Atlanta runs right up there with the big dogs when it comes to fine dining. With cuisine from nearly every ethnic group in the universe, the city isn't just about sweet tea and fried chicken -- though you can certainly get your fill of authentic southern cooking here as well (see below for more on that). But when you've tired of turnip greens, fried okra, and cheese grits, prepare to dazzle your taste buds with fare ranging from Russian and Indian to Moroccan and Greek. Whatever you choose to dine on, you can always wash it down with one of many local brews, including the most popular, Sweetwater 420 Extra Pale Ale. A number of brewpubs in Atlanta serve their own house brew.
In addition, some of the country's top chefs operate successful restaurants here, including Richard Blais (a former competitor on Iron Chef America), the man behind the super popular FLIP Burger Boutique, a modern hamburger joint concept. The legendary Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison -- the wife/husband team and owners of Bacchanalia, Quinones, Floataway Café, and Star Provisions -- they've been jointly named the James Beard Foundation's "Best Chef in the Southeast" in recent years.
A Primer for Souther Cuisine
In the South, we call our first meal of the day breakfast, like the rest of the country, but the water gets murky after that. What most of the country calls "lunch," southerners often refer to as "dinner." And to differentiate between it and the evening meal, we typically refer to "dinner" as "supper." But don't worry, even Atlanta's Southern cuisine eateries use the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner references.
It's no surprise that many folks visiting Atlanta and/or the South for the first time have some curiosity about southern or "country" cooking, and visitors here won't be disappointed. While many establishments serve what they consider southern dishes, many of them miss the mark. But that reliable handful of seasoned cooks (and some are true chefs) serving authentic, "down home" cooking do us all proud. One anomaly for many unfamiliar with southern fare is grits. There's really no mystery here, folks; grits are ground corn, similar to what our northern counterparts do with wheat and call "cream of wheat." Now, what you do with grits is a whole 'nother story. While the traditional style is hot grits topped with butter, salt, and pepper, cheese grits is another tasty option, especially popular as a side to fried fish. However, even cheese grits have taken on a new spin, with chefs constantly trying to find some fancy cheese to mix in rather than sticking to the Velveeta upon which most southern cooks rely for flavoring. Today's cooks are liable to do all manner of dishes with grits, including the popular shrimp and grits, quail and grits, and even baked garlic cheese grits. Many chefs use grits much like others would use polenta, and the taste isn't terribly different. Transplants to the South have been known to eat their grits with sugar, much to the dismay of natives, of course. But even locals add a twist to their grits on occasion, such as cream cheese, ham, or red eye gravy, not really a gravy at all, but rather a thin sauce made from the drippings of country ham and coffee (it tastes much better than it sounds -- trust me).
While among us dwells a small percentage of vegetarians, most southerners do like their meat, especially if it's fried, such as fried chicken, fried pork chops, and country fried steak. Wild game is typically easy to come by and includes venison, wild hog, quail, turkey, dove, and even alligator and rattlesnake for the most daring amongst us. Barbecued meat of all types is another southern favorite, and if you're going to eat it, you've got to have Brunswick Stew, for which the most traditional recipe calls for cooking down a hog's head (or even squirrel). Whatever meat is used -- pork, chicken, beef -- is combined with corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and a wide variety of ingredients, depending on who's cooking. We're also fond of fried seafood, especially catfish and mullet (it's got to be fresh to be good).
Another large sector of southern food is fresh vegetables, including black-eyed peas; collard, turnip, or mustard greens; okra (fried or stewed with tomatoes are favored among southerners); fried green tomatoes; and squash, most tasty when baked into a casserole with cheese and cracker crumbs. Other southern sides include pear salad (a canned pear half topped with a dollop of mayonnaise and sprinkled with shredded cheddar cheese) and sweet-potato soufflé, both of which are almost dessertlike. Speaking of desserts, southerners will charm you with pecan pie, red velvet cake (the cake really is red, thanks to food coloring, and then topped with rich cream-cheese frosting), banana pudding, peanut butter pie, and 12-layer caramel cake.
Between meals, you might try some southern snacks, such as fried pork skins in any variety of flavors, boiled peanuts (a truly acquired taste -- I think it's the texture that throws first-timers), or cheese straws, a cheesy crumbly cracker and a staple at any respectable shower, tea, reception, or other such event that calls for southern hospitality.
Bread is on the table for all southern meals, from morning to night. But what we consider "bread" in the South takes on a wide definition, including your standard grocery store loaf of white bread, or "light bread" as we are known to call it. It also includes such high-carb treats as buttermilk biscuits, thick slabs of cornbread, and lace hoecake cornbread -- a thin, lacy bread fried in a cast-iron skillet. There's nothing better with any southern meal than a good ol' cat head biscuit, so called because they are as big as a cat's head. And don't be surprised if you see one of us dipping (or sopping, as it's known here) our biscuit in the gravy or drowning it in cane syrup, blackstrap molasses, Tupelo honey, Mayhaw jelly, or any number of sweet concoctions.
Wash it all down with a tall glass of sweet tea (iced tea with sugar and usually a slice of lemon), that southern nectar that leaves northerners scratching their heads when we try to order it in a restaurant north of the Mason-Dixon line (Mary Macs, a southern dining tradition in Atlanta, refers to sweet tea as "the table wine of the South"). RC (Royal Crown) Cola and, of course, Coca-Cola (pronounced "co-cola" by southerners) are other staples. And many old-timers still belly up to the bar for a nice cold glass of fresh buttermilk.
If you're looking for something a little stronger in the drink category, Atlanta is home to many brewpubs, bubbling up their own beers, among the most popular of which is Sweetwater 420. Of course, some folks do still drink their mint juleps, but not with the frequency that outsiders might think. This stereotypical libation is a strong combination of whiskey, sugar, mint, and crushed ice, and it'll knock your socks off.
P.C. is a big priority in Atlanta. No, no -- not P.C., as in political correctness. P.C., as in pimento cheese. And let's get the pronunciation down right off the bat. It's puh-men-uh cheese, an utterly simple but delightful mixture, usually consisting of just three main ingredients -- canned pimentos, cheese, and some sort of binder, probably mayonnaise -- slapped between two pieces of white bread. Southern cooks have hot debates over the fine points. Cheddar or Monterey Jack? Sharp or extra-sharp? Duke's mayonnaise or Hellmann's? Is onion okay? How about red-pepper flakes?
Regardless of the mixture, a pimento-cheese sandwich is right up there with grits as one of the ultimate southern comfort foods. It's usually a homemade concoction, not found on many restaurant menus. But Watershed in Decatur has seen fit to include it among lunch and dinner offerings, as there is such a demand for it from patrons. Here is Watershed's take on the venerable southern classic.
Watersheds Pimento Cheese
2 1/2 cups (10 oz.) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
salt to taste, if needed
5 or 6 grinds of black pepper
3/4 cup homemade mayonnaise
3 tablespoons finely chopped pimento
In a mixing bowl, stir together all of the ingredients until well mixed and creamy. Taste carefully for seasoning and adjust as needed. Cover and keep refrigerated until ready to use. Makes about 2 cups.
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