2003 Silver Spoon Awards

Art of the Meal

Despite a slow economy, our Silver Spoons reflect few dramatic shake-ups this year. Most of the state’s most highly regarded restaurants weathered the storm, although a few reported record slumps. Perhaps the biggest loss was downtown Atlanta’s best restaurant, Mumbo Jumbo – but chef Shaun Doty re-emerged at the new, sleek Mid-City Cuisine. On the flip side, there were fewer big, splashy openings (Emeril’s in Atlanta was a notable exception), but it seemed the most remarkable changes were small but seismic, taking place behind the scenes. Many experiments failed, but encouraging new discoveries also cropped up in once-vacant town squares and in suburban areas long manacled by dreary chains.

Neighborhood, suburban and rural restaurants throughout the state got better. In cities, expensive meals gave way to clever pricing structures, especially at lunch. Dishes got both simpler and more sophisticated, and chefs used more local ingredients – good news for diners and for Georgia’s farmers and fishing industry. But looking back over all the miles traveled, food enjoyed and disappointments endured, my sharpest memories are in small towns, where pioneer chefs are introducing loving spoonfuls to ready and willing clienteles.

Seeger’s, Atlanta.

An unforgettable experience, thanks to Guenter Seeger’s classic training, inventive mind and devotion to the best local, seasonal ingredients. Take, for example, the trio of tomato sorbets, as summery and ephemeral as a shimmery mirage on hot Georgia blacktop. Like his best dishes, these three intensely flavored ices, made of heirloom tomatoes, are all contradiction and explanation, tension and release: thrilling, yet familiar – what Seeger’s continues to be, year after year. 111 West Paces Ferry Road (at East Andrews Drive), 404-846-9779.

Oscar’s, College Park.

The envelope, please. Oscar Morales’ sexy, hip decor and spot-on presentations only seem more dramatic in the moribund setting of downtown College Park. Like the carefully restored Coca-Cola sign on exposed brick, the food often contemporizes time-capsule classics (peach clafouti, braised beef ribs, rye gnocchi). A lifeline for airline employees and passengers on long layovers (Oscar’s is just a MARTA hop from the airport), a destination for everyone else. 3725 Main St. (between Harvard and Princeton avenues), 404-766-9688.

Bacchanalia, Atlanta.

The industrial setting and glazed brick tiles bring to mind both elementary school and loft living – perfect backdrops for this comforting and sophisticated cuisine. The molten-centered warm Valhrona chocolate cake approaches hall-of-fame status. Lunch is back, but the most affordable midday bite is from Bacchanalia’s gourmet market, Star Provisions, which offers a whole host of prepared foods, including delectable, unique sandwiches (grilled speck with Emmanthaler; pepper and thyme-cured beef tenderloin with roasted Georgia onions and aoli; hot pastrami on onion rye with coleslaw), made to order while you wait. 1198 Howell Mill Road (between 14th St. and Huff Road), 404-365-0410.

Five and Ten, Athens.

Chef Hugh Acheson (named last year as one of Food & Wine’s 10 best new chefs in the country) brings the University of Georgia’s hometown the intelligent approach to food it deserves. The grilled flatbread with salmon gravlax, bits of preserved lemon, fresh dill and little pot of creme fraiche is our favorite prerequisite. 1653 Lumpkin St. (in Five Points), 706-546-7300.

The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton (Buckhead), Atlanta.

Chef Bruno Menard’s team reigns over this sumptuously wrapped room with the attentive bedside demeanor of private-care nurses. Elegant, silken Asian-influenced French cuisine to match the wall coverings and linens; encyclopedic wine list. The Maine lobster claw with minced vegetables and ginger-Vouvray wine sauce would be at home in Tiffany’s window. 3434 Peachtree Road N.E., 404-240-7035.

Kyma, Atlanta.

As other restaurant concepts try harder, Kyma’s devotion to Buckhead Life founder Pano Karatassos’ elemental Greek cuisine only proves stronger. The fat columns at the front door, leading to a glittering pantheon of iced fresh fish, suggest a contemporary amphitheater devoted to food. Wood-grilled seafood (European loup de mer from Greece, pink sea trout from Iceland, pompano and yellowtail snapper from Florida), bitter wild greens, and gigandes plaki (velvety white beans the size of espresso saucers, stewed with onions and tomatoes). 3085 Piedmont Road N.E., 404-262-0702.

