Monday, August 25, 2014

Bantam + Biddy, Ansley Mall

(a shorter review also posted to Yelp)
This location of Bantam + Biddy is located in the middle of the venerable Ansley Mall, located at 1544 Piedmont Ave. This is a hectic, thriving area close to town as many seasoned travelers to locations like Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens will attest.

Bantam + Biddy is an interesting breakfast-y joint along the lines of the original Flying Biscuit or J. Christopher's, before they became all franchised up and ubiquitous like weeds. The name derives from Bantam cock and Biddy hen - a fairly Southern expression that translates well into breakfast foods with an emphasis on eggs and chicken. This location is on the smallish side, inhabiting a long, narrow space about in the center of the long side of Ansley Mall. The dining room extends to tables outside in the Ansley courtyard. Outside there is a welcoming chalkboard listing some specials and some great Rob Land artwork (random creepy chickens!) along the glass front.

The restaurant is thrift-fully decorated in a modernist fashion with styling queues from old pantry-style restaurants from the 30's - I liked the furnishings quite a bit, especially the chalkboard of specials and the dessert case (filled with cakey sweets and Sublime donuts), along with stainless steel counters, wooden bar and muted green walls the entire setting works.

We arrived with some friends for the first time on a Sunday about 1:00 PM - just in time to take advantage of an above-average "Biddy Mary" - basically their own version of the Bloody Mary (I had mine spiced up). Actually I should first state that when we arrived we had to wait about 30 minutes for a table - about at the limit of my patience for any restaurant - the restaurant was busy but only a small family was ahead of us and they were seated immediately. Once seated we perused the menu and pretty much made our selections - and then waited about another 20 minutes before the bartender realized that no one had come by the table. Odd we thought - the place was busy but not so busy that we should have waited 20 minutes before even being greeted. The bartender took our drink orders and promptly returned with our Bloody Biddies - they were quite delicious with an emphasis on the acid (lemon I think?) and the perfect accompaniment to breakfast fare.

Another 10 minutes went by before our server came by - seems he was just asked to pick up our table - he admitted that this was his first brunch shift, working nights only previously. We decided to give him a bit of slack - after taking our order it was around another 25 minutes before our food hit the table and of course, one was wrong and had to be sent back. Fortunately the omelette-that-should-have-been was quick to produce and hit the table before everyone was finished eating (although I think I was into my last bite of chicken/waffle).

For food, we ordered the following:

Fried Chicken & Cheddar Waffles - these were really delicious and the cheesiness of the waffles were a fantastic contrast to the fried chicken. The "Steen's Pure Cane Syrup" was more like honey than syrup, accompanied with the honey butter made everything oh-so-good! There was a bit of homemade vanilla bean apple sauce on the waffle but not really needed. I did get a biscuit which I'm not sure I should have gotten - it was very huge and above expectations.

Jb Farm 3-Egg Omelette - this was the missing food and comprised of spinach, goat cheese and some really delicious Anson Mill grits (not the best I've had but better than Awfulhouse). Actually I've been on a quest for the best grits and have found some really good ones in some interesting places.

Biscuits & Gravy - Two buttermilk cheddar biscuits - of the humungous variety, these came with sausage gravy and had both an egg side and a side of Patak bacon added. Patak does a fantastic job on their smoked items and the bacon is well worth ordering - salty, smoky and mouthwatering.

Chilaquiles - this Mex-inspired dish came with fried tortilla wedges, kale, avocado and a sunny-side up egg; with chicken added. This reminded me a bit of a burrito bowl with an egg, just to call it breakfast.

Completing the food and a second round of Biddies, we asked for the check - the prices here were higher than what you normally pay for breakfast but considering the cocktails it was about on par with the Flying Biscuit. Of course it would have been nice to not be charged for the extra entree (remember the one we got the first time that was wrong?). In any case, the check was quickly corrected. It was interesting that there wasn't much of an apology - only the "this is my first brunch shift" statement several times.

