A Gift from the Chef

So, due in no small part to my general wussiness about camping in 100+ degree weather in Alabama, we decided instead to stop in Atlanta. Specifically, I said, “Hey, want to go find Kevin [Gillespie, of Top Chef season 6 finalist fame]’s restaurant in Atlanta?”

I would like full credit for what turned out to be a really good idea. [Warning: food porn ahead!]

After some hemming and hawing about trying to do this Priceline thing where you bid on an unknown hotel (you do know certain things about it, such as its average star rating and generally the neighborhood it’s in, but ultimately I find this concept a little odd), we decided to be sensible and allow Melinda (our GPS navigation unit) to help us find a hotel in the general vicinity of Woodfire Grill. I arbitrarily chose a Holiday Inn Express, which turned out to be a pretty good arbitrary choice. (Pros: close to restaurant; queen suite for less than most tiny hotel rooms cost in Boston. Con: hot tub was, in fact, tepid.)

Woodfire is, apparently, the kind of place so popular that when you call around three in the afternoon for a reservation, you get to choose between five thirty and nine fifteen. We chose the latter, although on general principle I consider this an altogether ridiculous time to eat dinner. I’ve never agreed with the concept of anything being “fashionably late.”

The benefit, however, to arriving so late was that we really got to see the  Adult Club District in its proper, fully-lit glory–because the Adult Club District, apparently, is where both Woodfire and our hotel are located. I counted two establishments called Inserection, which is both not at all how that word is spelled, and sort of a strange thing to call your sex toy shop. Woodfire itself is next to a boutique called Dirty Laundry. Discuss.

Anyway, despite the lateness of the hour, we opted for the seven course chef’s tasting. Because a) any restaurant that gives you a 9:15 reservation is probably prepared for you to order a full meal, right? and b) seven course chef’s tasting. Seriously, how many places do I go that even offer that as an option? None, that is how many.

Our first item was actually an amuse bouche, described by our server as marinated beets topped with a broccoli pistou. (Are you also not convinced that’s a real word? I had to look it up–apparently it just means a sauce made of garlic, fresh basil and olive oil. I’m guessing this one also had broccoli. Just a guess.) This was also described as a “gift from the chef.” Now, when I hear that from a server, deep down I know that everybody else is also getting that “gift.” While I’m eating it, though, I prefer to ignore that reality, and imagine just for a moment that I’m truly a special snowflake. The chef sends me presents! This is awesome!

(That said–I don’t really like beets all that much. So this was probably an appropriate amount of beet for me.)

The first official course: carrots poached in local honey, almonds, eggplant puree, and almond cilantro oil. We both agreed that the almonds were pretty superfluous, and that the eggplant was heavenly. Cooked carrots are ordinarily on the short list of things I don’t particularly care to eat, but as a vessel for scrumptious eggplant puree I will pretty much eat all the cooked carrots you care to hand me. Which, in this case, was two. Ish.

I’m going to go ahead and call this my hands-down favorite course. Flounder “sashimi” (I’m not sure what about this isn’t actually sashimi, but our waiter definitely described it with verbal air quotes, so apparently this is just in the style of sashimi) with some manner of citrus, topped by king salmon tartar and an herb salad. Also the tiniest piece of avocado ever. I liked the flounder best, but this tartar also puts every other tartar I’ve ever had to shame. For shame, other tartar!

Some manner of shrimp under pickled slaw, sitting on a sesame morel broth. I tasted more sesame than morel, but nonetheless opted to sop up every trace of broth with some bread. (That was my only reason for touching the bread: sopping up delicious things. Why would I waste my appetite on bread, even if it’s really good bread, when I’m getting seven courses of food?) The shrimp was quite sweet, and more delicate (read: not at all rubbery) than I’m used to shrimp being.

Another sign Kevin secretly loves me: gift from the chef #2, this time some manner of pepper stuffed with chevre and something else we absolutely can’t remember. It was extremely tasty.

Our waiter described this as the “rockstar course.” He was not mistaken. Littleneck clams, chorizo, some manner of bacon, veal sweetbreads, and broth we’ve decided we’d like to take a bath in, please, and make it snappy. (My dining companion went so far as to suggest we should just fill up the tepid tub with that broth. The broth was probably hotter, after all.)

Quail, cheese grits, pork belly, pepper oil. A. Mazing. The squab appeared to be honey-glazed. I eschewed all pretense of being a person who belongs in fancy restaurants by picking up my little quail drumstick and chewing on it. Dude, I’m paying for this quail, and I am going to eat every damn edible part. The pork belly also had some manner of glaze or rub on it–vaguely barbecue sauce-ish?

One of the women at the table next to ours–regulars, I gathered–deemed her lamb too tough and left some of it on the plate. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would have to (grudgingly) admit that this dish didn’t really let the lamb shine. (Having grown up on a sheep farm, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’ve probably had a lot more lamb than your average diner, so I believe I can comment on the quality of lamb served even in a really awesome restaurant.) The pepper rub, twelve local bean sautee, and squash puree all overpowered the lamb itself, which was a bit over-salted. (And I say that as someone who routinely eats coarse grain salt straight up.) My cut wasn’t overly tough, though perhaps not the most tender lamb I’ve ever had–though, yes, as the waiter explained to our fellow diners, leg of lamb isn’t typically the most tender cut.

Cola cake with an inverted root beer float and coffee creme. The float seemed a little silly, and oddly strong, and the cake for me was a little meh–but while we’re filling up hot tubs with broth, we might as well fill up a wading pool with that coffee creme, because damn.

All in all, I’m thrilled we decided to go to Woodfire, and very pleased they had a table for us. I’m more convinced than ever that Kevin should have won Top Chef (though, to be fair, I haven’t eaten in either of the Voltaggio brothers’ restaurants–we’ve already been through Maryland, and Pasadena isn’t really on our itinerary at this point).

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