pointedview (pointedview) wrote in ljgourmet,
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Taste of Atlanta 2009

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Taste of Atlanta on Saturday, October 10th, 2009.

We reached Technology Square just after noon. Armed with 30 tickets, we began our tour of the tents.

The section near the entrance featured restaurants that emphasize sustainable food choices in their menus, such as the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead and Restaurant Eugene. It also included displays showcasing local organic produce and livestock (some of the healthiest-looking chickens I've ever seen were strutting around in a spacious cage). The entire group was arranged in a semicircle around the Farm to Festival stage, where several chefs performed cooking demonstrations (more about that later).

Parsnip Soup with Crispy Duck
from 4th and Swift

I've heard many good things about 4th and Swift, but I was just a touch underwhelmed by this soup. It was very mild and soothing to eat, and really, that was the problem: at a festival, you generally want a robust bite that can compete with other strong flavors. If the soup had been part of a multi-course meal at the restaurant (and if it had been topped with a bit more duck), I probably would have liked it better. As it was, I couldn't help thinking that it was lucky for the soup that it was the first thing to hit my palate, else it would have been overpowered by the offerings from other vendors. I still want to try the restaurant, though.

Whole Pig Sliders with
Georgia BBQ and Pickles
from Restaurant Eugene
and Holeman & Finch

Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch are two of my favorite Atlanta restaurants. Chef Linton Hopkins is, in my opinion, one of the most talented chefs in the city right now, and Atlanta is lucky to have him. Yeah, I'm pretty much a fangirl, but I was far from the only one (again, more on that later). I got my picture taken with the man himself! I was so proud! Yeah, I'm a food geek. I just wish I'd known at the time that he knows my friend, Ashley. I would have done more name-dropping. :)

Incidentally, my husband's slider was a fantastic pairing of smoky pork barbecue topped with a crunchy slaw of carrots and slightly-pickled vegetables, all tucked into one of H&F Bakery's fresh buns. I very much wanted one of my own, but I was trying to pace myself.

Cardamom Panna Cotta topped
with Strawberry Preserves
and a sprig of mint from TAP

This was the best thing we ate all day. I was surprised, given that TAP has received a rather mixed reception in Atlanta's food sphere, but the panna cotta was perfect. Not the sort of thing I would've imagined holding up well in the less-than-optimal conditions of a festival environment, but it was outstanding. My husband doesn't care for cardamom much, but he really liked this. The warm spice note harmonized with the not-overly-sweet strawberries; the creamy panna cotta contrasted nicely with the vivid fruit, and a garnish of mint sort of cut through it all. Unfortunately, I don't see this item listed on TAP's menu at the time of this writing. Perhaps their web site needs updating. Regardless, this dish certainly made me give the gastropub a second look.

Duck Confit Salad from Top FLR

I suspect that I should have tried something else from Top FLR. Even with a relatively hardy green like frisée, it can be challenging to get a salad just right in non-standard conditions. Were I the chef, I might have selected a different item from the restaurant's menu to introduce attendees to my cuisine. It wasn't bad: the duck was as meaty and flavorful as one would expect, but it really needed more tangy dressing and craisins to balance its richness.

Although I'd technically count this as the least appealing bite of the day, that makes it sound worse than it was. As I say, the salad was decent. If anything, that should provide some idea of how high most of the restaurants set the bar for competition.

The signature dish from
Gladys Knight and Ron Winans
Chicken & Waffles

I have been trying to get to Chicken & Waffles for years. Every time I suggest it, my husband and I are the only ones who want to go. This was good chicken, and one of the most generous portions of the festival: there were three meaty drumettes tucked into that paper cone, along with half a waffle! It was absolutely greaseless, seriously, but it wasn't dry. I'd like to try it with the maple syrup and/or hot sauce they offered as accompaniments (I would have needed more than two hands to manage that in transit).

Fried chicken ended up being the only recurring dish of the day ... again, more on that later. :)

Macaroni and Cheese
from Chicken & Waffles

Omnomnom, comfort food, omnomnom. This was straight-up baked macaroni and cheese (also from Chicken & Waffles, bless them). It was completely true and unadulterated. No tarting it up with panko breadcrumbs or smoked gouda. It wasn't quite as amazing as Miss Doi-Doi's, but few things in this world are. Special to leighbc, because she'll actually know who I'm talking about: Doris Coggins makes some of the best traditional macaroni and cheese I've ever had in my life. I want her recipe. No calories in it at all, of course. *coughs*

I was starting to worry about running out of tickets, so we queued up for more. Some nice guy passing by was about to leave, and he gave us his full sheet! Sir, thank you for your generosity. We paid it forward by giving our remaining tickets to a young couple from Georgia Tech when we were departing. (We saw lots of Tech students. I mean, yes, obviously, given that it was held in Technology Square, but I'd say that they received a discount on admission judging by the volumes present.)

