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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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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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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amen, ame

Amen for Ame at the St. Regis, which redeemed my gastronomic gallivanting on this trip – and just as I was headed for the red eye back home, too.  Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani are the celebrated pair behind Napa Valley’s Terra restaurant and their first foray into the big city is informal and impressive.  A seasonal showcase of locally sourced ingredients (including an array of crudo, tartare, sashimi and carpaccio) the chefs describe their menu as “personal cuisine,”  a reflection of artfully blended flavors of southern France and northern Italy filtered through a Japanese culinary sensibility.  If that sounds pretentious, worry not; it’s passionate.  The crudo of the day was simply prepared with EVOO, lemon, sea salt and a sprinkle of watermelon radish, allowing the clean taste and texture of snapper to shine.  I’ve never eaten velvet but as the broiled sake-marinated Alaskan black cod with shrimp dumplings melted in my mouth I started wondering about how that lush, deep pile might taste in shiso broth.  Ame’s Chocolate “Energy Bar” made for a very clean, clever end to a quick visit: a Snickers-sized slab of nuts and crunchy bits, double-dipped in chocolate.  Leaving for the airport, I promised myself time to linger over the chef’s five-course tasting menu … next time.

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