don’t get saucy with me, bolognese

Atlanta’s Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival celebrates some of the South’s best chefs, farmers and mixologists. Created by Top Tomato Ford Fry, the one-day event now in its third year is held at Fry’s West Midtown restaurant JCT Kitchen & Bar, which readers might remember I took quite a shine to back in November. Benefiting Georgia Organics – a non-profit organization working to integrate sustainable and locally grown foods into daily diets – a roster of noted area chefs like Canoe’s Carvel Gould (whom I also featured back in November) and Top Chef-winner Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill will pair up with local farmers to create unique tomato dishes for festivalgoers to sample, while the featured mixologists will stir up signature tomato-based cocktails. A couple of highlights from last year included Pimiento cheese profiteroles with tomato jam by West Egg Café‘s Patric Bell and a Tomato Mai Tai from Stuart White of Miller Union. High profile judges from Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and CNN sample it all then cherry-pick their favorites, bestowing awards for best tasting dish, most creative dish, best booth and best beverage. Attendees get to vote for their favorite dishes, too – then everyone waves goodbye as nearly 1,000 pounds of compostable matter gets shipped off to begin the cycle again (as worm food) courtesy of Greenco Environmental. The Attack is back July 17 – it’s as good a reason as any to ditch The Big Apple for a visit to The Hot Tomato.

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heritage, history, & hotels, too

May is National Preservation Month, in case you hadn’t heard. Launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1973 to showcase America’s historic places, Preservation Month celebration events include architectural and historic tours, river cruises and museum visits across the country. It’s also the perfect excuse to overnight at one of the Historic Hotels of America, a collection of quality hotels that have faithfully maintained their historic integrity and architecture. From the legendary Palace Hotel in the heart of San Francisco, to the iconic Lenox hotel in Boston’s Back Bay, to the luxurious Royal Hawaiian, more than 50 member hotels across the country are offering packages designed to lure you into taking advantage of the social and economic benefits of historic preservation and heritage tourism.  Here are just a few.

Jekyll Island Club Hotel, Jekyll Island, Georgia. (pictured above) Heritage Tour Package includes: traditional accommodations for two nights, hotel history tour, tour of the historic district by tram, afternoon tea one day in the Riverview Lounge, and breakfast buffet each morning in the Grand Dining Room. Rates start at $639 for two nights and are available through September 4.

The Lenox, Boston, Massachusetts. One if by Land, Two if by Sea Package includes a custom town-car tour. Guided by a historian, travel through time and visit Boston’s most famous sites – Paul Revere’s home, USS Constitution, Old North Church, Bunker Hill Monument, and others. The Lenox and Boston History Experience:  Sit down with Bellman Jimmy Fisher and hear stories – from quirky encounters to brushes with fame – acquired over more than sixty years on the job. Since 1949, Mr. Fisher has stood curbside greeting guests to The Lenox and watching Boston history pass through the hotel’s doors.  Rates starting at $700 for two nights are available through December 30.

Bienville House Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana. Discover Quintessential New Orleans Package includes: deluxe accommodations, admission to the World War II Museum, admission to a cruise on the steamboat S.S. Natchez, admission to The Historic New Orleans Collections, welcome cocktail in the Iris Bar or at Hotel Monteleone’s famous Carousel Bar, daily Continental breakfast. Rates from $465 for two nights.

The Wort Hotel, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Last and Best of the West Package includes: two nights in a deluxe guestroom, dinner in the famous Silver Dollar Grill, a walking tour of historic downtown Jackson Hole, tickets to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and a special Wort Hotel gift – the history book Meet Me at The Wort. Rates starting at $500 for two nights are available through September 30.

Omni Bretton Arms Inn, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Preservation Month Package includes: afternoon tea in the Princess Room, guided hotel tour, 20% off retail purchases and spa services of $50 or more, 20% off dining, 20% off the Bretton Woods Canopy Tour. Members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation also receive 10% off their guestroom rate, plus a copy of A Century of Grandeur, the hotel’s coffee table history book. Rates starting at $119 per night are available May 1, 2011, through July 31. Not valid May 27–29, 2011, and July 1–3, 2011. Two-night minimum stay. Subject to tax, and nightly amenity fee.

