Mar 29, 2014

Tactical Review: Sweet Auburn Barbecue




The word barbecue here in the south holds a reverence unlike any other. Mention it and watch the passion ensue. And how can it not? Slow cooked foods touched with wisps of smoke, heightened by aggressive spice rubs or bolstered by one of the kings of condiments, BBQ sauce. It is the ultimate comfort food. Building upon generations of tradition, a recent slew of regional/ethnic slants have brought diversity that most culinary genres would be jealous of. It reminds me of the passion and dedication our fire service pays towards our cherished fire helmets. Names like Cairns, Bullard, and Morning Pride will stimulate spirited debate. There are both timeless zeitgeists that are rooted deep into their respective cultures and helps identify many a southerner/firefighter’s view on tradition, innovation, and pride.

Traditional fire helmet.
Today's modern fire helmet. 














This may play in no small part my passion for finding good barbecue here in Atlanta. My attempts have been many: Heirloom Market, Bone Lick, Community, One Star Ranch and Moonies to name but a few, all to varying success and disappointment. Much like finding the right fit and style fire helmet, it’s a very personal decision but all can agree on the basics; well smoked proteins, delicious and varied sides and a fun atmosphere. All this exposition brings me to my latest attempt and finding the right fit to Sweet Auburn Barbecue.



Having cut their teeth in the congested roads of Atlanta whilst wagging war with the other ever-increasing horde of food trucks that are setting up shop on our street corners, they have come up with a hard nose mentality that one can’t help but respect. My wife and I visited their most recent address here in ATL, the Poncey-Highlands brick-n-mortar spot, to find out what all the recent buzz was all about. The location is in a corner commercial structure appropriately colored with grays, blues and whites and the large BARBECUE sign make it easy to find. Plentiful parking is across the street and as of this review, free.


Upon entry, one is greeted with a wood laden bar lined with many a bottle. The man behind the bar, a 20 something with close-cropped fashionable mustache so popularized today as an ode to easier times, mans the drinks. In fact, the trendy vibe of the place extended to the entire wait staff. At times part cockiness, part enthusiasm; it was an odd mix of a staff that knows something that the patrons don’t. Like, this place is good and it doesn’t need a hard sale but if you ask, we’ll give it to you, and then some.


Whatever the serving style, I didn’t care. I was here for the food.  Having heard that the Pimento Cheese Wontons were the appetizer of choice (besides their wings), my wife and I started there.  I mean really, Pimento Cheese Wontons? At a barbecue joint? It was the kind of whimsical take on a classic that last throughout the meal. Well fried with a morsel of smoked meat in the middle and sprinkled with green onions, it was a great pairing with the provided acidic BBQ sauce. It was a great first offering.

The Rueben Sandwich.
Plenty of smoked brisket.
Our first entrée arrived in the form of their version of a Rueben sandwich; buttered Texas toast, a fried egg, generous amount of smoked brisket, dry coleslaw, and some of the best house made pickles we’ve had in years. It was a glorious bite, very inventive (similar to Heirloom Market), and served along side some expertly garlic seasoned fries. This is what I had come for, something that the average weekend smoker wouldn’t think of when making barbecue for the family on any given Sunday. It was good, people.

The Dinosaur Bone
With my wife going non-traditional, I went the other way and got what they aptly named the Dinosaur Bone, a large, single beef spare rib seasoned simply with salt and pepper (though I detected thyme, oregano and other herbs), a trail of BBQ sauce and the same house made pickles and buttered Texas toast. One lift of the bone from the micro hotel pan and the meat happily separated from the bone. Well flavored and seasoned, and take note firemen, it was what a man’s portion should be. Though in my opinion, the meat could have used a little more time in the smoker, but after a second round of the amazing pickles, I didn’t care.

A nice little treat for the bulldog at home.
Note that the desserts looked equally playful and delicious, but we were stuffed. That, and the sun was out calling our name and a quick walk down the street would bring us to Paolo’s Gelato, so we skipped this time.


With the décor, vibe, and staff to boost an overall fun atmosphere, it would all be for not if the food didn’t match. Thankfully, Sweet Auburn Barbecue delivered, all the while reminding us what fun barbecue can be, when placed in the hands of those willing to go down paths less travelled. Traditional with whimsy, that about sums it up, a strong recommend.

