First Look: Saskatoon

Cliff meats his match in Buckhead

When I finished undergrad, I went to work for weekly newspapers in rural Georgia. Usually, I was the reporter, photographer and sales rep for these papers, and, being raised in the big city, I was pretty much in a continual state of shock.

Among my stranger tasks was photographing teenagers who brought their "first kill" by the newspaper office. Generally, their fathers were with them. As a conclusion to an obvious rite of initiation to manhood, the boy and his father sat on the tailgate of their pickup truck, holding up a dead deer's head by its antlers. There were smiles all around. Well, except for the deer.

We printed the pictures in the newspaper. It was not unusual for the family of the boys to send me a chunk of heavily marinated venison wrapped in tinfoil a week later. I never acquired a taste for the stuff. No matter how strong the marinade, it never eclipsed the overwhelmingly gamy taste of the meat.

These memories came back to me as we took our seat at Saskatoon (360 Pharr Road, 404-891-1911), a new Buckhead restaurant that markets itself as specializing in fish, steaks and wild game. The latter has inspired the display of multiple trophy deer and buffalo heads and lamps made of antlers. It's all calculated to evoke a hunting lodge in the Pacific Northwest. There's even a sculpture of a bear – thank God, it's not a real one – greeting diners near the front door.

All of this could be terribly tacky and even offensive if you're sympathetic to the animal rights movement. Then there's the fact that this is apparently the first franchise of a popular restaurant in Greenville, S.C. Taxidermy and franchise food! But a simple fact intrudes to complicate if not completely sabotage critical thoughts: The food is mainly delicious.

First of all, Saskatoon is not really serving wild game. It does offer a menu of regularly changing game animals, but they are domestically raised, according to the manager. "Wild game is too ... gamy," he said. Mainstays include elk tenderloin, ostrich filet, buffalo flank steak, a mixed grill, and venison rib chops. There's also salmon and trout and conventional "tame game" like rack of lamb, filet mignon and rib eye steak. Yes, carry money. It's not cheap.

Indeed, Wayne ordered an evening special – filet of buffalo with garlic mashed potatoes – and it turned out to cost close to $40. (Wayne is too intimidated to ask what recited specials cost. I am too annoyed not to ask. It's always an obvious way to trick diners into spending lots more money.) The buffalo would have made Ted Turner proud – amazingly rich and tender. Ignore its cousin eyeballing you from the wall.

For a starter we chose a sampler plate of "wild game sausage" served with roasted potatoes and black bean salad. The plate featured three sausages: duck (slightly smoky), venison (a bit oily and chewy) and rabbit (comparatively light). I wouldn't recognize any of these flavors in a blind tasting but each was distinctive. You can dip the sausages in a strong mustard or a house-made barbecue sauce that I found much less complementary.

For my own entrée, I continued the theme of sampling and ordered the mixed grill from the game menu. It did not seem particularly game-oriented in its inclusion of duck breast, a lamb chop and a quail. The duck was the evening's only near miss. It was significantly undercooked, which seemed particularly odd in that it nonetheless exuded the same strongly smoky flavor that the duck sausage did. The quail and lamb were both perfect.

I'll return to try the fish dishes, including the cedar-plank salmon so popular in the Northwest.

For dessert, we shared a Greek-Italian hybrid of crème brûlée layered with big squares of phyllo pastry covered in chopped pecans and honey. Like most desserts featuring phyllo in free form, it looked huge but was deceptively easy to knock off. I could eat two of these.

The restaurant is located in the space last occupied by Harry Bissett's, where I had one of the most unpleasant meals in memory a year or so ago. Not only is the ambiance and food improved, but Saskatoon's staff is terrific. The hostess is a gorgeous character who basically turns any area of the restaurant she occupies into a stage. A great experience.

Here and there

Havana Grill (3373 Buford Highway, 404-633-4999) has finally opened, not far from the restaurant that spawned it, the Havana Sandwich Shop that burned two years ago. Family conflict led to a first restaurant, Havana Restaurant, which also remains open at 3979 Buford Highway (404-633-7549). Yes, the mind reels trying to follow the drama, so I suggest you just eat.

I visited the newer restaurant last week and enjoyed a plate of boliche with salad, toasted bread, black beans and rice. Boliche is beef stuffed with chorizo and roasted – an earthy blend of flavors that are well highlighted with a chunky tomato sauce.

The restaurant has a full menu of sandwiches, of course, and plates of most Cuban classics such as picadillo and ropa vieja. It faces Buford Highway, in front of the enormous Northeast Plaza. So don't do as I did and drive the entire circumference of the shopping center before realizing the back of the restaurant is facing you. ...

Look for my column next week about Bamboo Grill and Hot Pot Restaurant (4646 Buford Highway, 678-580-1727). It's a new Vietnamese restaurant that is serving some unique dishes, including lau, a bubbling pot full of seafood and veggies.

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