My friend Allison complains that Washington, D.C., in which she formerly resided, has no character. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure she’s never been to the vacuum that is Atlanta. I was in Sherman’s kindling pile for work during much of last week and remain largely unimpressed. The city, or at least Midtown, is quite nice. Piedmont Park is quaint. The Georgia Aquarium is worth the price of admission. But, the rest of the city…meh. But, I ate well (no shock).
Eating well is easy, but wildly disappointing in terms of finding local flavor. We ate at four restaurants that earned honors for being among the best in the city from local magazines and the Gayot guide. The best brewpub? The less-than-impressive national chain Gordon Biersch. The best sushi? National chain Ra. The best Irish pub? National microchain Ri Ra. The best breakfast? Regional chain Flying Biscuit. I realize we didn’t leave the midtown corridor much, but it was damn near impossible to find a family-owned or locally-owned restaurant that reflected the flavor of the South.
Tuesday morning started with the Flying Biscuit, on the recommendation of our concierge. The Flying Biscuit’s midtown location was the first, before it went bigtime and expanded to more than 20 across the Southeast. It is smack in the middle of the city’s…I’m not sure if it has a name, but can we just call it the gay section? The region south of Piedmont Park is the area’s gay section. Apparently, one of the Indigo Girls was a big supporter of the Flying Biscuit and her endorsement helped it catch fire during its infancy. The food is an eclectic mix of southern cuisine, and the organic, slow food and vegetarian movements. My breakfast, a three-egg white scramble of turkey bacon, tomatoes and basil was terrific, as each flavor complemented each other without overwhelming. It was served with a bowl of the cheesiest, creamiest grits I’ve ever had. I think if people made grits like the Flying Biscuit, more would eat them. Toni, my traveling companion, boss and all-around good egg, went for the turkey hash. It only sounds disgusting — slow-cooked turkey pot roast served over potatoes and topped with eggs and cheddar. She raved.
Finishing each dish was a housemade biscuit that bucked the buttermilk trend. This was more like a crumpet that was baked too long, so that the outside would develop a thick crust and bready middle, a perfect vessel for the homemade apple butter that accompanied it. But, I was disappointed to find out that this was part of a chain.
We celebrated Toni’s birthday on Tuesday night at the sushi place across the street. Ra Sushi is an Arizona-based chain of about 15 locations that fuses non-traditional sushi presentation in an LA/loud music/dimly lit environment. The food? Great. The service? Horrible. And? No toro. Are you kidding me?
Ra’s niche as the urban sushi bar does not sacrifice quality to advance the thumping bass lines heard overhead. The sashimi was nice and fresh, as toro became hamachi. The traditional maki rolls were fine. You really can’t do bad with California and Philadelphia. They make their bank on a menu of speciality rolls including the RAllipop (maguro, hamachi, salmon, spicy tuna mix, letter, asparagus and cucumber, wrapped in lo bok and served on a skewer), Crazy Monkey (smoked salmon, mango and cream cheese topped with avocado, and red beet tempura flakes) and Viva Las Vegas (kani crab and cream cheese, rolled, coated in tempura and fried, then topped with spicy tuna, more kani, spinach tempura and a tempura star, like a hat on a showgirl). All in all, great combinations, married with a slate of great beer (Helllllo Fat Tire!) and a unique atmosphere. But, not local.
According to its website, Ri Ra Atlanta was actually built using salvage pieces from shuttered Irish pubs. At this point of the day, we had just sat through 10 hours of workshops, so my only concern was the selection of beers on tap. When I saw Magner’s, I knew we were in a good place. Unfortunately, the waiter’s look of confusion when I asked why my cider wasn’t served over ice immediately rebuked my faith. Toni and I each had the Dubliner — a lamb and rosemary burger served with goat cheese and caramelized onion. One of the top five burgers I’ve ever had. I was worried that it might have that gamey lamb flavor you might find in cheaper cuts of the meat. I was delightfully wrong. We both passed on the curry mayo in favor of the regular stuff (curry doesn’t sit well with me). A damn good burger from an 11-restaurant chain.
I think that this is indicative of my problem with the city. There is no distinctly Atlanta culture. Much like Charlotte, Raleigh and other cities that drew people from around the country with the lure of jobs and cheap costs of living 10-15 years ago, Atlanta never developed itself as a truly distinct community. It’s like a McCity full of McCondo towers and McChain restaurants. I don’t mind chains, but for every national chain like Carrabba’s or regional chain like Koto that does it well, there is a family-owned enterprise like King David’s or Angotti’s, where you can see the owners working and taking pride in their craft. It was nowhere to be found in Atlanta.