March 2014

3.5 Alarms.

Sweet Auburn Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Mar 22, 2014

Italian White Bean Soup

Spring always makes me think of fresh produce, edible greens, and quick soups for the pleasantly cool evenings. As I was bean adverse while growing up, I’ve become aggressive with my experimenting different bean recipes. Fava, green, kidney, I’m infatuated with them all. Which lead me to incorporate beans into a quick, relatively healthy soup.

Though soup was what I leapt to first when ushering in a bean recipe to the fire service, I implore you to consider adding beans to salads as well, either cold or warm. A great source of protein, fiber, carbs, vitamins (vitamin B especially!), minerals, and needed lipids (polyunsaturated fat!), they’re often considered one of the healthiest foods available. 

A few after the fire critiques: White butter beans from Italy are not an everyday grocery item, I know. Hence, white kidney beans and/or cannellini beans are very complimentary substitutes and are readily available. Feel free to skip pancetta all together to make it vegetarian or add some shredded roast chicken (a favorite at the firehouse). Spinach can be replaced with any dark leafy green, just adjust the cook time to accommodate. 

This was adapted from a William Sonoma recipe.

Feeds 4-6 comfortably.

Tools

Dutch Oven
Wooden Spoon
Colander
Various Bowls

Fuel

Pancetta or Pork Belly (6-8 ounces, cubed)
White Butter/Cannellini/Kidney Beans (2 cans, well rinsed)
Chicken Stock (8 cups)
Spinach (2 cups)
Onion (large, diced)
Carrots (2 large, diced)
Garlic (3 cloves, smashed)
Tomato Paste (2 Tbs.)
Dried Oregano (1 Tbs.)
Smoked Paprika (2 tsp.)
EVOO (1 Tbs.)
S&P too taste

Tactics

Place the Dutch oven over low-medium heat. Add the EVOO and heat for 30 seconds. Add the smashed garlic and pancetta and render till browned, 5-8 minutes. Remove and drain in separate bowl lined with paper towel. Carefully remove the smashed garlic pieces. Remove all but 1 Tbs. of the leftover pancetta grease. Add the carrots and onion, season with salt, and cook to soften, 5 minutes. Add the dried oregano and smoked paprika, mix to combine, and continue to cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste, mix to combines and cook for an additional 2 minutes. 

Pour in the chicken stock and then bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the beans, spinach, and pancetta and cook for 10-15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately. Indulge!

Gather your fuel. 
Here's an example of acceptable beans.
Chunk your pancetta. 
Rinse your spinach. 
Prep and cut your carrots and onions.
Rough chop the spinach.
Once prepped, pack away for later.
When ready, rinse the beans very well. 
Add pancetta to low-medium heat in pan.
Add the garlic then saute till browned. Remove & reserve. 
Add carrots and onions with pinch of salt.
Keep sautéing while adding spices, first dried oregano... 
... then smoked paprika. 
Cook for 5-8 minutes.
Add the tomato past, mix, and cook another 2 minutes. 

Add the chicken stock.
White beans.
Bring to a slow boil.
Add the spinach and reduce heat to a...
...simmer.
Cook for 10-15 minutes and season with S&P.
Set up serving station and indulge!
Italian White Bean Soup. 

Mar 16, 2014

Tactical (Restaurant) Review: Sun in My Belly


Needing a visit to one of my wife and I’s favorite spots in Atlanta to stock up on the essentials of cooking, The Dekalb Farmer’s Market, I searched desperately to find a local spot serving breakfast (thank you Urbanspoon) with the first to pop up on a quick search being Sun in My Belly, the Decatur restaurant located off of College Ave. As many a firefighter cook can tell you, there’s nothing worse then shopping for food on an empty stomach because before you know it, you’ve blown through the budget of the day with dreams of lobster and steak, so off to fill them we went.

A bit removed from the neighborhood’s surrounding hustle and bustle, this place is easy to drive by and not know it was a restaurant (I’m raising my hand right now cause I was THAT guy). Parking was in the rear and plentiful except, as noted by some, for Sunday brunch when jazz is playing. The structure itself is unique, brick driven and industrial on the outside, with the words J.A. Bailey & Sons Hardware Co. boldly stenciled in red wrapping the building. A few tables, umbrellas, chairs, and un-light string bulbs are the only wink to a restaurant being inside the premises.

The stark exterior belays the comfortable and colorful interior. This seems to be a running theme with a lot of Atlanta restaurants trying to be eclectic and crafty. Some are more successful than others, and after winding my way through the myriad of different rooms, Sun in My Belly has struck a good balance. Not seeming to try too hard with being en vogue yet balancing the color and whimsy with minimalistic art and subdued couches. I liked the vibe.


