Miller Union

April 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Miller Union
999 Brady Ave, NW
Atlanta, GA 30318
(678) 733-8550

http://www.millerunion.com/site/

This was another heavily anticipated dinner with all the accolade between being considered among the best new restaurants right now from both Bon Appetit and Esquire, and I was curious to see if they would be able to live up to their reputation.  My only previous experience with this place was their representation was once more at the Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival last year where I took note that they were trying to bring the aspic back.  A commendable accomplishment even if I wasn’t too crazy about the results.  Aspic is sadly a hard sell for me, so I am not the best of judges.  This is another place known for its excellence in mixology, so I happily began my adventure there with a cocktail.

Boulevardier (traditionally whiskey vermouth and campari; left)
Perfect Start aperol, cocchi americano, orange juice, sparkling wine (center)
Pushing Up Daisies gin, drambuie, lemon, house grenadine, soda (right)

The Boulevardier was a little Campari-heavy and certainly bitter-leaning, but that is of course the purpose of this drink.  Pushing Up Daisies was a bright, refreshing lemon floral mildly fizzy drink finished with a note of what reminded me of black cherry and pomegranate.  A lovely springy porch-sipping beverage that was rather enjoyable.  The Perfect Start was my personal choice and I’ll certainly return for it if it’s still there.  It was lightly bitter with bright citrus cutting through amid tingly bubbles.  A clean, crisp, interesting twist on a mimosa.

buckwheat blinis, fresh chevre, shiitakes

As soon as I put a small piece of the buckwheat blini in my mouth and it effortlessly melted away, I knew that I was in for some major execution successes on the part of Miller Union.  The bilini was light in both texture and flavor and served as a vessel for the woody mushroom realm with a creamy chevre tang.  Very simple and good, but it did manage to get overshadowed by the flavors of the other dishes on the table.

country pork & chicken liver terrine with pickled vegetables

The rustic beauty of this dish reminded me instantly of the time I went to Germany when I was much younger and ate similar fare in the pubs there.  The ample portion of cool terrine was very smooth and lightly greasy and subtly changed notes as it transitioned to the even creamier liver in the center.  The bread was a toasted variety of the same beautiful sourdough served on the table that had a remarkable artisan crust that was lightly dusted with a welcome hit of salt.  The housemade stone ground mustard had a nice textural pop that harmonized with the lightly pickled vegetable crunch that cuts through on the creamy, fatty terrine and crusty bread, and it was enjoyable tasting all the flavor components individually as they all stood well on their own as well as in various combination with each other.  This was a nicely elevated classic where once again everything was executed perfectly.

farm egg baked in celery cream with rustic bread

This dish doesn’t appear like anything particularly exciting, but it was the clear favorite and considered an “iconic” Miller Union dish.  Just like a perfectly balanced broth, there is an unmistakable  brilliance in the flavoring of the cream as it melds indistinguishably into the natural flavor of the egg and draws out that flavor note only to enhance it to new, delicate levels.  Sublimely silky and creamy, the flavor is so gentle that your palette awakens to experience its nuances.

flounder fillet, sauteed spring peas, & vidalias

The flounder was dish that let the beauty of the fresh ingredients simply be the star with the addition of more fantatic execution.  The texture of the fish was the real brilliance.  There was a mildly crispy crust that melted into a downy, pillowy soft inside unlike I’ve experienced with a cooked fish before.  Lightly minted, buttery sauce, and bright moments of beautiful peas and creamy soft, lightly sweet vidalias were quiet accompaniments that did not overwhelm the subtle fish.  A very elegantly understated bright dish with light, mild flavors.

skillet ny strip, mushroom farrotto, parsley salad

Once again the magic of the kitchen at Miller Union did something unexpected–they made this NY strip very light in its soft, mildly chewy texture under a light woodsy mask of char.  The overall flavor profile was smoky and earthy with some salty bursts of capers and some tangy moments of pickled red onion.

