Georgia on my mind … and in my belly

Thinking it might be a good idea to get out of Chicago’s deep freeze for Super Bowl weekend, I accepted my cousin’s invitation to visit her in Atlanta. Things weren’t much better there. Atlanta had just experienced Snow-mageddon—a disastrous week of snow coming down fast and furious, unplowed, unsalted roads, people sleeping in or abandoning cars and unbelievable chaos. But by the time I arrived on Friday night, order had been pretty much restored and there were lots of stories to hear. There was also a lot of eating to do in a city I hadn’t been to in over 10 years. Many tasty surprises awaited me.

Friday night found us on the Buford Highway, a stretch of road on the edge of Atlanta that’s lined with Asian and Latin storefronts. It’s a regular buffet for lovers of Vietnamese and Korean food—there are dozens of mom and pop restaurants to choose from, turning out authentic dishes from bustling kitchens. We pulled up to Nam Phuong, a local favorite. The menu was enormous, but we knew what we wanted: the green papaya salad and the hot pot. The latter is a signature here and quite a production.

First, the waiter sets up the portable burner and sets a pot filled with a sweet-savory brown broth on to simmer. Then platters of raw vegetables and herbs come out, including slivered banana blossoms, bok choy and cilantro. Another platter filled with mussels, squid, shrimp, fish fillets and octopus is set on the table too. Thinly shaved beef and cubes of tofu were on another plate, and a mound of cold vermicelli to use as a bed. We started slow, swirling vegetables then seafood through the fragrant liquid to cook. I slurped mine down with some of the vermicelli. Only the beef disappointed; everything else was fresh-tasting, tender and well-seasoned.

Unfortunately, two eaters cannot do all these piles of food justice and it looked like the restaurant staff was eager to close up. We left plenty behind but were more than full. Next time I find myself on Buford Highway, I’ll be sure to invite along a carload of friends.

Saturday morning we were off to the DeKalb Farmer’s Market to stock up on Super Bowl party fixings. This is an indoor farmer’s market that looked bigger than ten football fields—and more diverse than an international airport. There were shoppers in dashikis, burkas, turbans and more, representing multiple nationalities and ethnic groups. The market’s shelves, cases and bins reflected this melting pot. Acres of spices, tropical fruits, baked goods, condiments, seafood, meats and cheeses packed the aisles—at prices that were hard to believe.

But before we bought the avocados, cilantro, jalapenos and limes I needed for my guacamole, we got on line for a late breakfast/early lunch. There’s a whole foodservice facility in the back, tempting shoppers with a global selection of hot and cold items such as picadillo, chicken tikka masala, tofu stir-fry, samosas, quinoa taboulleh and much more. We loaded up our trays, ate and were energized to shop.

Grocery shopping at the DeKalb Farmer’s Market is a one-of-a-kind experience, even if you’re just browsing. But my fingers were itching to buy. Aside from the guacamole ingredients, I couldn’t resist getting a few extra spices (rosemary for 49 cents and oregano for 79 cents!) to pack in my suitcase and bring back to Chicago.

Saturday night dinner found us at Lure—a fairly new restaurant in Midtown that’s part of Fifth Group, a multi-unit Atlanta indy group that’s known for its varied portfolio. Lure is all about seafood, and the décor has a hip nautical theme with an emphasis on weathered wood. First order of the evening was choosing a cocktail from the intriguing list of signatures. The menu headings included Hand-Mixed Drinks, Punch Bowls and From the Bottle Shop—the latter referring to individually bottled craft cocktails, lightly carbonated in-house. I ordered The Other Girl, a hand-mixed cocktail crafted with pisco, jasmine, sugar and lime juice with a touch of egg white to give it a frothy crown. Like a fragrant Pisco Sour with just the right balance of sweet and tart. My cousin opted for Blue-Eyed Boy, a slightly fizzy blend of gin, mint, elderflower and peach bitters that came to the table in a capped, personal-size glass bottle. Very subtle and aromatic.

Time to order up some Shared Plates. We zeroed in on the Baked Peekytoe Crab Dip, which came to the table in a small cast-iron pan with toast points, and the Fried Whole-Belly Ipswich Clams (both $15). We’re both from the Northeast, and eating fried clams transports us back to summer on the Long Island and Cape Cod beaches. These clams were a bit more refined but didn’t disappoint. Neither did the crab dip—creamy and rich with big hunks of fresh crab, roasted tomatoes and chives.

We decided to split an entrée so we’d have room for dessert and wouldn’t have to be carted out of the restaurant. The Seared Georges Bank Sea Scallops with roasted mushrooms, almonds, fregola and agrodolce ($28) was the right choice: just six perfectly cooked scallops offset by the sweet-sour agrodolce.

Glad we saved that room. Lure is known for its changing roster of imaginative shakes and floats ($6 each) and we had to try them. The first sip was from the Ginger Float, which features ginger beer, brown sugar ice cream, pineapple and passionfruit caramel. The ingredients really worked well together, delivering a complex combo of flavors and just the right sweetness. Next sip went to the Coffee Praline Shake, a blend of Frangelico, whipped cream and coffee-hazelnut ice cream. This one was a bit more one-dimensional but very satisfying. Would we ever be able to eat again?

Sunday brunch
Silly question, because brunch at Southern Art and Bourbon Bar awaited us the next morning. Still full from the night before, we rallied and drove over to Buckhead’s Intercontinental Hotel where the restaurant is located. We arrived at 11:30 a.m., too early to have any alcohol (Georgia law prohibits serving on Sunday until 12:30 p.m.) so I opted for fresh squeezed orange juice while I looked over the menu of Southern specialties modernized by the touch of chef Art Smith.

Almost immediately, our server, Ryan, set down a tray of warm rosemary-cheddar biscuits with cane syrup butter and pickled vegetables. They truly epitomized “southern art”; flaky, light but nicely grainy. Since vegetables were the food group we ignored all of Saturday, we decided to split the Hydroponic Salad to start: mixed greens with roasted beets, Alabama goat cheese croquette and bourbon-sorghum dressing ($10). Being in the South, I had to have the Georgia White Shrimp & Grits ($16). This was a unique take on the classic, enhanced with housemade andouille, okra, hominy, field peas, tomato and shrimp scallion broth. Ryan suggested we also try the Jumbo Crabhash with Chive Hollandaise ($18)—his favorite. Both were enormous portions that we put a dent in but couldn’t finish—even though they were excellent examples of new Southern cooking.

It was now after 12:30 and time to sample a cocktail. The Sparkling Sapphire caught my eye: gin, elderflower and cucumber with a splash of Prosecco sounded light, bubbly and refreshing. It delivered on all attributes. As did a dessert of chocolate pretzel pie with whipped cream.  Whew!

Not even going to mention the smoky barbecued wings, guacamole and vegetarian chili I managed to eat at the Super Bowl party! I felt stuffed like an andouille sausage after my 48-hour eating spree in Atlanta. But it’s a culinary destination that’s definitely worth a return visit.


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