Sunday, August 03, 2008

Southern Flavor

Folks in Atlanta are not afraid of good food.

Sure, in California it's all about organic and influences from the Pacific Rim. New York celebrates diversity like it's a job - letting foodies sink their teeth into dishes with Amish and Zydeco influences and everything in between.

In the ATL - it's all about rich.

Diners in the South's unofficial capital lick their chops at the prospects of authentic barbecue, heaping helpings of cream gravy and chitlins worthy of mama's stove top. Everything is full fat full stop. And there are few restaurants that do Southern better than the Horseradish Grill.

Horseradish Grill - 4320 Powers Ferry Road - Atlanta, GA 30342

The dining spot prides itself on being Atlanta's oldest, continuously operating restaurant, a bragging right you sense as soon as you cross the threshold into what looks like an old horse barn. The restaurant features a bunch of cozy corners and spots perfect for a bridal shower, a romantic occasion or another special event. Brigid, Steve and I were shown to a table in the main dining room, a spot next to a window looking on to the beautifully manicured patio. The crowd was full of families enjoying Sunday Brunch, folks looking for a leisurely meal after church and young professionals enjoying some bubbly mimosas, perhaps seeking some hair of the dog after a night out in Midtown.

We poured over the drink menu and Steve and I decided to indulge in another brunch classic - a ice cold, spicy Bloody Mary. The drink came in a tall pint glass, garnished with several green olives on a spear - it had some heat but I didn't think the drink was spectacular - but it was good enough.

Our server brought us a basket of fluffy, warm biscuits. With one bite, I could tell someone had slaved away in a hot, late-July-in-Atlanta kitchen, making these biscuits from scratch. They were flaky and moist and had just a hint of salt in them - the perfect flavor to compliment a big smear of real butter and homemade jam.

We devoured the biscuits. I'm sure if someone had timed us, we would have won a competition for fast eating. This brunch at Horseradish Grill was already turning into serious business, and I was wondering whether my stomach and I would be able to keep up.

Steve and Brigid (being regular diners at HG) insisted we try an appetizer of the fried green tomatoes - and I wasn't going to fight them. The server brought us the most magnificent plate of firm, fried tomato slices topped with melted goat cheese and seasoned, toasted pecan bits. The tomatoes held on to the seasoned breading quite well and the cheese and pecans were a perfect, unexpected addition to this quintessential Southern dish.

When it came to ordering the entrees, I was really torn. The menu was chock full of delicious offerings, and the server only complicated the matter by expertly describing the day's specials. I went with the special omelet of chorizo sausage, tomatoes, white cheddar cheese - all topped with a fresh, creamy avocado sauce. It was delicious, but in retrospect I wish I hadn't gone that route. I mean, an omelet is an omelet, right? You can get omelets in Idaho and Cincinnati and Kansas. It was a delicious dish, but I wish I had selected something worthy of a Paula Deen cookbook. The hash brown potatoes were crispy and hot and homemade. Delicious, but again, nothing spectacular.

Brigid's fingers make a reach for my hash browns.

Initially, I was enchanted with the Hot Georgia Browns on the brunch menu. The dish is The Grill's take on one of my favorite Kentucky traditions. I spent many years devouring the Hot Brown at Ramsey's in Lexington, and was curious about this version, served on biscuits instead of pieces of toast. The Horseradish Grill piles roasted turkey on top of the biscuits, drowning it in a creamy mornay sauce, topped with crumbled bacon. Brig and I both salivated at the idea of the dish, and in the end Brig decided to take on the heart-attack-on-a-plate.

At first bite, Brig and I both thought the heaping pile of starch and fat was heavenly. Brig continued on with the challenge, though, and quickly became disenchanted with the dish. We both concurred the dish was just too damn rich - and the gravy had a bit of an odd aftertaste. I think I figured out where this spin on the hot brown misses the mark. The chef has opted to forgo the much needed element of a couple slices of tomato to top the pile of gluttony. The fruit/vegetable is pretty much a pre-req in the Kentucky version, and the slices add just a bit of moist flavoring needed to combat all the starchy heaviness.

Both struggling with a little bit 20/20 hindsight, we eyed my brother-in-law's delicious dish. Steve had opted for the Jumbo Gulf Shrimp and Logan Turnpike Grits. The menu described the dish as, "sautéed with fire-roasted red peppers and caramelized onions in a lightly spiced sherry sauce."

Steve's fork assumes the position, seconds before experiencing edible ecstasy

Brigid and I felt like two mutts eying another dog with a t-bone. Steve's fork dove in to the plate, a symphony epitomizing everything Southern. After we all had enjoyed a few bites of our respective dishes, Brig and I noticed our forks started creeping towards Steve's plate. He obliged without a second thought. I didn't feel right about taking one of the dynamite looking shrimps, but I did scoop up a bit of the grits and sauce that accompanied them.


I savored the grits wondering if perhaps that's why Sherman burned down Atlanta - maybe he was pissed the ladies of the South wouldn't share their secret shrimp-and-grits recipes. At the Horseradish Grill, the kitchen serves up perfect grits - they're not too sticky, not too watery. They are the perfect consistency of creamy. Brig and I swirled our fingers in the dish (poor Steve) trying to solve the mystery of the sauce. I know the menu mentions sherry, but Brig and I are convinced there's some maple syrup thrown in there for good measure. We finished our brunch, Brig already plotting a birthday visit at the Horseradish Grill at the end of the month.

She says she's getting the shrimp and grits.

Steve and Brigid... they are amazing.

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