Also in line with many cafés, there was the prerequisite coffee bar littered with pastries. With the café spilling into the kitchen, it denied any feeling of being exclusive, catering to a knowledgeable clientele that drives coffee aficionados flocking like at other joints. Having just become a coffee drinker myself, I am more sensitive to catching this. On a side note, yes, many a firefighter will tell you that coffee is what runs the fire service (and all four branches of the military too), so a good cup of Jo is a must.

The Cafe.
Being the first to enter the restaurant, service was slow to acknowledge us and there existed that momentary awkwardness as server stared at server to determine who’d be responsible to help us. Never a good feeling and one surely to color the customer’s overall experience, a shame. Once seated, coffee was ordered and menus dispersed. As my eyes wandered the offerings, the Belly Benedict screamed ORDER ME! But alas, it is only available on the weekends. (Ok, please indulge a quick soapbox, so excuse me while I step on it. My feeling is if there exists a specialty item, don’t place it on the menu and leave it to the responsibility of the server to educate the customer of its existence. Don’t tease, please.)


P.B.L.T.
It was a good, complex bite.
As I recovered from the emotional loss of the Benedict, my wife beat me to the punch with ordering the P.B.L.T. (Pimento, Bacon, Lettuce, Fried Green Tomato) Sandwich. It tickled her to see this on the menu as she recently discussed making a sandwich at home very similar to this and was pleased to see a rendition for her to taste. Stacked high and imposing, it delivered on taste with the Pimento cheese and scallion aioli striking a great balance with the buttered, toasted bread, thick cut bacon, and fried but acidic green tomatoes. The plate was rounded out with some well-seasoned skillet potatoes. This was a winner of a dish.

Challah French Toast (yes, that's it).
Wanting to share something sweet with my wife’s savory and having gravitated towards Pain Perdu for longer then I can remember, I took a crack at the Challah French Toast. Stuffed with honeyed ricotta and some seasonal fruit (a baked banana was offered but declined) I was excited. What followed was a first for me and not something I’ll soon forget. First and foremost, let us first discuss the size of the French Toast that was placed in front of me. For $10, this was far and away the most expensive per square inch French Toast I had ever seen. My wife’s eyes grew large as the server paced the plate in front of me with it’s petite offering because she knows my body size and physique hide a voracious appetite that surprises other firefighters daily. This was an insult. Even the server hovered over the table seemingly waiting the coming question, “That’s it?” ready with a comforting retort. But the disappointment didn’t end there. The bread was insufficiently battered and dry, which in hindsight would not have been an issue if not for the fact that the honeyed ricotta was one of the most inedible things I’ve encountered in a while. Lacking the needed sweetness from a strong honey and having a texture that bordered on being grainy…Wait, on second thought, it didn’t just border, it walked over the line, unfolded a lawn chair, cracked open a beer and settled in on watching the big game on TV. For the first time, perhaps ever, I had the server return the plate and order something else. WOW.

Pimento Omelet.
Screaming past the hunger phase straight into hypoglycemia, I ordered the safest thing on the menu, the Pimento Omelet. So shell shocked by the previous attempt at eating, the only thing that made me perk up and take notice of the dish was the addition of the Pimento cheese, a first for me. It was deliciously spicy and had me clamoring for more of the cheese. The execution of the omelet was up to par but nothing to write home about, and having already partaken in the potatoes with my wife’s dish, there was nothing else to say. Overall, I’d have to label it a safe, standard dish.

The awkward entry and the hesitant hovering after delivering the dilapidated French Toast being the only exceptions, the service was general strong. Though we were the first to be seated, as the restaurant began to fill with other customers, our server was on top of our experience.

So what is a firefighter to do when he spends his hard earned money on an establishment that repays him and his wife with a great dish, a standard dish, and the only dish in his history that he found inedible? Hold to your integrity and judge them honestly and fairly. Sun in My Belly had a bad day in the kitchen with their French Toast. It happens to the best of us. The atmosphere, décor, service, and P.B.L.T. will entice me to come back and perhaps try the weekend edition of the Belly Benedict, but with reservations.

Reviewed: Feb. 2014


2 Alarms

Sun in My Belly on Urbanspoon

Feb 5, 2014

Tactical (Restaurant) Review: West Egg Cafe

When seeking any breakfast, be it in Atlanta or elsewhere, I make it almost a general rule of thumb to avoid any spot that has the word ’egg’ in it. You see, 'egg' screams generic to me like 'ladder' does to a firefighter. Sure, the ladder is a major tool of the trade and is used daily, but throwing up a ladder on the side of a structure isn't what makes the local news. But when done right, an experienced firefighter will recognize it for what it truly is, a piece of art.