In general I thought the food very good - above average and better than Flying Biscuit for the most part. The combinations worked well and the flavors were spot-on. The service was a bit iffy but I don't blame the server (other than the excuses) - however having to sit for so long without being greeted has me disqualifying them of a star - call this one 3 stars rather than 4. It really surprised us that with so many things less-than-par in our experience, that a manager didn't come by, first to check on us and second to "throw us a bone" - when I was at Indigo we would typically either comp one of the entries (like the one that was messed up) or at minimum buy the table a dessert to share. That's just good business - I wish Bantam + Biddy well and hope they read this review.

-- John

Bantam & Biddy on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 17, 2014

D'Cuban Restaurant in Norcross

(Shorter review posted to Yelp)
I recently met a bunch of Yelpers at D'Cuban Restaurant on 6200 Buford Hwy, Norcross GA 30071 - this was a UYE (Unofficial Yelp Event) hosted by Daniel B (Daniel has become the king of UYE in Atlanta - I've enjoyed exploring many restaurants with him the past several years). UYEs are basically a way for people on Yelp to coordinate a communal feed of a specific restaurant location at a specific time. The advantage is that groups tend to order many more of the items on the menu and with a bit of sharing, everyone gets to sample many different items, rather than hoping you get the best menu items during a single visit. It also provides a very convivial atmosphere and introductions to people you see at Yelp events that you may not know - think of it as an ice-breaker - in general those who attend Yelp events are very familial due to these UYEs.

D'Cuban is very conveniently located just South of Jimmy Carter Blvd on Buford Hwy. Coming from I85 head West on Jimmy Carter then turn South on Buford Hwy and travel about a block - D'Cuban is on the left. The building is a bit nondescript in brown brick with "CUBAN RESTAURANT" in red/orange on a faded sky-blue background. The restaurant is very casual and kid-friendly - very open and inviting with views of Buford Hwy - I can imagine it being very busy in the evenings (this UYE was during lunch on a Saturday).

When you walk in you'll see seating to the left and right - the left-side features a menu board below the register and a bar with an espresso machine behind it - to the right is a wooden cabana-like facade where you can see a bit of the kitchen. We took up a large group of tables on the left - I believe there were 14-15 of us sharing appetizers and entries, along with the wonderful Cuban coffee. If you haven't tried Cuban coffee before, it's a bit different from what you might expect - the espresso is foamy and served in a demitasse cut and very sweet (you typically see a bit of sugar coating the bottom when you're done). I usually quaff this down quickly before getting on with the rest of the meal, then order another to finish up - the coffee at D'Cuban is exceptional and brings back memories of Miami for me.

The menu is relatively short with Sandwiches, Drinks and Desserts on one page (along with Kids Meals) and Dinner plates on the flipside, along wit Lunch Specials. The prices are super-reasonable with sandwiches at $6.95, lunch items at $6.75 and the more expensive plates (like Ropa Vieja) at $9.99. I ordered a few empanadas to get things rolling - they have both beef and cheese (non-meat option!). Both were quite good with a bit more spice in the beef empanada (not hot, more savory) - also the dough was quite flaky which is a change from those I've tried via other cuisines. These were served with a garlic sauce that really made them exceptional.

I ordered half a Cuban sandwich (roast pork and ham with cheese and pickles, spicy mustard on that famous Cuban bread - crusty/toasy on the outside) - this came with black beans and a really delicious white rice (the rice was suffuse with garlic and quite good) - I could make a meal from the rice and beans alone. I also ordered some maduros (sweet pan-fried plantains) and a side of congris (rice cooked with beans and bacon!) - all very good and recommended if you aren't familiar with Cuban cuisine. I usually opt for the congris instead of the white rice but frankly, the white rice here is so good that I think it's better than the congris.

They have a few seafood options - in particular the Camarones Enchiladas looked interesting - and some chicken options (both Fried Chicken and Pollo Asado) besides the usual beef and pork options. For me, Cuban is all about the roasted pork - everything else seems incidental, but these other meats provide some options for those who don't eat pork. I did not see any alcohol but did see some of the sweeter sodas like Iron Beer behind the glass drink case.

I believe everyone really enjoyed the food (saw some other 4 and 5 star reviews). I think I actually like Papi's slightly more but that may be due to there being a bit more variety there (I'm especially fond of the vaca frita and the jerk chicken there), however I'll be returning to D'Cuban as it's more convenient to my home. I asked about vaca frita at D'Cuban and the owner/manager? Lucas indicated that they could make it - it just wasn't on the menu, so that's what I'll be ordering the next time. Oh, and more coffee!