Black Truffle Lobster
Mac and Cheese Ball
from Dolce Enoteca

I will now contradict my previous implication that there's something wrong with tarting up macaroni and cheese, because, well, there isn't. Not when it's prepared like this fabulous morsel from Dolce, anyway. This is in a close race with the ceviche from the Ritz-Carlton for my favorite savory bite of the day. Like TAP, Dolce Enoteca hasn't received the warmest reviews, but this was terrific. The staff members working the booth were also very pleasant: I signed up for their mailing list to be notified about their wine dinners. They're located in Atlantic Station, so that's fairly accessible.

I did share the fried mac and cheese ball, but my sweetie let me scarf most of it, so he got a cookie from Nirvana (I think?) in the interim. They're in Roswell and I keep meaning to get over there.

Kulfi from Market

Speaking of friendly staff, I think Market wins for nicest booth workers. While I didn't see Ian Winslade (formerly of Bluepointe) himself, the fellow serving kulfi lollipops, short ribs, and Vietnamese chicken curry was as affable as one could wish. The kulfi was an intensely malty, sweet little mouthful, with a nice texture contrast provided by a sprinkling of pistachios. Tasty, but nothing that would cause me to beat a path to Jean-Georges Vongerichten's pricy establishment.

Chicken Tikka Masala,
Mango Lassi
and Potato/Pea Samosa
from Bhojanic

It is just not fair that Decatur gets the lion's share of outstanding restaurants in the metro Atlanta area, mainly because it's one of the hardest parts of the city for us to access due to traffic. Every bite from Bhojanic was excellent. It was by far the best ethnic food we had at the festival, and may be some of the best Indian in the city if its many fans are to be believed. Maybe we can go with my sister and brother-in-law, since they live near Decatur.

Given the spiciness of the Tikka Masala, my husband needed something to drink, so he sampled Johnny Rocket's milkshake and then bought a bottle of water.

Coca-Cola Cupcake
from West Egg Café

West Egg Café's cupcakes have received a lot of buzz. This is their signature cupcake, and it was very good, though it tasted more like brown sugar than Coca-Cola. Truth be told, I'm not a big cake fan. I prefer pies and other desserts. However, as cupcakes go, this had a tender crumb and surprisingly good frosting.

We were near the main stage at this point, but the person I really wanted to see was back over at the aforementioned Farm to Festival area. Taste of Atlanta covered eight blocks (so they said, and it was at least close to that), so we started making our way back toward the main entrance so we could grab a seat. I'm glad we did, because the space filled up with at least five rows of people, almost all of them local food groupies. All of them were there to see Chef Linton Hopkins demonstrate how to make fried chicken. (Told you I'd get back to that, too.)

Chef Hopkins doing
what he does best.


I chatted with the guy next to me: "Have you been to Eugene?" I asked. "Yes," he said, obviously filled with wistful joy at the memory, "We went about two weeks ago. It's not in the budget to go as often as I'd like." I gave him a knowing smile of commiseration.

While we were waiting, we overhead a conversation involving what may well have been the most ignorant person at the festival. I am sorry, but I really have no idea what she was doing there. Chef Hopkins is on the stage, waiting for the recording crew to get set up, and this woman passes by. She has no idea who he is. I can understand that. He is perhaps the most critically-acclaimed chef in the Atlanta restaurant scene today, competed on Iron Chef America against Morimoto, is a two-time James Beard award nominee, helped found the Peachtree Road Farmer's Market, and does all kinds of other stuff, but I can understand someone just coming to eat not recognizing him. That's not why I'm making fun of this woman. He's standing to the side of the stage, and she asks him, "So, are you a chef or something?" Oh. Mah. Gawd. No, lady, he's standing on a stage with a frying pan, in monogrammed chef's whites, at the biggest food festival in Atlanta, just because he happened to be passing through! I hate to be unkind, but you'd have to have the deductive skills of a turnip to make a comment like that! Flunked observational skills, did we? Sheesh. Chef Hopkins is ever the modest gentleman, however, and responded kindly, "Yes, I'm about to do a demonstration of how to make fried chicken."

He is, of course, awesome. He is an advocate of locally-sourced organics, and just ... he's awesome. I said that already. He's quiet and plain-spoken, and yet, you can tell that this is what he is meant to be doing. This is his passion. He spoke simply but eloquently about what he feels it means to be a regional chef, and then, he got to the fried chicken.