The Royal Hawaiian, Honolulu, Hawaii. From the moment it opened its doors on a pristine expanse of Waikiki Beach in 1927, The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, has ushered in a new standard of exotic resort travel. A magnet for Hollywood’s elite and distinguished guests from around the globe, its enveloping pink glow reflects both the radiant beauty of Hawaii’s spirit and the essence of indulgent escape. 1927 Package includes a fifth night at just $19.27 when you stay four nights at the normal rate. Rates from $315 per night. Valid through June 30.

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bucket list: 2010 – november

ATLANTA/ARIZONA:  While I was mostly underwhelmed by the city during my first trip to Atlanta, the food there blew me away.  It wasn’t simple comfort food, as I’d anticipated; rather it was traditional Southern cooking done up with an interesting – and unpretentious – haute twist.  Call it fine dining comfort food, if you will. I didn’t have a single meal that was anything less than scrumptious. Plus, there’s not all that much to actually do in Atlanta, so it made a great excuse to spend a good deal of my time there eating.  And eating.  And eating some more.  Be on the lookout for more stories about the chefs and restaurants of Atlanta – I expect it to be on every foodies radar very soon, if not already.

Although there was copious food involved, natch, Arizona was an altogether different experience: hiking among the giant saguaro cactus outside Tucson, trail riding through the desert, and a thrilling afternoon of rock climbing north of Scottsdale.  The desert landscape of the American southwest is unlike anyplace on earth.  And even though I’ve now visited multiple times, I still find the scenery otherworldly and hypnotic. It wasn’t as warm as I had hoped, but then again Arizona in November is still a far cry from the blustery Northeast.

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heart of glass

Since 1968, Frabel has created some of the most stunning works of crystal and colored-glass art in the Atlanta studio founded by Hans Godo Frabel – one of the very first flame-work glass artists in the world.  Traditional glass art, known as furnace glass, is made by taking a small piece of molten glass out of a furnace with a metal blowpipe and working it into shape.  Furnace glass allows for the creation of large pieces but it doesn’t offer an intricate level of detail.  Hans Godo wanted to utilize the detail capabilities of flame-work  – working the glass around an open flame torch – to add a dimension of fine art to the under-appreciated world of glass.  His success can be seen not only in the Atlanta studio, but also in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution and Corning Museum of Glass.  Created from a specially formulated  glass that’s similar to Pyrex, each piece – despite seeming almost ethereally fragile – is deceptively sturdy and can be restored to perfection if ever broken.

Over the years Frabel’s reputation as a master has spread beyond the glass community,  helped in no small part by the “Hammer and Nails” sculpture from the New Glass Art Exhibition and his playful, cavorting clowns which were featured in an Absolut Vodka advertising campaign in the late 1980’s.  (Frabel, by the way, was the first artist to be honored with the title of Absolut Artist -  Warhol and Haring came later.)  Looking for a one-of-a-kind souvenir of Hotlanta?  The answer is crystal clear.

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in residence

Since we are taking a break from all the food porn, let me take a moment and fill you in on my posh digs at The St. Regis, Atlanta.

The story of St. Regis begins at the forefront of New York’s Gilded Age, where an elite group of supremely wealthy families rose to form the country’s first aristocracy.  The leaders of this new social class were the Astors, with matriarch Caroline Astor at the helm of high society. Visionary and tenacious, “The” Mrs. Astor created the first true expression of New York society by hand-selecting those with whom she associated – forever after known as the “400.” This new experience of exclusivity made even the wealthiest and most renowned eager to become a member of her inner circle.

It was also at this time that Lady Astor’s son, John Jacob Astor IV, sought to develop a new style of luxury, focused on tangible advancements in the comforts afforded the wealthy. These innovations debuted inside Astor’s classic Beaux Arts landmark, The St. Regis New York, when it opened off Fifth Avenue in 1904.  Before his death aboard the Titanic, Astor was able to fulfill his vision of creating a hotel where gentlemen and their families could feel as comfortable as they would as guests in a private home. This was in no small part due to the acumen of Lady Astor, who helped cultivate a sense of luxury and refinement in all aspects of the hotel’s operation. Fresh flowers were brought in daily, an English-style butler and afternoon tea services were implemented and exclusive social gatherings such as a midnight supper all created an air of grandeur inside the St. Regis.