duck confit, wild mushrooms, spring onion, fennel, poached egg

I first tasted the bit of broth soaking through the elements on the plate.  It was lightly, naturally sweet in a way onions can be and tangy and rich in flavor despite its visually perceived wateriness.  The textural journey of confit ranged from fork-tender falling-apart  threads to the different sort of melting of perfectly rendered fat and salty flesh. The combination was a fantastic one as the thinness of the broth allowed it to soak its flavor in varying degrees across all elements on the plate.  Another added bonus were the additional notes of the mushrooms and the al dente vegetable crunch of fennel.  There was a borderline Asian subtle play that was reminiscent of fatty, crispy-skinned scallion-cloaked Peking duck.  If the textural layering of duck weren’t enough on its own, the poached egg leaked a sublime creaminess across its surface.  This was utterly divine by virtue of the perfection of the duck and the amazing broth and will no doubt secure its place in my mind as one of my top food memories.

olive oil pound cake with rhubarb and ice cream

Easily one of the best pound cakes I’ve ever had.  It was simultaneously light and dense creating the perfect texture for the quiet vanilla-lemon flavor.  The rhubarb was the selling point for my decision to choose this, and the firm, earthy tart pieces were a lovely contrast to the texture of the soft pound cake.  I wasn’t particularly crazy about the ice cream despite our server telling us it was something they were known for.  It wasn’t particularly smooth and just tasted kind of buttery.  I’ll take Morelli’s any day, but that’s an entirely different review.  The butter pecan ice cream pictured in the background was nice, but fairly pedestrian and had that same heavy buttery flavor which although made a little more sense in this context made me wonder if this is a running theme with the ice cream there.  I’d be curious to try some of their more interesting flavors–these were certainly neither memorable or ground-breaking; however, I still enjoyed the textural components of the soft pound cake, the firm bits of rhubarb, and the soft cream together.

buttermilk panna cotta with citrus

I hated ending on a weak note, but what I tasted of this dish didn’t do anything for me.  The panna cotta was light to the point of fragility which might have been fine, but the watery citrus juice broke up and muddied the texture without adding any flavor.  Perhaps if the juice had been reduced a bit, that would have helped.  The rich buttery and slightly tangy notes of the buttermilk did shine through a little bit and it was an interesting play on panna cotta nonetheless.

Final Verdict:

What wins about Miller Union was incredible execution across the board and a brilliant play on textures with very fresh ingredients.  Some dishes were a lot more subtle in flavor, and while I enjoyed those quite a bit, the more dynamic ones such as the farm egg and the duck confit really won me over.  I feel that Miller Union is deserving of its praise and I happily anticipate returning, but it’s going to be incredibly difficult not to continue to order what I consider the two greatest hits (the farm egg and the duck confit) if they are available.

Miller Union on Urbanspoon

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Wisteria

April 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wisteria
471 N. Highland Ave
Atlanta, GA 30307
(404) 525-3363

http://www.wisteria-atlanta.com/

Wisteria was another restaurant that I’d heard good things about and was eager to try.  I took advantage of their Inman Park restaurant week offerings as my first experience with them.  There was a $25 prix fixe menu as well as a $35 prix fixe menu, both of which were generous in their variety of offerings.  I became aware of how much business restaurant week was bringing them as we waited about twenty minutes past our reservation to be seated and our waiter seems a little frazzled and not particularly helpful.  I assume the influx of additional patrons is going to do that to any restaurant, and I cannot fault them for that, but I took subtle note of this.

One nice addition to our meal was taking advantage of their wine flights and had them bring out what felt like a generous wine pairing of our choosing with each course.  I figured it was worth the extra money to try some of the more extravagant menu items, so we opted for the $35 menu.  I would like to go back and try more of their vegetarian options at some point as well.

