This Week’s Eats: 10/19/12 – Atlanta

Well, I’m back from my first trip to Atlanta, and, boy, did I eat a lot of great food! This week’s roundup will just be photographs and tidbits from my visit, with a few travel pics as an added bonus!

Big, big thanks to my indefatigable and very talented host, Morgan.

This was breakfast at 10,000 feet; I flew Southwest leaving Austin at 6:00am (and my house at 4:30am!), and got to see a sunrise from the plane. It was amazing!

The crescent moon and Venus make it even better, right?

It was so peaceful; there were only 30 people on the flight, and it was dark and quiet. Yet I didn’t sleep—I couldn’t stop looking out the window, at the changing horizon!

I didn’t fly until I was 15, but I’ve flown a lot since then, including multiple trips across the Atlantic.  I spent three years flying back and forth to Baltimore every couple of months.  While I used to love to fly, all those miles in the air, coupled with the increasingly draconian security measures and post-9/11 atmosphere of fear have left me a little more skittish.  I hate take-offs.

But I still love being up in the air.  This was the first flight I’d taken since my last trip to Baltimore in February 2010. So I made the most of it and sat glued to the window throughout.  The whole experience is so amazing; it never ceases to seem miraculous.  And it’s always out of the ordinary to see the clouds and the earth from such a vantage.  Honestly, I don’t understand how everyone doesn’t look out the window the entire time.

My first meal was a late lunch.  I ventured down the street from my lodgings to Dancing Goats Coffee Bar at Ponce City Market, and got the last half a roast beef sandwich (made across the street at 4th and Swift – more on them later!).  Coupled with a large and expertly made iced mocha, and I was set.

Since I only got half a sandwich, and I was pretty ravenous after my long morning of travel, I also got a house-made pop tart, as recommended by the barista.  It was delicious!  If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d probably be addicted to Dancing Goats.

Once I was fueled up, I realized it was still relatively early; at 3:30 I hit the pavements to walk the 1.7 miles to the Margaret Mitchell House.  As I mentioned previously, this was the culmination of a 23-year pilgrimage.

I first read Gone with the Wind when I was 10, after I’d seen the film.  And I’d seen the film because my mom had the brilliant idea that I should play Rhett and Scarlett in the fifth grade talent show.  We watched the movie several times, adapted the the horse jail scene to my elementary-school audience (no prostitution, for starters), and created a truly inventive homemade costume that allowed me to be half Rhett and half Scarlett, turning back and forth 180° to talk to myself. Now that I think about it, this may explain a lot.

By the time the talent show came and went (I got third place! I was robbed!), I was board certified obsessed with Gone with the Wind. I read the book (which, incidentally, was published on my birthday in 1936), and was engrossed. Then I watched the film again. And again. And again. I read all the biographies of Vivien Leigh and Margaret Mitchell, and the books about the production of the movie, and, later, historical nonfiction about the Civil War.

The importance of Gone with the Wind to my early development cannot be overstated. It spawned a love of 1930s classic Hollywood that still urges me to stay up far too late watching TCM. This piece, by Karen Grigsby Bates, pretty well sums up my adult view of the GWTW cultural machine. Though flawed, Scarlett is a survivor. And, for the 1860s (and, indeed, the 1930s), the character displays a truly shocking sense of self, as well as the character trait that I perhaps admire most (probably because of Scarlett, and how she taught me to look for it): gumption.

But I’ve also become a lot more critical and empathetic, better read, and somewhat traveled, as well as cognizant of the role of privilege and entitlement in American society. Growing up in a small town in East Texas, in a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant family that hailed from Tennessee and Alabama and North Carolina and Virginia, it was easy for me to identify with the story’s white characters, and to romanticize the ridiculous picture of “the Old South” that Mitchell and Selznick painted. When I re-read the book in college, I was shocked by its endemic and insidious racism, which is much deeper than anything portrayed in the film—including the infamous “I ain’t birthin’ no babies” scene in which Scarlett slaps Prissy, her slave.

Yet, when I decided to go to Atlanta to visit my friend Morgan, there was no question that I’d go to the Margaret Mitchell House. It had to be done.

I’m not sure why I went there first. I think because of a combined sense of mission and dread. I kind of wanted to get it over with, not sure about what I’d find.

As it turned out, the place was actually pretty cool. Not a Confederate flag in sight.