Set in the exclusive community of Buckhead – near virtually all the good shopping, natch – Atlanta’s St. Regis oozes a Southern charm that might even have pleased Lady Astor herself.  On entering the 26-story building you’re greeted by a pair of dramatic, curved staircases that serve as the centerpiece of the hotel’s lobby. Two magnificent fireplaces, like those found in traditional Southern estates, create an inviting atmosphere, along with opulent crystal chandeliers casting a warm hue over the rich hardwood floors.  You don’t feel like you’ve just arrived at a hotel; you feel like you’ve come home – well, a lottery-fueled dream of home anyway. Macassar ebony furniture, leather-wrapped writing desks and luxurious ivory bed linens are just a prelude to the spacious five-fixture marble bathrooms.  And then there’s your personal butler, trained in the English tradition, should you need anything.

After a few hours lounging in the Remede Spa or the 40,000-square-foot outdoor oasis that is the Pool Piazza (or both) follow in the footsteps of Caroline Astor and take high tea, with an assortment of tea sandwiches, freshly baked scones, tea cakes, seasonal jams and chutneys, petit fours and other delightful desserts, in front of the fire in the elegant Long Gallery.  If you prefer your afternoon repast a bit more substantial, the Special Selection in the Bar and Wine Room is a smoky bourbon with butterscotch and crème brulee on the nose and a long cherry finish.  (The result of a collaboration with Woodford Reserve Distillery, The St. Regis is the only hotel in Georgia to create a namesake blend.) It pairs perfectly with the aged cheddar, 1000 island chow chow and BBQ sauce-topped house sliders.  It’s also a fantastic prelude to Mark Alba’s seven-course truffle menu across the lobby at Paces 88.  Oh, no … I’m talking about food. Again.

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swimming with the fishes

Maybe it’s because I grew up with a big saltwater tank full of colorful sea creatures, but there is something about an aquarium that brings out the 8-year old in me.  I liken it to an underwater safari, full of oohs and ahhs and close-up views of so many animals you’d ordinarily never see in their native environments.  And while even an exhibit as small as the handful of penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo gets me excited, I was down right pie-eyed during a visit to Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium.

A $250+ million gift to the city from the founders of Home Depot, the aquarium is not only the world’s biggest, it also houses the largest collection of aquatic animals. The specially designed whale shark habitat is as big as a football field; holding 6.3 million gallons of water, it’s full of giant grouper, tarpon, sawfish, blacktip reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and four of the world’s largest fish – the whale shark.  The scale of it is almost overwhelming. In front of one of the giant glass windows it’s also just a little bit unnerving – especially if you’ve seen Jaws 3-D.

For all the emphasis on scale, however, perhaps the most interesting creature I witnessed was this grumpy little guy in a small observation tank all by himself. (Click the image for better detail)  He used his fins like hands and had a second pair underneath which mimicked legs. In profile he looked like a fish.  Yet face front with that unicorn horn and beard of stalactites he had the appearance of an old lichen-covered rock.  It makes you wonder what kind of environment causes a creature to adapt with such specific camouflage.  More interesting still – as if to underscore how little we still know about what lurks beneath the surface – nobody could tell me what he was called.

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we interrupt the feeding frenzy

Enough food for now.  It’s time for a drink.

While maintaining the integrity of the original Bloody Mary cocktail made famous in the King Cole Bar at The St. Regis, New York, the addition of spices and a distinctively sly Southern twist makes the West Paces Mary at Buckhead’s The St. Regis, Atlanta as unique and iconic as the original.  Offering an elegant reinvention of an old standard, it’s much like the hotel itself:  a new classic.  Now if only someone would give this drink a bloody proper name!  Besides being a mouthful to say, the West Paces Mary – named for the hotel’s street address – doesn’t conjure up much of a libation.  Might I suggest a Bloody Buck instead?

1oz vodka, 1/2 lemon, squeezed, 1 cup tomato juice, 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 3 shakes Tabasco, 1/2 tsp. fresh black pepper, 1/4 tsp. cayenne, 1/4 tsp. celery salt, 1 tsp. whole black peppercorns, 2 Tbsp. fresh horseradish, 1 Tbsp. pickled okra juice.  Combine all ingredients in a shaker.  Fill glass with ice, shake well and pour over ice.  Garnish with olives, okra, and a celery stalk.