Kobe Beef Carpaccio with arugula tossed in a horseradish vinaigrette and aged parmesan

This was pleasantly light and tender, yet perhaps overly mild.  I was straining to pick up the vinegar much less the horseradish element of it.  I suppose that’s a fine line to tread with such a delicate course, but I would have liked to have seen more especially since I think it could have held up better against the bitter arugula.  The best part was the oily salt crunch of the fried capers.  This dish was good, but not particularly memorable.

Prince Edward Island Mussels in a charred vine-ripened tomato and herbed garlic broth

There is such a magic that happens with a perfect broth where the flavors meld into something delicate and beautiful.  These tender mussels were fortunate enough to be bathing in such a broth for my pleasure.  The charring of the tomatoes that went into the broth really heightened the beauty of the ingredient, and the garlic was nicely present and yet not overpowering.  Simply fantastic and became increasingly so with each bite.  My only meager complaint was that I thought the toast was too hard to sop up the broth with, but after letting it soak in the broth for a while, it became lovely.  Still, I found myself reaching for the non-toasted bread on the table to ensure my ability to sop up every last drop.

Pan Roasted Nantucket Sea Scallops over orzo with sweet corn, roasted tomatoes, Grana Padano and arugula almond pesto

My first bite into the scallops unfortunately was the sole bite into a bit of grit.  Even more so unfortunate was the fact that they were also really srawny and thin,  distinctly oversalted and garnished with a thin flavorless fried strip that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the dish.  On the other hand, I really enjoyed all of the other elements of the dish.  The pesto was bright and clean melting into the orzo with little bits of thin subtly nutty and slightly salty cheese, and the moments of crisp corn were perfectly farm-fresh.  As much as I loved the orzo part, I’m not sure that it had any sort of clever harmony with the scallops.  They might as well have been on two different plates.  I certainly would have preferred it that way.

Herb-Crusted Rack of Lamb – 2 chops – 14oz whipped potatoes with roasted asparagus, wild mushrooms and red wine jus

The first fine dining memory I had was some life-changing lamb for my little palette at La Provence when I was 12 years old.  That was when despite all of my interesting ethnic food experiences I’d had up until that point, I realized that there is a whole other level that food can be taken to.  As a result, I think I generally gravitate towards lamb when I see it on a menu and I am always out on the search for incredible lamb experiences.  This lamb at Wisteria read from the menu as very straightforward and classic, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I ordered rare as I often do and am aware of the chewy implications.  I don’t mind, however, this piece seemed a little gristly and a bit fatty in an unrendered sort of way and I felt like I struggled to wrest bites of meat from the bone.  The chops had a nice grilled char taste with a light hint of rosemary.  The woody mushrooms were a nice classic touch but once again I wished they had been cooked down a tiny bit more.  The potatoes and asparagus were merely there for comfort, and I happily obliged since they were a vessel to soak up more jus.  I was not in a position to argue with the beauty of the jus and did my best to retrieve as much of it as I could from the plate.  Lovely elements of classic flavor, but I cannot say that the execution on the chop itself was perfect.

Granny’s Carrot Cake with Bourbon Sauce (left)
Warm Fudge Tart with Swiss Chocolate Orange Ice Cream (middle)
Sweet Potato and Praline Cheesecake with Whipped Cream (right)

One lovely thing about Wisteria is the three small dessert samplings that they offer, so this was a welcome treat.  The carrot cake was good if not a little bit too sweet for me personally.  It did have a nice sugary textural crunch, and the bourbon hint was welcome even if it meant more sugar.  The fudge tart itself was really moist and rich and texturally wonderful, but it was in competition with the ice cream to the point that I couldn’t really pick up much about the ice cream’s flavors even if the textures were a nice contrast to each other.  The sweet potato cheesecake was easily my favorite.  It was mild and balanced with a creamy texture on a mildly buttery crust with little nuts adding a nice bit of additional texture to the occasional bite.  Lovely.