Tamarind, Atlanta.

It’s almost unfair that Thai food has become so accessible that it’s often the best available meal in the most far-flung suburb. A favorite of golfer Vijay Singh, Tamarind reminds you of its complexity in dishes like yum-ped-yang: a warm salad of boneless duck with Thai chilies, pineapple, green apple sticks, onions, cashews and lemon juice over Romaine leaves. We hope the opening of sister restaurant Nan (close by on Spring Street) will handle a little of the crush that Tamarind has learned to serve so well. 80 14th St. N.W., 404-873-4888.

Park 75, Four Seasons Hotel, Atlanta.

Chef Kevin Hickey’s seasonal creations, like spring asparagus soup with lump crab, caviar and lemon cr?me fraiche, could actually make you look forward to allergy season. The dining room can sometimes feel a little antiseptic; the chef’s table inside the chaotic kitchen is much more fun. 75 14th St., 404-253-3840.

Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, Savannah.

The legendary Mrs. Wilkes died last year, after a half-century of operating this deservedly famous outpost for biscuits, chicken and fresh vegetables, all eaten family-style with whomever you happen to be seated with. For many years, there wasn’t even a sign out front – the long lines were enough. Fortunately, Mrs. Wilkes’ family is carrying on, with many of the same kitchen staff, and the good news is that the chicken is as tasty as ever. The family takeover has preserved the state’s best representation of true Southern cooking, along with the grandfathered-in boardinghouse serving style. 107 West Jones St. (at Whitaker), 912-232-5997.

Georges’, Tybee Island.

No place better represents Tybee’s great leap forward from the 1950s than Georges’ – even if you count movie-star resident Sandra Bullock’s summer cottage. The two namesake Georges, Jackson and Spriggs, also operate nearby North Beach Grill, Tybee’s first casual seafood restaurant to supplement the fried-and-true tourist joints. You can still wear Jams to dinner, but Georges’ sophisticated clientele comes for the quirky wine list and creative cuisine like medium-rare duck liver with raspberry vinaigrette, toasted pecans and curly frisee. 1105 East Highway 80, 912-786-9730.

The Best All Over

One Midtown Kitchen, Atlanta.

Bob Amick’s smart sequel to his ’80s-era Peasant Group triumphs. The zeitgeist is cool jazz, small plates, low prices, clever wines, the most varied and freshest oyster selection around. On deck: Two, a blues joint scheduled to open next year. 559 Dutch Valley Road, 404-892-4111.

Harold’s, Atlanta.

Like the best country songs, the background includes prison, railroad tracks, and the tears you’ll shed over the best Brunswick stew and cracklin’ cornbread you’ve ever had in your whole life. 171 McDonough Blvd., S.E. (at Lakewood Ave.), 404-627-9268.

Bone’s, Atlanta.

The city’s power-brokers gather here for museum-quality steaks, genteel service and the unapologetically masculine atmosphere. 3130 Piedmont Road N.E., 404-237-2663.

North Beach Grill, Tybee Island.

A view of the dunes from a weather-beaten deck; dining on crab cakes and sipping a Red Stripe in your salt-crusted bathing suit. Need I say more? 41-A Meddin Drive, 912-786-9003.

Mid-City Cuisine, Atlanta.

Chef Shaun Doty’s newest effort almost makes up for the loss of downtown’s best and most creative restaurant, Mumbo Jumbo, where he reigned for years. This sleek, contemporary room matches the up-to-the-minute menu, with several clever lunch options, such as the Martini (three hors d’oeuvres, risotto, housemade ice, glass of wine or martini, $18). Unforgettable twists on familiar dishes include crisp calamari with jalapeno and okra. 1545 Peachtree St., 404-888-8700.

Brasserie le Coze, Atlanta.

The best brasserie in town feels authentically French, despite its mall location. The cuisine is top-notch in such classics as skate wing in brown butter. But the cross-cultural Asian influence sometimes goes awry in experiments like roast duck with edamame. 3393 Peachtree Road N.E., 404-266-1440.

Watershed, Decatur.