There’s a small exhibit space with photographs and information about Margaret Mitchell’s life and the reception of Gone with the Wind.  You can also take a tour of the exhibit and Apartment No. 1, where Mitchell lived with her husband John Marsh while writing GWTW.  None of the furnishings are original, but it has been restored to look as close as possible to how it did during that time.  It was interesting to be in the space and see the alcove window where Margaret typed.  I’d pictured it so many times in my mind, and seeing the place, with its ordinariness, helped dispel the myth a bit.

After all that thinking, and walking almost all the way back to Morgan’s house, I needed a refresher and wanted a chance to write some postcards.  So I used the United States Postal Service Mobile app to find the nearest mailbox: turns out, it was in front of a TJ Maxx, only about a quarter mile from where I was.  So I headed that direction and, as luck would have it, ran right smack into a pub called The Highlander!  I had a Strongbow and enjoyed the breeze on their patio.

Morgan picked a great, nearby spot for our first dinner on Friday night: 4th and Swift in the Old Fourth Ward.  This place was excellent (as evidenced by its current four stars and solid reviews on Yelp); dark and inviting, with conventional seating as well as an intimate bar area, which is where we decided to sit.

There’s a great cocktail menu, which we couldn’t resist (mainly because of the jaunty names): Morgan had the “Scoundrel’s Waltz,” and I sprang for the “Meyer’s Tribly,” the first drink I laid my eyes on: Woodford Reserve bourbon, toasted almond honey, grapefruit, and smoked peach bitters, served on the rocksI’ve had a thing for Woodford Reserve since we toured the distillery in 2010,and the smoked peach bitters were reassuringly Georgian.  This was a delicious cocktail!  I should’ve had two, really.

Though the menu is large and tempting, featuring a great selection of special seasonal dishes, I wanted something light yet rich.  So I went for the Pan-Seared Bramlett Farms Trout ($26), served on a bed of polenta gnocchi, fava beans, and beech mushrooms with warm fines herbes vinaigrette.  It was just really, really excellent.  To be honest, they had me at “polenta gnocchi.”  But the trout was perfectly cooked, juicy and flavorful with a lightly seared and crunchy skin.  I kind of miss this dish right now.

Moving on… !

On Saturday morning, after grabbing more iced coffees at Dancing Goats, we went for a drive, and it was a real treat to get to see some of the surrounding countryside, which, in my mind, existed only as 1930s Hollywood backlots.  Actually, the tall pines and red dirt south of Atlanta looked pretty much exactly like what I expected, and it was beautiful.  Breathtaking, really.

On the way back into town, we happened upon Oakland Cemetery, which I remembered from the previous day’s Margaret Mitchell tour as the author’s burial place.

We spent about half an hour exploring the well maintained and peaceful place as the morning turned from cool to warm.  I highly recommend a visit to anyone visiting Atlanta, especially if you’re into cemeteries (I am; long story).  You just never know what you’re gonna find.

Next, we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and adjacent Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which was one of my must-sees. And it didn’t disappoint. Well, there was one disappointment. I was shocked and saddened that we were two of only about five white people at the park. I was under the impression that MLK was a transformative leader and one of the most important people in U.S history (arguably even the most important). So I assumed a diverse group of Americans, including many of my fellow WASPs, would be as excited about visiting the site as I was. It was an informative, inspirational place; we clearly have work to do in continuing Dr. King’s vision, though.

The very best part of the visit to the MLK Center was getting to go inside Ebenezer Baptist Church, where MLK was ordained, preached, served as assistant pastor and later co-pastor, and delivered his famous sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” His funeral was held there on April 9, 1968.

Being in the space was indescribable.  It’s just a regular, old church, the kind I’ve been in many, many times, but knowing what happened there, and how critical the place was to the development of MLK’s politics, theology, and vision, was… hard to explain.  It was heavy, but a place of hope, too.

I can definitely say that Ebenezer Baptist Church was the most moving historical site I’ve been to in the United States.

After all this sightseeing, we were getting peckish, so we stopped for another late lunch at Manuel’s Tavern in Poncey-Highland, a somewhat time-warped little bar that’s just the right type of cozy, crammed as it is with big, dark booths and Atlanta sports memorabilia.  There’s even a smoking section.  I love retro interiors, so I loved the place.  Best of all: they, mercifully, were not showing the Texas-OU game.