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sunday supper

JCT Kitchen & Bar in trendy West Midtown’s Westside Urban Market gets its name from a nearby sign for the junction of railroad lines that once carried livestock into the city of Atlanta. Emphasizing traditional foods and European techniques, Chef Ford Fry’s restaurant couldn’t be more appropriately named.  As homey as it is upscale, this is Southern farmstead cooking in an elegantly casual atmosphere you wish grandma’s house had.

The light-filled restaurant feels like a Southerner’s answer to the French bistro, with a menu that’s reminiscent of family favorites tweaked by ingredients from regional fields and farms. “Farmstead is a culinary term currently used in artisan cheese making, where the dairy comes from the same farm where the cheese is made. I like the word because it indicates hand-crafted food and the use of local farms; it speaks of seasonal, fresh ingredients,” explains Chef Fry. “It describes a philosophy of food. We want to use local products and make all the goods ourselves.”

Signature Southern dishes include fried chicken, shrimp and grits, braised short ribs with “pot roast” vegetables, and chicken & dumplings that’s actually red wine-braised chicken with gnocchi sautéed in brown butter – just don’t call it coq au vin.  Sunday nights play host to an old-fashioned Sunday Supper, with a “meat and three” menu that is ridiculously priced at only $24.  It begins with warm biscuits and deviled eggs. Then choose from five meats like sweetwater catfish and hickory roasted pork loin and nine home-style vegetables for the table. Also included is JCT’s farm stand salad plus the luscious pie or cake of the moment.

Sorry,  I just can’t resist:  this is one junction where it all comes together.

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flip burger boutique

Fans of Bravo’s Top Chef series will recognize the Chicago season runner-up Richard Blais, the spiky-haired molecular gastronome currently masterminding Atlanta’s two Flip Burger boutiques.  Heralded for a creative take on American cuisine, Blais has worked his way through the kitchens of Thomas Keller,  Daniel Boulud, and Ferran Adria.  He’s even been a competitor on Iron Chef: America.  So what’s he now doing running a burger joint? Reinventing what we’ve come to expect from a burger, fries, and shakes.

“Fine dining between two buns” is Flip’s motto and it sets you up perfectly (almost) for what’s to come, starting with the sleek red and white interiors.  Spacious booths are padded out to create a cocoon of leather, giving the whole enterprise the feel of, er, well, the Enterprise.  Spotlessly clean and vaguely futuristic, you’ve arrived at a burger joint the Jetson’s could only dream of.  A quick glance across the menu and it looks like burgers and fries and shakes, but look closer:  chocolate beet milkshakes? short rib kimchee and pickled garlic burgers? foie gras nuggets?  Huh? This is serious food, meticulously prepared: parsnip frittes, sesame sweetbreads, roasted bone marrow with braised oxtail, fried pickles with buttermilk sirancha, and burgers galore, like the farmer burger (organic grass-fed beef, scuppernong preserves, tomme and collard greens), the pate melt (veal and pork, lingonberry jam, cornichons, pickled shallots and swiss cheese), and the southern (chicken fried beef, pimento cheese, b&b pickles and chow chow), all served on brioche buns.  And don’t forget the milkshakes, chilled to a custardy thickness courtesy of liquid nitrogen: nutella and burnt marshmallow, krispy kreme, and an unbelievable foie gras.  That it’s all neatly delivered in an unpretentious, budget-friendly “boutique” is genius.  That it’s delicious – even when adventurous and whimsical to a fault – well, that’s the real surprise.

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canoe

Tucked away on the quiet banks of the Chattahoochee River is Canoe, one of Atlanta’s most acclaimed restaurants. The inviting interior blends wood, brick, ironwork and a wall of windows to create a casually elegant atmosphere. Settle into an overstuffed booth and take in the artistic touches, like Ivan Bailey’s hand-forged iron vines and creatures that wind their way through the restaurant – or the furniture art, created by Dwayne Thompson.

Balanced by culinary expertise and natural aesthetics, it’s a unique setting  – from the bustling exposed kitchen to the ceiling that resembles the inside of a canoe. Of course, the best is yet to come, so take your time perusing the seasonal menu from Executive Chef Carvel Grant Gould, a seventh generation Atlantan. Her sophisticated Southern style is a fundamental part of the Canoe experience.