Chef Scott Peacock’s busy schedule only seems to have made Watershed better. The co-author (with Edna Lewis) of The Gift of Southern Cooking respects the roots and wings of lowly foodstuffs like sweet corn and half-runner beans. Impeccably prepared appetizers, including soft-shell crab with heirloom tomatoes. Tuesday night still packs ’em in for fried chicken. 406 West Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-4900.

Joel, Atlanta.

The dining room is a page from Italian Vogue; and when it’s on (which is usually), Joel Antune’s food is nonpareil, in such indelibly memorable dishes as shrimp fricassee in frothy lemongrass broth. The wine list challenges the most knowledgeable oenophile. But if you’re not recognizable or a regular, you can sometimes feel plagued with middle-child syndrome – suffering from inattention. 3290 Northside Parkway N.E., 404-233-3500.

New Perry Hotel, Perry.

This old-school favorite is a magnolia-wreathed landmark, and many remember it fondly. But go for the pretty environment, comfortable bar and attentive, courteous service – the food is heavy, family-reunion-style Southern cooking. 800 Main St., 478-987-1000.

Emeril’s, Atlanta.

The new restaurant is an eye-popping version of Emeril Lagasse’s cuisine: Lush, populist, electric – and sometimes over the top. The Bam! Man’s food is salty, sugary and layered with fried meats and fats – and lots of folks like it just like that. One Alliance Center, 3500 Lenox Road, 404-564-5600.

Chow, Augusta.

The “Southern-Asian” menu really works, in such dishes as cornmeal-crusted fried oysters and plummy Asian duck. A good fit for Augusta’s newly refurbished downtown. 1032 Broad St., 706-303-2469.

Elizabeth’s on 37th, Savannah.

The food is still an elegant interpretation of the Southern vernacular, even if Elizabeth Terry has moved on to other projects (that’s her pottery displayed alongside the restaurant’s numerous awards). The staff religiously executes the recipes that brought the restaurant such well-deserved acclaim. But we miss Terry’s creative edge. 105 East 37th St. (at Drayton St.), 912-236-5547.

Bluepointe, Atlanta.

The Big Hustle needs a restaurant like Bluepointe – crackling with energy and lots of fresh ideas to match the pristine seafood; a sushi bar that’s a serious contender on its own. A major see-and-be-scene at nights; but it’s all about power at lunch, where Asian-influenced dishes shine. 3455 Peachtree Road (at Wieuca), 404-237-9070.

Fogo de Chao, Atlanta.

Carnivores meet their match at this Brazilian steakhouse, where traditionally dressed servers bring expertly grilled, skewered meats to your table until you beg them to stop. But even vegetarians can stuff themselves silly at this jewelbox “salad bar” with everything from heart of palm to mussels. 3101 Piedmont Road (at East Paces Ferry), 404-995-9982.

The Lazy Donkey, Carrollton.

Dependably good Mexican food, swift service and creative specialties like butter-sauteed tilapia with crabmeat and Monterey jack cheese sauce pack in locals, despite the downscale environment. 334 Bankhead Highway, 770-834-6002.

Manuel’s Tavern, Atlanta.

Mannie’s serves the best chicken wings in town, but no one really goes there for the food. (Although any bar that serves collards is all right in our book.) But the clientele – cops and artists, academes and politicos, scribes and illiterates – is sustenance itself. 602 N. Highland Ave., 404-525-3447.

Ted’s Montana Grill, Atlanta.

Ted Turner again strikes gold, with nine Atlanta locations of his beef, bison and chicken emporium to be open by the end of 2003. We predict the downtown location, in the same building as his offices and down the street from Centennial Park, will become a major tourist draw. 133 Luckie St. N.W., 404-521-9796.

Nam, Atlanta.

At last, Atlanta has a Vietnamese restaurant with the style and suavity to match this cosmopolitan cuisine (think Chinese techniques, with French flair). The owners, half-Japanese, half-Vietnamese brothers (who also own Midtown’s MF Suchibar), bring their mother’s recipes and their own flawless eye for design to the city’s next foodie destination. 931 Monroe Drive, 404-541-9997.

Krista Reese is Georgia Trend’s restaurant critic. Contact her at tcritic@mindspring.com.

Categories: Art of the Meal