Morgan had a burger and fries, and I had the Country Breakfast plate with two scrambled eggs, biscuits, and sausage gravy ($5.50!), along with a pint of SweetWater 420, an extra pale ale from the SweetWater Brewing Company in Atlanta! It was pretty darn tasty.

For dessert, we crossed the street to check out King of Pops, a cleverly-named (HEE-hee!) popsicle stand offering such delectable flavors as pumpkin pie and chocolate with sea salt.  I’d seen this place on GoogleMaps when looking up Morgan’s address as part of my extensive, neurotic forward planning; I’m so glad we actually got to go there!

Shamon!

Later that night, we drove up Peachtree Street until it became Peachtree Road, deep into Buckhead, looking for a place that struck our fancy for dinner.  We ended up doubling back and popping into Varasano’s Pizzeria, which is one of Rachael’s Ray’s “America’s Best Pizzerias,” so, that’s cool.

I continued my prosecco kick and also started with a small Caesar salad ($7, $4.95).  It was a bit wanting, seeing as how it didn’t taste of anchovy paste at all, a bit watery, and was predominantly sad, sad iceberg lettuce.

For my main course, I ordered the Farfalle with Shrimp in a Lemon Cream Sauce (a combination I absolutely cannot resist, $16.95).  It was serviceable, but not anything to write home about (yes, I realize I’m doing just that).  Don’t get me wrong; I ate every last bite.  But I love creamy pasta, especially with shrimp.

Morgan hit it big, however, smartly ordering the Caramlized Onion Pizza ($14.95).  It was pretty much exactly as described on their web site:

Our pizzas are slightly charred and crispy on the outside but light and airy on the inside. We use only all natural ingredients and are one of the few pizzerias in the U.S. that make our dough the old fashioned way, using only natural sourdough yeasts, fermented for several days. Because our pies are very thin, flash baked in just about 3 minutes, and use no dough conditioners, our pizzas are delicate and best enjoyed sparsely topped and without a knife & fork. Just pick it up and fold it like they do in NYC!

Mmm! We ate the rest of this as leftovers on Sunday night! And it was still delicious!

For Sunday brunch, we went back out Peachtree Road again to check out Southern Art, “Southern influenced cuisine” from Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s former personal chef.

Open a year this week, the restaurant is an inviting combination of hip, innovative, urban darling and comfortable, lip-smacking, down home comfort.  The decor could be described as fancy-hotel-meets-Dale-Chihuly-meets-Tim-Burton, insofar as it’s very comfortable and immaculate, while also featuring brightly colored paintings suspended from the ceiling amid a sea of blown-glass chandeliers, and half the chairs look like post-industrial birdcage-thrones.

I’m being overly dramatic; the place isn’t exactly far out, but it’s self consciously imaginative, right down to the artisan ham bar.  Seriously; there’s a ham bar.  It’s like a foodie fairyland.

There’s also a bourbon bar, but as we were there for brunch, we didn’t sample its treasures.

Our meal started with miniature cheesy biscuits, whipped butter, and a tiny jar of pickled vegetables, served on a cutting board.  The biscuits were really good: fluffy and cheesy, just like you’d want.  I could’ve just eaten 20 of those.

I’d had my heart set on shrimp and grits from the moment I booked my flight, and this seemed like the right time and place.  I excitedly ordered the Georgia White Shrimp and Grits ($15), which consisted of a bed of really, really creamy grits (real cream, y’all)
topped with perfectly cooked shrimp, crunchy shards of fried okra, black eyed peas, hominy, sausage, and green onions, all topped with a fried egg!  It was like every Southern staple had been thrown in there!  Not that I’m complaining!  Hardly!  It was delicious.

I do have to say, though, my grits are better.  As with Gone with the Wind, the shrimp and grits spell has been broken.  Thank you, Southern Art.

Morgan went for the Fried Chicken and Waffle ($12), which was also excellent: the chicken was skillfully fried, indeed.  It was juicy on the inside, crisp and flavorful on the outside.  And the waffle was gigantic.  I had to help, out of the goodness of my heart.

We finished up with a round of coffee, followed by a round of mimosas, and had a long, leisurely brunch.  Service was great (though we didn’t get side plates for the appetizer biscuits until we asked), attentive and friendly, and the whole experience was pleasant and comforting, just how a Southern brunch should be.  I’m so glad we made the effort.

