The Varisty (Atlanta)

Last semester I worked at Atlanta Legal Aid. My boss, an amicable sort, had many convictions, the most prevalent one being: “There is no onion ring better than the onion rings they make at The Varisty.”

Now I’m a reasonable man. I believe that reasonable convictions maintained by reasonable people should be viewed reasonably. However, something here seemed awry.

“You mean to tell me,” I said, “in all the world, there are no onion rings better than the ones at The Varsity?”

“No sir,” he said. “Definitely not.”

Tonight, I had to grab a quick dinner between class and rehearsal for The VD Show; a Valentine’s Day show I’m doing with Out of Hand Theater featuring a musical I wrote called “The Boy Who Went Blind” and a musical piece I wrote called “Women Outside The Bakery” to be performed at CJ’s Landing in Buckhead February 12th to the 14th; live music, prizes, and I’m playing with the band (I hope they let me sing “Hey Ya!”). I decided The Varisty would do the trick.

The Varisty is an Atlanta staple. You just see it and think “Atlanta” in all its good and bad connotations. I walked in and saw three white men eating alone in trucker hats. The counter was dead; sleepy black women in visors stood sullenly on the other side.

“A #1 please,” I said.

“You want onions?” asked the woman.

“OK,” I said.

I paid and received my tray.

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The chili dogs? Well they were good. I really like chili dogs. It’s my vice. Some people smoke cigarettes; some people do drugs. I eat chili dogs. Though, it should be noted, the chili is rather–umm–well it kind of tastes like cloth ground up and soaked in beef juice. I mean that in a good way.

The onion rings? They were the best part. The best in Atlanta? Surely. The best in the world?

Well, boss, maybe. Just maybe.

Gourmet Dinner, Thumbs Up Breakfast, Horrific Epilogue

Last night the culinary muse descended upon me and whispered into my ear.

“Challenge yourself, my boy!”

I rose to the challenge and whipped out three cookbooks: Mario Batali’s “Simple Italian Food,” Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Cooking” and Sarah Moulton’s “Cooking With Sarah Moulton.”

From the first, I made a bizarre salad of fennel, blood oranges, pomegranate seeds and pecorino cheese.

Here are the ingredients, pre-slicing:

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Strangely enough, my favorite element was the pecorino cheese. This is strange, you see, because I come from an anti-cheese family and have spent many an hour struggling to outmaneuver the shadow my family’s anti-cheese stance casts upon my appetite.

The cheese purchasing was strange too. The cheese woman at Whole Foods was incredibly kind and incredibly helpful but also, apparently, incredibly inept. When I asked for pecorino she said: “Well, unfortuantely, all we have is pecorino studded with peppercorns.” I tried a sample (which I enjoyed) but then almost died when a peppercorn exploded in the back of my throat and made me reevaluate my belief in a heliocentric universe.

“Well,” I said sadly, “I guess I’ll take it.”

She chopped me off a chunk, packaged it, labelled it and handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said, and as I walked away I noticed a stack of cheeses on top of which was one labelled Pecorino without peppercorns.

I bit the bullet and bought the peppercorn one I was holding.

So, anyway, I still enjoyed the nonpeppercorn parts of the cheese as did other participating cheesetasters. The salad, though, was a bit of a dud.

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Next, it was time for a second crack at risotto. My first crack went incredibly well, as documented in my eGullet submission: My First Risotto (A Young Man and His Arborio Rice).

That first risotto, from the Chez Panisse book, was a wild mushroom risotto and so this time I thought I’d attempt the saffron risotto. Did you know that saffron is the stamen of the crocus flower? Forgive the sentiment, but that’s like putting an actual penis or vagina in your dinner.

“How delightful!” sings the muse.

The ingredients this time out were more basic: onions, pancetta, saffron (which is pretty pricey for the little envelope you get of penises), rice, chicken broth, butter and paremsan. The end result?

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At first I thought I ruined it by adding too much chicken broth at the end (which, according to the cookbook, creates a severe risk of broth / rice separation) but after some frantic stirring and soul-searching, the risotto came out fine.

How did it taste? Risotto-tasters seemed to enjoy it, though I felt it was lacking in flavor. I much preferred the wild mushroom one.

And then, as if we weren’t full enough, I chopped up a block of chocolate, added simmering milk and made Sarah Moulton’s decadent hot chocolate. (NO PHOTO AVAILABLE) How was it? Very chocolatey. Too chocolatey, in fact. I felt sick afterwards.

Then this morning, Chris and I trekked to a place he declared the best breakfast in Atlanta.

“Better than the Crescent Moon?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said confidently.

“Better than the Flying Biscuit?” I persisted.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he answered.

“Better than–”

“Look, it’s good all right, let’s just go there.”