Final Verdict:

Overall, the meal was good, but I wasn’t entirely overwhelmed with the exception of the mussels.  What’s good about that is that on Mondays they offer a mussel special:

Bar Dining Specials
Mussel Mondays – $15.95
Endless Bowl of Mussels and
a Glass of our House Wine

I will return for that without question.  It’s a great deal on something that was particularly memorable and fantastic in my opinion.

What makes Wisteria a nice option and drives me to experience it again is the fact that they have a wide variety of menu that will cater to picky groups and seem to have some really lovely vegetarian options.  The vegetables I experienced were all very fresh and well-prepared.  In general, I thought their simple, fresh flavor profiles were lovely–the orzo portion of the scallop dish was really great and the flavors of the jus were good too.  There just happened to be some errors on the part of the scallop and lamb execution that do not work for me especially at the normal menu entree price of $28 each.  Maybe these errors were linked to being slammed at restaurant week, but I won’t know unless I go back.  I anticipate returning, but it will be for mussels and some other, probably vegetarian-based options.

Wisteria on Urbanspoon

Rathbun’s

April 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rathbun’s
112 Krog St. Ste R
Atlanta, GA 30307
(404) 524-8280

http://www.kevinrathbun.com/restaurants.htm

I had been anxious to experience one of Kevin Rathbun’s restaurants since loving the delicate spicy tomato soup broth dumpling at the Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival last year, and I anticipated that the Inman Park Restaurant Week event would be a great way to try Rathbun’s out before plunging deeper into their full menu.

I hastily made reservations and didn’t think to look at the prix fixe offerings until afterwards.  I was uninspired by the offerings but was hoping to be surprised with execution and flavor balance.

Ahi Tuna Tartare, Blood Orange Vinegar, Serranos

Curious to check out an item off of the more appealing-sounding regular menu, we selected the tartare.  The tuna itself was as expected–fresh, chilled, a fleshy vessel for the other flavor components on the plate.  I found that the intriguing thing about this dish was that the distribution of elements on the plate led to a lot of variety in each individual bite.  Spicy little heat pockets of serrano pepper popped up in occasional bites in the midst of a more rounded black pepper flavor throughout.  The blood orange vinegar leaked through in varying degrees of intensity. It was a bit of a strain to try to detect the blood orange in the vinegar.  Perhaps the only real sign was the citrus lending a light sweetness to the vinegar.  The range of spicy heat to tangy sweet landed with the citrus on the opposite side of the plate.  I was a little perplexed as I was pretty certain that the citrus on the plate was not a blood orange and I wonder why the lost opportunity to coax the flavor from the vinegar was lost here.  This was a nice, light play on flavors that managed to be interesting but still subtle enough for a clean start to a meal.

Georgia Shrimp, Udon, Pak Choy

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this dish as I felt it could have gone all sorts of different directions based on the very stark description.  The gut instinct was that this would have some sort of Japanese influence, but that was not the case.  The moment this hit my palette, I immediately thought I was eating something at the Thai restaurant, Spoon.  The sauce reminded me of a coconut-based curry melded with a slap of heat.  The creamy texture of the sauce and soft noodles was contrasted with the soft snap of the scallions and the slightly more al dente texture of the pak choy.  I actually rather enjoy Spoon and I didn’t dislike this dish, but I really felt like it was entirely out of place here and I failed to see any sort of real fusion or anything else about this dish that could take the entirely Thai flavor combination to a different level.  The shrimp itself was fine; I just didn’t get at all how this fit into the scheme of things or represented the restaurant.  It was forgettable if not for the fact that it was such an odd choice to serve.  I also see after adjusting the photo a little bit to compensate for the lighting that the presentation is fairly neat considering how difficult it can be to make a bowl of noodles look tidy except for the blatant sauce splatters on the bowl.

Fried Quail, Baby Carrots, Stone Ground Grits

The first reaction to this was, “ok, yes, that’s fried quail.”  It was after a few more bites that I started to pick up on some of the subtle nuances that made this slightly more elevated than simply “ok.”  There were little bright bits of vinegar-driven acid drizzled here and there on the plate that added some interest and made you more aware of the perfect, yet simple blend of salted flour coating on the quail.  The grits were creamy, but very sparse on the plate.  The carrots left a warm, naturally sweet note that helped round out the overall flavors.  It was a classic homestyle-driven meal that was slightly elevated, but not by much.