However, we were so full after all of that, we didn’t have room for the 14 Layer Red Velvet Cake (my favorite), which I’d seen on their web site.  I did get a picture of the display slice, though!  Look at that!

Staying in Buckhead, we next visited the Atlanta History Center, where we saw all kinds of fascinating historical items, including Civil War artifacts, photographs of pre-war Atlanta, and a really great Southern Folkways exhibit, which included this adorable presentation on gumbo:

Atlanta really is ground zero for the conflict that defined—and still defines—our nation.

With 9,200 square feet of exhibit space, the Atlanta History Center is one of the nation’s largest and most complete Civil War museums. With over 1,500 Union and Confederate artifacts, including cannons, uniforms, and flags, visitors experience the Civil War through the eyes of soldiers and civilians. Highlights include the Confederate flag that flew over Atlanta at the time of its surrender, a Union supply wagon used by Sherman’s army, General Patrick Cleburne’s sword, a Medal of Honor won by the United States Colored Troops, the logbooks of the C.S.S. Shenandoah, medical equipment, firearms, and more.

We also toured the Swan House, a neoclassical mansion built in 1928 for the Edward H. Inman family, heirs to a cotton brokerage fortune, who later bequeathed the land (and house) to the Atlanta History Center.  I love touring old houses!

Next, we went on a short driving tour of the Grant Park neighborhood (which is adorable) before heading back to the Old Fourth Ward and settling in and the Wrecking Bar Brewpub for drinks and snacks.  But not before we were scared shitless by this absolutely terrifying Halloween decoration (they love Halloween decorations in Atlanta! They were everywhere!).

The Wrecking Bar is an adorable and sophisticated little spot located in the restored Victor H. Kriegshaber House.  It was right up my alley: they have an impressive array of house brews, as well as an extensive bourbon and scotch list, a wonderful farm-to-table menu, and live music!

Morgan started off with a pint of the Nathan’s 13 Minute Amber, and I had a half pint of the Punch Yo Momma Smoked Porter: complex maltiness from smoked English grains and a mild chocolatey note.  Just enough hops to balance out the malt and smoke, without being overpowering (I’m not a hophead, personally).  I love that you can order half pints, too!

We also really enjoyed the American Farmhouse Cheese Plate ($11), served with beer gelée, brandied cherries, and spiced nuts.  The cheeses served included Valdeon, La Caseria, a blue cheese from cow and goat made in Leon, Spain; Green Hill, Sweet Grass double cream cheese made from cow’s milk locally in Thomasville, GA; Sartori BellaVita Gold, a Cheddar-Parmesan hybrid, from Plymouth, WI; and aged Cablanca Firm Gouda, made in Holland.  Man, I love cheese.

We then progressed, with the help of our friendly and knowledgeable waiter, to whisky.  Morgan ordered bourbon, and I expanded my scotch horizons with the Lagavulin Cask Strength (115°, $11).  It was strong, but not a terrible mistake, as I had feared.  It was actually quite pleasant.  For my second scotch selection, I tried the Ardbeg Uigeadail, which I had previously never heard of nor pronounced.  It was of a darker hue, rich, and nice and peaty.  I’ll be having it again.  The Lagavulin is pictured below.

Monday morning, Morgan kindly let me borrow her car, and I went to the nearby Carter Center to visit the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.  It was a beautiful autumn morning, and all the flowers and grass were wet from a light rain the night before.  Since it was Monday, it wasn’t very crowded, and the whole place had a very peaceful, contemplative atmosphere. So this was another amazing stop, and I’m so glad I made the effort to go.  I liked President Carter before, but I left the library with an even deeper appreciation for both the Carter administration and Jimmy Carter the man.  Sadly, there was no Billy Beer on offer.

I even got to see President Carter’s Medal of Freedom, Nobel Peace Price, and Grammy!

As a former tour guide at the Texas Capitol and Governor’s Mansion, I try to at least drive by (and, when possible, tour) other state capitols whenever I have the opportunity.  So next I drove downtown to the golden-domed Georgia State Capitol.

Begun in 1884 and opened to the public on July 4th, 1889, its construction is almost exactly concurrent to our own capitol.  Its architecture, however, is much more neo-classical, and less obviously influenced by the architectural trends of the late 19th century.  According to the materials I read, this was done purposely, in an effort at postwar reconciliation.  The ground floor rotunda features large portraits of the Founding Fathers.  There is also a museum on the fourth floor, with many display cases filled with historical, geological, and archaeological items from Georgia’s past, including this amazing ERA exhibit.  Though there are, of course, portraits of Confederate figures, overall, the effect is one of much more diversity and inclusion than what I’d expected, and moreso than the manner in which we present our own, equally fraught history here in Texas.  I was pleasantly surprised once again.

