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Archive for March, 2010

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Friday, March 26th, 2010

It's a flower, *and* a store.

Actually, this is the last book signing scheduled for now: Tonight, 7-9 at Heliotrope, a cool little downtown Decatur home decor shop. The guys have enlisted five of the restaurants in the book to serve tidbits, plus catering from GirlChef and wine. AND special guest, photographer Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn. Hope to see you there!

Heliotrope is at 248 W. Ponce, next to Sawicki’s and Cakes & Ale.

One down, one to go

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Last night was the first signing for Atlanta Kitchens, at Manuel’s Tavern, where friends and I have been meeting Tuesdays since… you know, dirt. Or iced tea, anyway.

Manny’s did their usual fabulous job, setting me up at a nice table, setting out some great snacks. Frank Reiss from A Cappella Books was a terrific cohort, and … hey, people bought books! What a feeling to be there signing books, where I’d lined up for Paul Hemphill’s signature. How wonderful to see old friends walk through the door. How nice that total strangers (and a table of lawyers, riveted to their March Madness brackets) came, looked and bought. (Although I suspect the lawyers were looking for peace offerings to bring home.)

One more to go this week: Friday night at Heliotrope, a cute little home decor store (248 West Ponce in downtown Decatur, right next door to Sawicki’s and Cakes & Ale). The owners are arranging for some of the featured restaurants to serve tidbits from the book. If you couldn’t make Manny’s, I hope to see you there, 7-9 pm.

Buddy, can you spare a….

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

This week, it’s back to school and work, as Bill’s spring break ends. We dropped in several restaurants, which I’ll post on later. While we were in Midtown, since we needed a few groceries, we dropped into Trader Joe’s, which Bill had never seen before.

We needed only a couple of items — half & half for the coffee, paper towels — but of course we ended up with more, cruising the aisles of Trader Joe’s treasure chest of exotic granolas, ice creams, organic vegetables. Bill, with iron will, resisted his favorite green tea ice cream mochi (little mounds of ice cream enclosed in a gelatinous “envelope.” Sounds gross, but it’s really good).

So we were pretty jolly, walking across the crowded lot to our remote parking spot, with our little bundle of goodies. Just as we were getting in our car, we heard, “Excuse me.”  A man was waving his hands at us from the street.

I started shaking my head: No. It’s part of my hard-earned New York training. When I lived there in my 20s, I started out giving anyone who asked me for money at least a little something. I didn’t have much, but at least I felt a little better after walking away. Eventually, however, I hardened: I didn’t want to be part of a life that enabled so many in their addictions. I grew cynical watching the scamming moms and their crying babies, and hearing the angry, threatening tones — after I shook my head at one scary guy’s outstretched hand, he followed me through two subway trains, until I stood next to a cop and he melted away. Homeless shelters and organizations like the Atlanta Food Bank do a better job of providing real help, so they got my money instead. Still, I would make one exception: If someone asked me for money, and I was carrying food or groceries, I would offer them that instead. I gave away a lot of morning bagels and coffee, slices of pizza and sodas.

The man outside Trader Joe’s kept talking as I started waving him off. “I don’t want money,” the man said. “I just need some food.” We paused. Bill was waiting for me to drop some more New York ‘tude on the guy. With his small-town background, he usually trusts my street radar in situations like these. But the man had said the secret word, and my radar wasn’t pinging. He stepped out of the shadows — a big, neatly dressed black guy wearing khakis and a worn leather jacket. “What kind of food?” I said. “Some chicken, some vegetables,” he said. “I’ve been out of work for a couple of weeks. I’ve got kids.” I nodded to Bill and we told him to come with us to help pick things out. “I’ve got a list,” he said, producing a worn bit of paper with a long list, including diapers, milk and frozen peas.

Still, in the store, he held back, going for only a half-gallon of milk when we encouraged him to get the gallon jug. “We’ve got some,” he said. “Only need a little more.” He accepted sweets for the kids only after we put it in his basket. His wife was a vegetarian, he said, as he stocked up on two bags of frozen peas, lettuce and bananas. He moved swiftly through the store, expertly choosing the “pick of the chix” cut-up chicken over the standard variety. “In my family, my dad always did the shopping,” he said proudly when I complimented him on his expertise. He said he was in demolition, and had been out of work longer than this only one time, for a month. “I don’t want to take anything else, because I think they’ll be calling back soon.” Though he exuded the strength of a working man, he had a bad cough, and the night air was cool. We encouraged him to get home soon — we didn’t quite feel comfortable enough to offer him a ride, but we saw someone pick him up as we circled around the lot towards the exit. The last thing he told us before he left was, “I don’t like doing this. It’s hard for me, as a man. But I don’t know what else to do.”