A single waitress - Gabby - held court for the entire group and she did a fantastic job - always there to answer our questions and filling glasses. We did get backed up on the espresso at one point but making Cuban coffee a single cup at a time, this was to be expected (you can't rush perfection, right?).

-- John

D'Cuban Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Capital Grille - Dunwoody

(slightly shorter review also posted to Yelp)
The Capital Grille in Dunwoody is national chain of steak houses under the Darden umbrella. This location is in the lot to the north of Perimeter Mall at 94 Perimeter Center West. This location is a bit pretentious appearing, with buff building, black awnings and metallic gold lettering, but that's exactly what I would expect in a high-end steak-house.

 The interior is a bit upscale modern crossed with arts-and-crafts (mainly in the lighting) and is sure to make you feel comfortable, with real cloth tablecloths and napkins, etc. Part of the open kitchen is hidden behind a wall of striped glass, under an array of international time-clocks. Normally this would be a bit upscale and snooty for my tastes but the food here is exceptional, as is the service. I've had the chance to eat here several times for lunch and every time I've thoroughly enjoyed both the food and the above-average service. This location has a rather extensive wine list and a full bar. If you're not too sure about it, head to the bar and have a cocktail first.

The lunch menu features several seasonal items that have always been well executed. I can't vouch for everything but those items I've had were all exceptional. At some point I'll come back and sample the steaks for a definitive comparison, but honestly, there are so many other aged-beef restaurants nearby (Flemmings is my favorite locally, then Bones and Chops in Buckhead) that thus far I haven't been inclined to order the beef - perhaps to my own self-preservation. And honestly, there are so many other great items on the menu that captured my imagination, that the steaks were the last things on my mind. Along with the lunch menu, Capital Grille was participating in "Taste of Dunwoody" and offered a special "all-in" selection.

For the table, I recommend the Pan-Fried Calamari with Hot Cherry Peppers - these were delicately fried and had a little heat, along with the sweetness of the cherry peppers.

I also had the basic side-salad which was very good. Salads were served with a bread basket that had both poppy-seed rolls and flat bread.

I ordered the Seared Sea Scallops with Asparagus Risotto - the scallops were perfectly cooked and the risotto quite delicious. My companions ordered the following:

Seared Salmon with Avocado, Mango and Tomato Salad - this is a great light-weight meal that's really refreshing.

Main Lobster Roll on Toasted Brioche and Parmesan Truffle Fries - anything on the menu that features lobster is worth getting (including the bisque!).

Sushi-Grade Sesame Seared Tuna with Gingered Rice - this slice is rare if you were wondering about the color.

I always feel a bit under-dressed while dining here (I wear jeans, t-shirt and Chucks most of the time at work) but I've always been treated well, regardless of my sloppy and too-casual attire. I'm already mentioned a few times the great service - if the food I didn't try is anything like the service, you'll be very happy here with anything you order.

-- John

The Capital Grille on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sweet Auburn BBQ - North Highland and Ponce De Leon Ave

(shorter version posted to Yelp)
Sweet Auburn BBQ is located at 656 N Highland Ave NE in Poncey-Highland about a block from Ponce De Leon Ave NE - I believe it occupies the former location of Pura Vida (a tapas place where I've had several excellent meals). Sweet Auburn BBQ is a natural extension of their food truck location at the Atlanta Municipal Market and those who frequent the truck will enjoy the additional menu items offered at the Poncey-Highland location.

I've had the opportunity to sample many of the menu items, first via a Yelp Elite event, several location visits and most recently via catered event (we tried to get the food truck but unfortunately couldn't reconcile the timing of the legal docs between my work and the property management team to host the truck on premises so we opted for the catering), The Poncey-Highland location is spacious and features a full bar (seats about 8-10) with many delicious drink options AND good craft beer options on tap. The interior is semi-rustic with a few industrial qualities that should appeal to even the most discriminate hipster - they've done a great job identifying their customer and accounting for their eclectic needs.