After leaving the Capitol, I headed back up Peachtree Street on a sunny, enjoyable drive to the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.

I have no words for the Holocaust exhibit, but I’m glad I went to see it.

There is also a permanent collection of artifacts revealing the history of Jewish Atlanta, and it was fascinating.

The current special exhibit at the Breman is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” which runs until December 9, 2012.  From the museum:

A few dozen refugee scholars unexpectedly found positions in historically black colleges in the American South. There, as recent escapees from persecution in Nazi Germany, they came face to face with the absurdities of a rigidly segregated Jim Crow society. In their new positions, they met, taught, and interacted with students who had grown up in, and struggled with, this racist environment.

I highly recommend a visit to the Breman if you are in Atlanta, and particularly if you have the opportunity to see this special exhibit.  It’s one of those pieces of American history that make me ask, “Why haven’t I heard about this before?!”

Here’s an amazing 18th century megillah (“scroll” – usually referring to the Biblical story of Esther, which is unrolled and read on Purim) with ivory handles.  I can’t get enough of calligraphic arts, and the Hebrew calligraphy is especially beautiful, I think.  This was reminiscent of the “As It Is Written: Project 304,805” exhibit, featuring live Torah writing by scribe Julie Seltzer at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which I visited in 2009.  Of course, we went on Saturday, so totally missed Ms. Seltzer!  But it was amazing, nonetheless.

After all that touristing, it was time for another late lunch, and I had more postcards to write, so, after driving around Piedmont Park looking for a cute spot (to no avail), I ended up back at The Highlander, where I ordered fish and chips and another pint of Strongbow.

Surely y’all knew I couldn’t stay away from the British comfort food forever!

This was a pretty good plate, and I really enjoyed sitting under their umbrellas again, writing, but the slaw was a tad too vinegary for my taste, and, all things considered, it was no Dog and Duck!  I would go there again if I visited Morgan in the future, though.  It was a good spot.  A little punk, with a big menu and good service.

Morgan generously brought me this surprise swirl (chocolate and vanilla soft serve) from Zesto as an afternoon snack!  It took me a whole 12 hours to finish it, but it was pretty awesome.  Her cheeseburger looked even better: a proper, hand-made beef patty, grilled bun, and just the right amount of grease seeping through the tissue paper.  Old fashioned style!

My last meal in Atlanta was this bowl of Spinach and Artichoke Dip ($7) at the Brewhouse Cafe in Little Five Points.  This place is really a soccer bar, and I’d love to go back early on a Saturday morning.  It was very quiet on a cool Monday night, but we enjoyed the dip, as well as some beers, and they were amazing hosts to Morgan’s adorable dog, Linus.

Oh, and did I mention that I ordered a Stella and got it in a Shiner glass?

Is this a sign?

It was truly a great trip: the perfect mix of relaxation, education, and wandering, with plenty of indulgent food and drink thrown in!  The best part, of course, was catching up with my friend Morgan, whom I’ve known for 25 years (man, we’re old).

My snap judgment of Atlanta?

It’s like a smaller, greener, hillier, prettier, more diverse, more integrated, gayer, more historic Houston.  I was honestly surprised by how diverse and integrated it was, throughout the city; much moreso than anywhere I’ve been in Texas.  It was also Pride weekend, so there was a great atmosphere, particularly in Midtown, where we saw protesters with signs reading “MY God loves everyone.”

Atlanta seems really cosmopolitan for its size, and a great place to visit.

I definitely want to go back; I need to see the Georgia Aquarium (literally everyone told me to, but I prioritized historical sights, since it was my first visit to Atlanta and I’ve been to the National Aquarium in Baltimore recently).  I’d like to visit Emory University and the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum!  I also want to see more of the surrounding countryside; someday, I’d like to go to Savannah and Charleston on a road trip, too.

And I know there’s more food I need to eat!

These are, believe it or not, only a smattering of the pictures I took during my four days in Atlanta.  To see more, mosey on over to my Flickr set.

3 thoughts on “This Week’s Eats: 10/19/12 – Atlanta

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