It takes much practice and skill to expertly handle a ladder. To ensure the butt end is adequately far enough from the structure to measure the correct climbing angle, that it's spun facing the right direction to make certain it doesn't compromise it's rated weight capacity, the knot is fashioned safely and efficiently to tie off the halyard, the amount of extension is such for the desired use; be it rescue, search, emergency egress, etc. Sure it's easy in theory and as long as you get it up, it serves a purpose. Eggs fall into the same category for me. Easy to learn, terribly hard to master, I appreciate a good egg. 

All this exposition leads me to pulling up my chair to a table at the Westside spot, West Egg Café. Located near such hot culinary spots as JCT Kitchen, Star Provisions and Antico Pizza Napoletana, and a quick drive from Atlantic Station and IKEA, it fills the breakfast gap nicely. The façade of the restaurant is minimalistic with a very bold red wall with a bit of whimsy (nice pig). Red Adirondack chairs sit flanking floor to ceiling windows that lead into the café/bakery/bar. The outside says slick southern. Even better, located to the B-side (left side facing north) of the restaurant, there’s free covered parking with a minutes walk.




Upon entering the restaurant, one walks into the café end, an eclectic mishmash of coffee house and subway station (I couldn’t help but be reminded of The General Muir). Be it the large communal table, the book lined shelf, or the file cabinet stuffed with sugars, it was a fun vibe. The white subway tiles stood contrast to the bottles, cakes and staff. Nice.


The dining room carried the theme though in an open floor fashion. It was a weekday morning so the hall was packed (with some of Atlanta’s finest, AFD, always a good sign) so my wife and I opted for the outdoor patio. Covered with heaters, it was sparsely adorned in line with the outside of the restaurant but did the job.

Dinning hall
Functional outdoor patio
The breakfast menu was reminiscent of other classic southern fare but the whimsy carried on here as well. Southern comforts such as pimento cheese, biscuits, and fried green tomatoes littered the standards with offerings from the bakery as well. I knew going in what I was going to order from recommendations from previous patrons and was thankful they were still on the menu. Note that they serve hot food daily and till the night with burgers and beer amongst other things with Monday and Tuesday being the notable exceptions.
Belgium Waffle with Spiced Butter
I started with the Belgium Waffle with Spiced Honey Butter. Extremely light and crisp, the syrup was actually needed to give this waffle some needed weight. So feather light, without the well-spiced butter, I envisioned the waffle floating away. Recommended as a complementary side to a savory dish, this by itself would only have pissed me off instead of filled me up, but delicious just the same.

Fried Green Tomato Wrap with Roasted Garlic Grits
To fill by belly properly, I ordered the Fried Green Tomato Wrap, which came stuffed in a whole-wheat tortilla with an aggressive horseradish dill sauce (a revelation for me) slathered around scrabbled eggs, bacon, cheddar cheese, and the star, the tomatoes themselves. Well balanced needing only minor seasoning (salt please), this was good. Do yourself a favor and order a side of the Roasted Garlic Grits, which reminded my of some remote, forgotten Italian-style polenta, well done.

Smoked Gouda Omelet, Skillet Potatoes and Biscuit
My wife stuck to the traditional build your own omelet. Seeing Smoked Gouda on the menu she made her start there and surround it up with mushrooms, tomatoes, onions and jalapeños. A side of skillet potatoes (just standard quality) and a biscuit (better then most but not great) rounded out the dish. Overall, I’d have to say a shrug of the shoulders dish.

Bottomless coffee (solid) was offered tableside, cutlery is packaged in a wooden box, and service offered by a courteous wait staff. Note that I did not partake in any alcoholic beverages (it was breakfast people) nor anything from the bakery as I usually do, but the bakery offerings, though slim by the time we reached the place, looked their part. I was told that ordering is upon request, nice.


West Egg Café was a nice discovery. I enjoyed the vibe, the clientele, and most importantly, the food. This was just my kind of speed and felt so right in the Westside neighborhood. Nothing world shattering here but just solid food at fair Atlanta prices and a solid recommend. And like my Atlanta brothers and sisters from AFD, who realized that this place knows how to throw a ladder, I’ll be back.

Review date: Jan 2014
3 Alarms

West Egg Cafe on Urbanspoon
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