He brines the chicken
for 24 hours before cooking it.


Because, you know, you should certainly always season your frying oil with hand-rendered lard, bacon, ham, and butter. (!) He says it doesn't make it too porky; it just adds flavor. I believe him, and so did the rows of other people salivating while it was frying. He encountered some technical difficulties with the portable burner not getting hot enough, and said that this is why he prefers gas. "I trust fire," he said. It didn't matter so much, though, for the recipe, because he uses very little breading. It's all about the crispy skin.

Whimper. I want to go to Eugene for Sunday supper now. He does his fried chicken every Sunday, and it's probably the least expensive dining experience you can have there.

Strawberry and Coffee Gelato
from Sogno Gelato

The only negative aspect of the fried chicken demo was that the sun unexpectedly came out. It got hot, so we cooled off with some gelato afterwards. It wasn't the greatest gelato ever, but it was cold, and that was the important part.

We really wanted to try Ri Ra's fish and chips, but there was a huge line, so we moved on. Ditto Jim & Nick's Bar-B-Q -- heck, that may have been the longest line at the festival.

Southern Rub BBQ Beef Ribs
with Butternut Squash
and Bacon Hash
from the Ritz-Carlton

I'm sorry this picture is blurry: my elbow got lightly knocked by a lady asking my husband where he'd gotten the ribs. These were yummy, and generously-portioned. Nice staff at this booth as well: I talked with a young woman there, expressing my sympathy over the loss of the Dining Room, and she said that she thought it would be back! I have no idea if she was in a position to actually know or whether she was merely speculating, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Ginger Lime Coconut
Seafood Ceviche
from the Ritz-Carlton

I absolutely loved this dish. It was my last bite of the day (I was full), and I still could have eaten several. I didn't intentionally save one of the best for last, but it worked out that way and I'm not complaining.

As mentioned before, we gave away our remaining tickets, and snapped this picture as we headed out:

Crowds around 3:10 pm


One thing I really appreciated about Taste of Atlanta was that it was well-organized. It was thoughtful of the planners to allow an ample amount of clearance between each tent: this really helped with traffic flow, and was a real improvement over other food festivals I've attended. Also, the overall quality of the offerings was consistently good: definitely up a notch from Taste of Sandy Springs, where you had maybe two or three really memorable bites.

Additionally, I liked the fact that they kept the focus on food, for the most part. The only non-food tents appeared to belong to event sponsors like Amica Insurance, and that's fine. The non-food constituency did include one item of interest to us: Cavalia, the brainchild of one of Cirque du Soleil's founders, was setting up its tent at Atlantic Station, and they had representatives at ToA handing out flyers. No discounts on tickets, unfortunately, but I'm certainly curious. It opens October 27th.

My hubby's only minor gripe about ToA was that Asian fusion seemed to be overrepresented, but that's somewhat true of the Atlanta food scene as a whole, so it makes sense that the sample would reflect that. The Asian emphasis didn't bother me. My only suggestion would be to remedy the lack of tables and chairs next year. There were a few benches, but it would have been nice to have a few tables here and there for some of the messier fare.

Summary:
  • Best sweet bite: TAP

  • Best savory bites: The Ritz-Carlton, Dolce, and Eugene

  • Best ethnic bite: Bhojanic, Bhojanic, and did I mention Bhojanic?

  • Best values: Chicken & Waffles; Ritz-Carlton

  • Best freebies: There were very few compared to Taste of Sandy Springs. A packet of McCormick's Cinnamon Chipotle Grill Rub seasoning was about it, other than fliers.


Places I wanted to try, but missed for one reason or another:
  • Waterhaven

  • Vickery's (I've been to Vickery's, but not in a long while)

  • Trader Vic's

  • Sweet Auburn Bistro (They were supposedly there, but I never saw their booth)

  • The Sun Dial (their venison chili smelled wonderful)

  • Ri Ra

  • Parish

  • P'cheen

  • Highland Bakery

  • Gordon Biersch

  • Desta

  • C&S Seafood


There were a few noteworthy absences. Where was Anne Quatrano? Where was the critically-acclaimed Cakes & Ale? Given the current state of the Atlanta pizza wars, I expected Varasano's, Fritti, and Antico Pizza Napoletana to be there. Speaking of Fritti, where was Riccardo Ullio's group? Despite the fact that a few of Atlanta's culinary luminaries were otherwise occupied, there was so much good food at the festival that it wasn't a big deal.

I definitely plan to return next year!

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