them, sirens blaring and bullets spraying.

I sigh with gladness. I have been to the Farmer’s Market.

Taqueria Del Sol & Star Provisions

If there is one area of conversation, one facet of communication that I would extract from all future interactions it would be politics. My friends might find this strange because I am often puffing heatedly about affirmative action, gay parenting and abortion (I often play the devil’s advocate, rousing great venomous passions over dinner) but I never do so gladly. If I could, I would be done with it: leave the politics to the pros, and let me worry about food.

That was my mindset today as I made my way down 14th Street. (Cue Rufus Wainwright’s “14th Street” from his new album, which is such a good song). “Ahhh,” I said to myself. “What a lovely day. I shall go to Taqueria Del Sol and Star Provisions and record my experience for my site readers.”

And then I saw a vision out my window:

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I found this vision disconcerting because after my journalistic endeavor, I planned to kill my baby.

“Oh well, baby,” I said. “I guess you’ll live after all.”

Then I parked my car at Taqueria Del Sol.

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Did I think about the exploitation of Mexican iconography and food in maintaining the sustinence of rich white people? No, reader I didn’t. I ordered three cheaply priced tacos ($1.49 each): a fried chicken taco, a brisket taco, and a fried fish taco.

I sat at a table and read a New Yorker article about John Kerry. Damn politics!

Then my food was brought out:

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Did I see in my tacos metaphors for capitalism (brisket = beef industry), religion (fish = sticker on Christian cars) and cultural hegemony (fried chicken = mainstreamed version of the real deal). No! I just ate them and they were delicious.

Then I made my way over to Star Provisions, which–after severe protests from the S society and R-wingers–is now simply TA Provisions:

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In all seriousness, Ta Provisions is probably the most respected, most accomplished and most expensive “supermarket” to be found in Atlanta. It is housed right in front of Bacchanalia, often cited as Atlanta’s best restaurant. Inside you will find:

A bakery:

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Today they were selling these amazing look S’Mores:

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But I didn’t buy one because I’m a Democrat.

There’s also a kitchen equipment section:

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A meat section:

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And a candy section:

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Finally, after a trip through the wine section

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I made my way home. In the car, I noticed a mini-van in front of me with a large fish labelled “TRUTH” eating a smaller fish labelled “DARWIN.” The license plate said: “Support Our Teachers!”

The baby said: “Kill me now.”