C.A.B Flat Iron, Anson Mills Polenta, Foraged Mushrooms

Both of the entrees looked rather sloppy, and I honestly can’t say which I think looked better of the two.  I guess things such as these are hard to plate, but when you’ve already gotten the feeling that they’re not putting their best foot forward as we had with the prix fixe offerings so far, this just adds to the list of things that aren’t what you expected.  Whereas the quail and the tartare dishes seemed to display a range of subtle flavor play, this dish stayed in the slightly woody, smoky, buttery note and never left its comfort zone.  It could have benefited from some sort of spice or saltiness, but the whole dish just  felt heavy-handed in a greasy, unflavorful way.  The juices of the meat and the mushrooms that weren’t cooked down enough for me were watery in the grease leaving a sort of oil and water effect that I didn’t find particularly pleasing.  I ordered rare which might have been a mistake on my part, but it was a bit chewy, uninspiring, and pretty forgettable if not for the greasy butter note that it left lingering on my palette.

N.C Chicken, Brussels, Whipped Parsnips

Once again, this was your typical slightly elevated classic Southern family-style meat and three-esque dish.  Was it elevated enough for the price point or a place like this?  I’m thinking not.  It was good, however, and I surprisingly enjoyed more than the steak but it was still not particularly memorable.  I enjoyed the natural sweetness of the parsnips whip, but once again, the best part was barely present on the plate.  The brussels sprouts were a nice lightly buttered counterpoint when you could find them.  There was more chicken by far than everything and the gravy was pleasant, but nothing spectacular.

Key Lime Brulee with Plant City Strawberries (left)

Mini Banana Split with French Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Brittle (right)

These both tasted about like you’d expect with no surprises or anything interesting about them for the most part.  The brulee had a subtle citrus note and I found the custard itself to be more heavily sugared than I prefer.  It is nice when you can let the brulee carry the thick, crusty sweetness with touch of bitter throughout the soft, creamy depths below.  This was more of a sugar jolt throughout.  The banana split had a little bit of praline-esque softer crunch to it, but was completely forgettable like pretty much the rest of the meal.

Final Verdict:

I got the sneaking suspicion once I saw the prix fixe menu that this was dialed in and watered down for restaurant week.  The subtle flavor plays of the one thing that wasn’t on the prix fixe and the memory of their soup dumpling offering at the tomato festival confirmed that they are capable of the praise that I’ve associated with them.  I even felt rushed and not well taken care of as soon as they saw we were planning on ordering for restaurant week which left a bad taste in my mouth after we left.  The problem is with this generally poor experience that still cost $50 per person with wine and the additional appetizer, I don’t know that I’ll be rushing to come back to give them another chance any time soon considering all the other intriguing restaurant options that this city has to offer.

Rathbun's on Urbanspoon

Little Szechuan

April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Little Szechuan
5091-C Buford Hwy.
Doraville, GA 30340
(770) 451-0192

http://www.littleszechuanchefkongs.com/

I was prompted to check this place out due to the Scoutmob deal that’s going on through November 17, 2011.  It’s nice to see a few of the places on Buford Highway opening themselves up to Scoutmob, and it certainly gives me an incentive to single a few places out among the masses.  This place, however, was possibly a little thrown by the amount of Scoutmobbers there and had a cash only policy for Scoutmob as well as were selective about what items were 50% off–I believe it is just entrees.  Be aware of these restrictions if you go and use the deal there.

The menu showed a variety of more traditional dishes as well as more Americanized ones.  The somewhat mixed crowd seemed to mostly be ordering from the Americanized side the night that I went, but of course I went straight for the more authentic side of the menu.