We wished him luck. We hoped he would have a little breathing room. Of course, since then, I’ve been trying to figure out — was this yet another scam? You know what — if this guy went to the black market and sold his frozen peas and chicken (and the roast we bought for him, since he confessed he was not a vegetarian, only his wife)… well, you got me that time, buddy.

Thanks for the Nam-ories

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

This week, while Bill’s been here for spring break, we visited one of our favorite restaurants: Nam. We were glad to see it’s still going strong, despite the fact that it’s now hidden from Monroe Drive by a Starbucks, but it was also little shocking to realize it had been six years since we were here last.

Nam holds a few bittersweet and unusual connections for me. On that last visit, Bill and I had only been together a short time, and we met a good friend whose wife had suffered a terrible accident. We realized it had been six years ago almost to the day that we learned she had spoken her first words after a long coma. On another visit, I dropped in for an early dinner and found the only other diner in the place was perhaps the most ironic person in Atlanta to find in a Vietnamese restaurant: Jane Fonda, whose haters still call her Hanoi Jane. Her daughter, son-in-law and adorable grandbaby joined them soon after, and it was great to see them enjoy each other, not seeming to mind that people knew who they were. Thankfully, everybody allowed them their privacy.

All those memories are swirled in with the fact that I just love everything about this place: The wildly creative Vietnamese/Japanese brothers who own it, and whose stamp is on every modern twist, from the drawings on the wall to the shocking red-and-chrome color scheme. The fantastic, authentic Vietnamese food, perhaps my favorite (if you’ve never tried it, imagine a French version of Chinese food — light, beautifully arranged, full of fresh herbs). The fact that these two hip guys have installed their mom in the kitchen. Yes, she was there that night, still cooking some of the best food in town.

I chose her cabbage soup for Atlanta Kitchens, along with two other, sexier recipes (grilled shrimp on sugar cane, and “Shaking” filet mignon).  But the humble name “Mom’s cabbage soup” doesn’t do this elegant presentation justice. (I’m attaching a terrible iPhoto pic, just to give you some idea.) It’s a clear, clean broth, flecked with fresh herbs and hand-tied bundles, a little like wontons, filled with crabmeat and vegetables. The dumplings are actually cabbage leaves, tied with scallions. It’s a knockout. So is the rice flour tamale, steamed in a banana leaf, sprinkled with pork and fish sauce, with the elemental texture of baby food. (I’ll add Nam to the Food & Reviews section, so check there if you want more info.)

I hear Nam is now serving pho (the traditional rice noodle soup) at lunch — I can’t wait to go back to try that. And to find out what the next memory will be.

Hello world!

Thursday, March 11th, 2010
Super-secret restaurant spy.

The last days of my secret identity.

It’s me, stepping out of the closet… or perhaps more accurately, the pantry.

I’m looking forward to starting this blog, and putting all my reviews and work in one place. Please know that this website is a work in progress, and I’ve only begun loading reviews from restaurants across the state. Even then, my goal is not to post reviews of every Georgia restaurant, just those I think you ought to know about — especially those that haven’t gotten a lot of ink (or… pixels?).

But I’m having to sort through another issue as well. In nearly 20 years of writing about food and restaurants, it’s been easy enough to avoid being photographed to maintain anonymity. For the most part, no one was on the lookout for me to begin with — my friend and fellow cookbook writer Joe Dabney calls me the “stealth critic.”

Last year, when my Atlanta Classic Desserts cookbook came out, I wouldn’t do signings unless in disguise. Or even TV. At some point, I’ll post the thoroughly cringe-worthy blue-wigged interview I did for Every Day with Marcus and Lisa.

But then came Facebook. For a while, I wouldn’t befriend the genuine friends I’d made over the years who worked in PR — I didn’t want them to see my photos and share them with their restaurant pals and clients. Somehow, too, the rules started changing — critics I admired posted their photos. Some even accepted freebie meals or announced their presence, or used their real names for reservations, something I don’t do. (I want to be treated like anyone else.)

With the publication of my second cookbook, Atlanta Kitchens, my Georgia Trend editor and I agreed: If restaurants didn’t know who I was by now, they likely either didn’t care, or didn’t put together my pseudonymous reservation with the review. When bookstores asked for a signing, I agreed to do them, without extracting a promise I could be in disguise. When the AJC wanted to do a story on the cookbook, I even gave them a choice of photos — including both a Warholized version I’ve used in the past, and something that looked more like me.

Bob Townsend’s piece was posted online today, and it’s a thoughtful, lovely story. (Thanks, Bob!) But I haven’t yet seen the print edition, which comes out tomorrow. I don’t know yet if I’ve been outed with a recognizable photo.

Whatever the case, all I can think is: Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to stow away the blue wig for good.