So we went to the Thumbs Up Diner near Inman Park in what Chris called the 4th Ward section of Atlanta. (Apparently, this is where MLK was born).

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We waited a scant 15 minutes and were seated at a table by a window. I was slightly tormented by the menu (in a good way). Should I have the sassy scramble or the french toast special?

Let me tell you about the french toast special: two slices of french toast, with CARAMEL, apples, cranberries and powdered sugar. How amazing does that sound? But it seemed too desserty for breakfast. I would feel guilty all day.

So I ordered the sassy scramble: eggs, smoked salmon, herbs and cream cheese; side of potatoes and a biscuit. Here it is several minutes later:

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Chris ordered something whose name I forgot but that consisted of sausage and eggs over some kind of garlic-tomato concoction:

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Chris enjoyed his and I really enjoyed mine. In fact, I can safely say that it is the best sassy scramble I have had in Atlanta (including Crescent Moon and Flying Biscuit).

Here, by the way, is what the place looks like inside:

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A GRAPHIC, UNHAPPY EPILOGUE

Here’s where our story grows grotesque. I suggest that you stop reading here. No, really, please: stop reading here.

For while food writers concentrate on the orifice above the shoulders through which food enters, very few food writers–in fact, NO food writers–concentrate on that other orifice, the one from which food exits.

Oh, God, I’m ruining my blog.

Suffice it to say that on the car ride back my stomach began doing Mary Lou Retton’s winning routine from the 1986 olympics. I began employing severe lamasse techniques–hoo hoo hoo, ha ha ha–opening the window, fanning myself, all the while attempting to drive and carry on a conversation with Chris.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I chirped, “doing great.”

Was it the sassy scramble? Probably not. The risotto? The pecorino? The crocus penises? I think it was the hot chocolate. Whatever it was, though, it was enough to make this food writer consider an alternative career in astrophysics. Or law!

Nah.

Fried Chicken at Watershed (Atlanta)

Tuesday night is fried chicken night at Watershed.

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Watershed is a Decatur-based establishment dedicated to Southern cooking and owned by (depending on who you ask) either one or both of the Indigo Girls. The executive chef is Scott Peacock, whose “Southern Cooking” is a recent cookbook bestseller, available at your local cookbook dealer.

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Yes, Tuesday night is fried chicken night–as long as you arrive by 7:30.

For those of us who have a Negotiations class from 6 to 8, this poses a problem.

“What time are you coming in?” asks the reservationist.

“8:30,” I reply, gingerly.

“Oh,” she says with concern in her voice. “There probably won’t be any fried chicken left.”

“Can’t you save us some?” I ask much like Oliver Twist asking for more.

“I’m sorry sir,” she says. “That’s impossible.”

So Chris and I arrive at 8:26, prepared for disappointment.

I ask the hostess with the same reserve the parent of a dying child questions a doctor as to their offspring’s life expectency: “Any chicken left?”

She smiles. “As a matter of fact.” Dramatic pause. “Yes.”

Woohoo!

We are shown to our table in a room that looks a little too industrial to be serving Southern food. Yet, the room has a pleasant quality to it also: a sourceless radiance that makes the temperature outside a distant memory. Our waiter approaches us with aplomb.

“What’s that?” we ask.

“A plomb,” he answers.

We wait for this awkward moment in the narrative to pass and order drinks.

“Sweet tea!” I say.

“Me too!” says Chris.

“Ah ah,” says the waiter. “No sweet tea. Just unsweet tea.”

What kind of Southern dining establishment is this?

“Two unsweet teas, then,” we reply.

He returns with our drinks and we order our fried chicken.

“Okey doke,” says the waiter, and scurries off to the kitchen.

Since this review concerns Southern dining, I will make this mid-section Faulkneresque.

My mother is a fish.

Twenty minutes later (or maybe even sooner), the waiter returns with two piping hot plates that he sets down before us. Their contents are as follows: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, garlic green beans and two biscuits. He brings us a side of butter and honey and we are set.

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The chicken is wonderful. The outside is not greasy at all, just perfectly battered and seasoned and fried. The inside is moist and flavorful; probably from soaking in buttermilk, as the Southern Cooking book suggests. The star of the side dishes are the green beans: crisp, succulent, and garlicky–their greeness counteracts the richness and whiteness of the other foods. The biscuits are yummy (though not as good or buttery or light as the Silver Skillet’s). The mashed potatoes are fairly forgettable.

Overall, we are sated, but I insist on dessert.

“What do you recommend?” we ask the waiter.

“The chocolate cake,” he says, as if letting us in on a secret. “It’s the best.”

We take his advice and he returns bearing chocolate cake.

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The cake is good. We eat it.

The check arrives. We pay it.

We rise to leave, and do what any self-respecting Southerner does when leaving a fried chicken dinner: shop for shampoo.

“Excuse me?” your thought bubble declares.