Over brunch the other day, I know I wasn’t the only one paralyzed by the menu choices:  the savory and sweet scones with house made preserves or the buttery Georgia pecan sticky buns?  Oh hell, why not both. And since we’re indulging, bring on the house smoked salmon, which comes on a crispy potato pancake with goat’s cheese.

The excess of baked goods and potatoes negated the need for a proper starter  so I regretfully passed on the enticing descriptions of she-crab and African squash soups, but settling on a main course  still proved daunting.  “Duck & Eggs,” a pair of sunny side up eggs with a toasted sage biscuit and duck ragout? Brioche french toast with banana-mascarpone? Chicken and grits, with shiitake mushrooms and cipollinis?  I opted – finally – for the fried green tomato Benedict, which combined velvety hollandaise, smoky ham, and perfectly poached egg into a delirious contrast of textures and flavors, elevated by a surprise bite of tomato.

Stuffed to the gills, I jokingly mentioned dessert.  But when I heard the house specialty was popcorn ice cream on a bed of caramel corn, I was too curious too resist.  Of course, in for a penny, in for a pound, we might as well throw a cobbler in there, too – this is the south after all.  When two giant plates of dessert arrived at the table, I found myself unable to control the intractable pull of yumminess, which kept calling me to have just one more bite – all the while shuddering at the human body’s ability to overindulge against all good sense.  More to the point, my body – and it’s near-Olympic lack of restraint.

After brunch, Chef Gould took me for a tour around the grounds.  The river rolls past a tranquil waterfront enhanced by a natural, manicured landscape.  The colorful gardens, crisp white special-event tents and meandering walkways are the perfect spot for a postprandial stroll – or a nap. “It’s a very rustic, organic, warm feeling restaurant,” she said when I asked her to describe her food. “Finding the freshest ingredients, respecting their flavors and applying solid cooking techniques in the kitchen is how they come to life.” She hems and haws as I prod her into defining her style of cooking, before reluctantly settling on simply “contemporary American.”  I find it interesting that she neglects to include the word Southern in there and I call her on it.  “I’m 7th generation,” she says, “I couldn’t be more Southern.  But I just cook what I like.”

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chowing on the chatahoochie

Think you know Southern food?  Well, think again. folks.  Atlanta is the up-and-coming next big gastro destination, mixing comfort foods and fine dining in a hi-lo twist that will keep you coming back for more.  And more.  Over the next few posts I’m going to focus on a handful of restaurants that are changing the way we think about food in the deep South, but for now I’ve got a foie gras milkshake calling my name.

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where the wild things are

Inspired travel ideas often come from the most random of places:  overheard subway chatter, Facebook postings, eBay transactions.  Yes, you heard me right on that last one:  eBay.  Last week I bid for an innocuous little item being sold by a woman who appeared to be in Wild Chicken, Georgia.  Curiosity piqued, I did a quick search but Wild Chicken didn’t show up on Google maps – so I left it that.  I subsequently won the item, which arrived yesterday bearing a thoughtful little note thanking me for my purchase as well as two unsolicited brochures about this lady’s little town.  I learned that there’s not, in fact, a place called Wild Chicken, Georgia;  there is a town, however, that’s  apparently famous – in certain circles – for its wild chickens:  Fitzgerald, Georgia.  Back in the 1960’s, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources stocked Burmese chickens all over the state as an additional game bird to be hunted like pheasant or quail.  For some reason populations of the bird never took hold in other parts of the state, but flocks of chicks released at the Ocmulgee River made their way to downtown Fitzgerald and thrived. Tiny, colorful birds with brilliant orange or yellow ruff and gleaming black tail feathers, these guys look like something you’d want on your side in a cock-fight.  Yet they’re not overtly aggressive.  According to one poultry resource, if caught in a fight Burmese chickens will move around and think out their moves, while other breeds simply dive into the fray.  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Apparently in Fitzgerald, only after thoughtful considered meditation on the availability of options did he decide he wanted to get to the other side.

Loved and hated by the locals, the wild chickens have become a fact of life in Fitzgerald:  I expect they wake folks up in the morning, create traffic problems, and probably keep a good stock of bugs at bay.  Once a year – over the third weekend in March – the town even celebrates these wild birds at a Wild Chicken Festival, which takes over the historic downtown area.  I’ve just added it to my list.

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