Sweet Auburn has some interesting flavor combinations that you won't find in a Southern BBQ joint - there's a bit of Asian, bit of Latino influence that makes things very special. I think this is a natural outcome of the food truck experience, where it's more important to develop striking flavor contrasts to keep the public coming back for more. 

First an aside - I do enjoy the flavor fusions going on in Atlanta where Buford Hwy tends to compete with many of the local, more "American" restaurants. Some are more successful than others but one I particularly like is the Korean-Mexican fusion at taquerias like Takorea or the even better Hankook, or from a BBQ perspective there's the quite wonderful Heirloom BBQ (the Korean slaw is fantastic). That being said, I've also had some pretty awful attempts which I won't go into here. There's also the opposite trend of using what are traditionally non-Asian peppers (like jalepenos) in Chinese, Korean and Thai cuisine which changes the flavors entirely and in general, I'm not a fan. One of my friends famously said to me "Where can I get Korean that doesn't taste Mexican?" I'm mentioning these to contrast with what is happening at Sweet Auburn BBQ where the fusion is not obnoxious and is intentional, rather than a substitution.

On to the foods - the following are some of what I sampled or ate (at the Yelp Elite event, visiting the location in Poncey-Highland, or catered) so it's a mixed bag. In general most items were delicious with just a few complaints (nothing major) but it did prevent me from giving out 5 stars.

I always start with a beer or two - most recently I ordered a pint of the always good Terrapin Hopsecutioner  on draft. I've also sampled the New Belgium Brewery Snapshot and a nice vodka drink "Eternal Sunshine" with Cathead Vodka, apricot, Pimm's, Lemon and Honey.

Pimento Cheese Wontons, with a bacon marmalade and sweet Thai chili sauce - these were rich, interesting and delicious - they'll also scald you like napalm so be careful to let them cool for a couple of minutes before devouring.

Smoked Wings, tossed in Wu Tang sauce - delicious and crispy, with a tangy sweet/sour/soy coating - I can eat dozens of these.

Coconut Lemongrass Pork Spare Ribs - this was a succulent hickory and apple wood smoked rib, with an unusual creamy sauce and not something you'd normally see or taste. This is one of the better fusion items.


Super Bun, with smoked pork belly, Asian slaw, BBQ Hoisin and House pickles on a buttery toasted bun - this was awesome and another great fusion item.

Sweet Auburn Taco Plate with pulled pork and pear slaw; Mexican Street Taco - smoked brisket, charred corn pico, avocado crema; Korean Short Rib Taco - Asian slaw, Sriracha aioli and scallions. This is a great go-to platter when you want to try several different flavors and don't have time to wait around.

Pulled Chicken - personally I didn't get too excited with the pulled chicken but I can understand the thinking behind it. Rather than have a lot of smoky rind, this chicken is fairly plain but juicy. Making the chicken this way makes it very versatile - you can add Asian slaw to go that direction or corn salsa to make it more Mexican, etc. 

Pulled Pork Shoulder - as with the chicken, only a hint of smokiness that for most BBQ aficionados would disqualify it as BBQ - however, as with the chicken above, very versatile when doing fusion foods. The consistency is more like roasted pork (think carnitas) that is fork-tender. Add anything you like for a delicious meal.

Mac and Cheese - very cheesy penne pasta baked so it has a bit of crust - very good.

420 Borracho Baked Beans - these beans are simple fantastic - classic BBQ beans with pork with a sweet glaze.

Red Skin Potato Salad - I personally wasn't too excited about this potato salad - it seemed to have all the ingredients I like but felt a little flat to me.

Skillet Green Beans - green beans sauteed with onions (we ordered the veggie version) and usually pork - very good.

Homemade Pickles - these were of the "bread-and-butter" variety and appropriately sweet/sour and very well done.

The finish included nice helping of traditional Southern banana pudding (complete with Nilla wafers). I've also tried individual servings of a peach cobbler that I found very disappointing. These were over-baked with dessicated peaches at the bottom of the cup-cake-sized pan and a slightly sweet crust - about an inch of air between the filling and crust.

So to conclude, I like this place a lot and will be returning. It's especially good for those who love BBQ and want something a bit different from the regular BBQ haunt.

-- John

Sweet Auburn Barbecue on Urbanspoon