Once we finally got some service, we were served a cold bean sprout and pickled radish appetizer and some hot tea.

I immediately took to the refreshing lightly pickled vegetables side of the little dish and was left less inspired by the more much more mildy flavor of the bean sprouts.  I did find, however, that they tasted rather nice in one bite and worked well together that way, so I managed to gobble up the greater part of these two small dishes while we began what ended up being a bit of a wait for more service and our food.

My companion was interested in my experiencing Dan Dan Mien for the first time as it was something that he enjoyed in his travels, so we started with Dan Dan Mien (Spicy Sesame Noodle) and Shredded Pork w/Szechuan Cabbage Soup.

The soup had a light, rather mild broth with a slight drizzle of nice fat on the top.  I swear by those little oily droplets on top, and they were there and added a layer of richness to the clean broth below. The chewy bits of earthy mushrooms and bright clean notes of the greens within were nice, and the pork was mildy chewy, but it all worked out nicely.  It wasn’t anything especially out of the ordinary or exciting, but it was a nice and simple soup.

The Dan Dan Mien on the other hand was a bit puzzling to me. As soon as this dish was stirred by my dinner companion who recommended it, he knew that it was not the authentic style he was hoping for and released a few choice words to express his dismay.  Basically, this read simply as spaghetti in pasty peanuty/sesame sauce for the most part with the bits of spinach and scallions becoming entirely lost in the mix.  I saw the presence of pepper flakes, but failed to pick up on any real heat, and if there were any Szechuan peppercorns in there, they were entirely lost on me as well.  I found myself enjoying it in an odd sort of way possibly because I had grown rather hungry at this point, but it seemed Americanized, unremarkable, and generally reminiscent of something you’d get prepackaged at Trader Joe’s.  The leftovers were kind of good for breakfast especially the way the peanuty sauce thickened when cold, and I’m sure this would taste great after a night of drinking, but that wasn’t what I came here to experience.  After some research on the matter, I can see how what we had was different than what he experienced in China, and even Wikipedia notes the standard Americanized substitutions.

After that came the standard litmus test for me at a place such as this:  Yu Xiang Qie Zi (Eggplant with Spicy Garlic Sauce) and Chuan Wei Nu Rou (Szechuan Beef).

The eggplant dish was about par with what I’ve had on Buford Highway with the exception that I thought it wasn’t quite as melt-in-your-mouth cooked down deliciousness as I expect when I have this dish.  The sweetness was there, but only mildly, so that was pleasant for me.  There was just enough kick of heat to be enjoyable, and it had a subtly nearly buttery-reminiscent richness within the vinegared sauce.  I do wish this were served with pork because I think the savory of the meat would really balance the flavors as a whole, but I still found this version generally satisfying.  It certainly wasn’t the best I’ve had, but it was passable.

As soon as the Szechuan beef landed on the table and I leaned over to observe it, I could immediately smell the Szechuan peppercorn and knew that I was finally going to get what I came for.  The mala beef served over cabbage with onion really quelled a craving within me.  The beef slices were more tender than I’ve experienced in the past and the heat level had a nice build to it throughout the course of the meal and paired magically with the tingly numbing heat of the Szechuan peppercorns.  It’s the sort of thing you should order when you come here for certain, and it is downright craveable.  I found the cabbage to be cooked well also as it was neither too crunchy nor too soft and served as a nice resting place for the succulent meat.

I started experimenting by eating a slice of beef with a piece of eggplant, and the balance I was hoping for with the eggplant dish was achieved this way and was really sort of divine.  I’d recommend this combination.

Final verdict:

This place was pretty tasty at times and lackluster at others.  I would certainly come back for their beef dish again, but there are certainly many other places that have won me over at first pass more easily.  It’s worth a shot for now especially if you use your Scoutmob deal here, but I wonder how hit and miss the rest of the menu will be.  I’ll likely be back at some point, but there are so many other places I’d rather revisit or new places I’d rather try instead.

Little Szechuan on Urbanspoon

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