“Yes,” my fingers answer. Watershed’s lobby, rather incongruously, sells bath products to departing guests.

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I smell several varities and decide that my current shampoo–Aveda’s Blue Malva (why does Malva sound sexual?) (oh, I think I know)–works fine.

We exit into the cold and declare our Watershed fried chicken experience to be as soul-warming as light in August. Absolutely, absolutely. As I sit here typing, my dinner memories fill me with sound and fury.

My mother is a fish.

Friday Morning’s Southern Breakfast Spectacular: The Silver Skillet

As some of you may already know, like Batman and Bruce Wayne, I–the Amateur Gourmet–have an alter-ego: Adam the Law Student. This dichotomy rounds out my character to such a degree that Warner Brothers has already purchased the rights to my life story, Tim Burton to direct.

One of the sadder aspects of my life as a law student is the mandate that I take certain “required” classes. One of these classes is a dry, dusty examination of agencies and partnerships called “Business Associations.” The fact that this class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12 pm renders it slightly better than tolerable. The fact that there’s also a Friday morning session that meets at 8:45 am–yes, 8:45 am–renders this class an act of sadism.

Have you ever been up at 8:45 am? I imagine not. Clearly, this ungodly hour is reserved for lunatics and politicians to shuffle back and forth before the rest of the world awakes. I eyed the neighboring cars suspiciously: who are these people? Why are they up so early? Regis isn’t even on yet!

Class today was moderately interesting. I actually like my teacher, he’s an old world business lawyer type: he wears a suit and tie every day to class and he wears his glasses on the bridge of his nose to create a wisened elder effect. Today’s topic was the fiduciary responsibilities of agents to their principals. I spent most of my time thinking about breakfast.

Which is why, when class was over, I hopped in my car, turned up the radio (well, a mix I made with “Raspberry Beret” featured prominently), and pedaled my way over to “The Silver Skillet”–an establishment voted, according to their sign out front, “Best Breakfast in Atlanta.”

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Full disclosure: I have been to the Silver Skillet before. Last time was with my roommate who, while she enjoyed it, found the political climate a bit disconcerting.

“Notice the big American flag on the wall,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I said.

But at the cash register she pointed out the large streams of conservative political cartoons adorning the walls.

“How do you know they’re conservative?”

This was a fruitless question. The large majority of snippets address the endlessly merry topic of Bill Clinton and his sexual proclitivies. “I’m With Stupid” reads an image on Clinton’s shirt, with an arrow pointing down to his crotch.

“So what?” I sighed. “You can like the food and not like the politics.”

Today I decided to do just that. After perusing the menu for a few minutes,

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I decided on a safe choice: cheese omelet (I spell checked that and that’s how my computer spells it, though I feel there should be more ls and ts), grits and biscuits. The waitress had a lot of character. One part Flo from “Alice” and one part Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

“Arright,” she said, bringing the ticket to the kitchen.

While waiting for my food, I snapped a picture of the counter which, like the waitress, also had a lot of character:

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I then, to kill time, whipped out my copy of this week’s New Yorker. Reading The New Yorker at The Silver Skillet might be likened to reading The Communist Manifesto at Joe McCarthy’s dinner table: it raised many an eyebrow.

“You have a lot of eyebrows,” I told the man sitting next to me.

Finally, the food arrived.

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Let me be honest and tell you that the omelet / omellette / omelllllettttte wasn’t very good. The eggs had no flavor, it was dry and comparable to any other Diner omelet you’ve ever had except less tasty. The grits, on the other hand, were good. I have no frame of reference for grits. Culturally, I am to grits what Balkie from “Perfect Strangers” is to Lomain. “Cousins?” No, Balkie, no.

Alas, we come to the biscuits. Allow me to wax lyrical on the biscuits. These are the best biscuits I have ever had. They are perfect. Light, fluffy, buttery, flaky: these biscuits melt in your mouth and stay there in your dreams. These biscuits are what biscuits are all about. I am a former biscuit neanderthal, declaring The Flying Biscuit’s biscuits the best biscuits in Atlanta. (Say that ten times fast). Those, however, are biscuit novelties: weird saucerlike structures that taste good with apple butter and look good in dirty photographs. The Silver Skillet biscuits, on the other hand, are the real deal. Perfect, they are. So good, in fact, they even made the omelet taste good.

Breakfast digested, I rose to pay. Near the door are two trophy cases with photographs of the many celebrities who have dined at The Silver Skillet. John Lithgow (who filmed a TV movie there) and Katy Couric (who had her colonoscopy there) are just some of the many who have graced The Silver Skillet’s tables. What caught my eye, though, was an image that sums up The Silver Skillet better than I can in words. Suffice it to say, if you see a professional wrestler on a trophy case near the door of your next breakfast haunt, order the biscuits. They’re the best.

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