Restaurant Review - Sweet that sours
The latest edition of Food 101 loses sight of the basics
I have never found much comfort in sugar. Don't get me wrong — I love dessert. It excites and intrigues me with its capacity for nostalgia, creativity and decadence. But as comfort food goes, I'd much rather curl up with a bowl of creamy mac 'n' cheese than with a jar of marshmallow fluff, or even ice cream. And I certainly do not find it comforting to add unnecessary sweetness where it isn't expected. Like to a hamburger, or a salad, or a plate of fish and asparagus.
I tell you all this because of my recent experiences at the new Morningside location of Food 101, where comfort food is the house specialty. "Proven classics and innovative twists" — that's what the website says. But from the minute bread and butter were delivered to our table, I started to wonder if the restaurant's definition of comfort had to do with sneaking in sweetness — that feel-good, serotonin-boosting drug — where you might not expect it. Food 101's butter is churned with honey and chives. I didn't think too much of that, but when the first appetizer arrived with confectioner's sugar as the garnish, I started to worry.
The decor and feel of the place seem set up to appeal to as many factions of the dining public as possible: The exposed brick and large, round green booths appeal to the urban hipsters among us; the light wood, long bar and ESPN on the bar's two TVs make a play for those of us who are more comfortable at a traditional American bistro. The menu reads as if it is hoping to find fans in both camps as well — meatloaf and pot roast share the page with red curry honey (notice that honey again).
And the recurring theme of the less traditional dishes is sweetness.
Corn fritters served with truffle honey butter were like pudding-textured hush puppies, the corn making the dish quite sweet enough. Then came the honey butter sauce. And then the confectioner's sugar garnish. Globs of goat cheese on the plate add to the confusion. An arugula salad is sweetened up with the addition of strawberries and dates, which would play off each other well on a fruit tart but not with vinaigrette. Even a Kobe burger at lunch has the unmistakable flavor of honey hidden somewhere in the garnishes, perhaps in the homemade boursin cheese or the tomato jam. A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but it doesn't help much with the burger.
For upscale comfort food, the menu features lots of respectable and well-executed options. Fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans won't bring fried chicken devotees to their knees, but it will satisfy their appetite. Once the cold weather comes around, Food 101's pot roast will be on my mind to warm me up with its homey richness. The restaurant's "famous" meatloaf was pure suburbia with a side of nostalgia.
Food 101's goals seem self-evident: catering to diners looking for traditional American food, with a nod — in the form of "twists" — to those of us who want a little more excitement on the plate. But it's worrisome that the "twists" usually come by way of throwing something recognizable but out-of-the-blue — like confectioner's sugar or strawberries — unnecessarily into the mix. Across the board, my food would have been better without such innovation. My perfectly lovely dish of halibut was served with an asparagus and strawberry salad. The strawberries were just strange — they do nothing for the dish, especially juxtaposed with chunks of raw, red onion. Fish and asparagus pair well together — maybe not mind-blowing, but perfectly respectable without borrowing from the ingredient list of a fruit salad.
Among the less-traditional dishes, I did find a couple of items that were perfectly in tune. The shrimp bisque tasted like a traditional tomato soup inflected with coconut and spiked with spice, and the balance here between comfort and edge is right on. Food 101 also is now officially the first restaurant in Atlanta to cook a pork chop the way I asked for it, and I am eternally grateful. The pepper jus that surrounded it was as savory as could be, and made for a tasty and hearty meal.
The restaurant carries goodies from Alon's across the street as well as its own house-made desserts. Again, I say it's safer to stick with the classics. One night we had a baffling "chocolate paté" from the specials menu, which I have since learned is a dish that Kevin Rathbun serves at Krog Bar but calls "chocolate bruschetta." The idea — to spread chocolate on bread and top it with rock salt and olive oil — may work for Mr. Rathbun, but it did not work here. The sesame semolina bread was not a suitable match for the spread, and the salt and cold olive oil did exactly what you'd expect them to do — clash with the chocolate.
But one night I hit the jackpot with the warm chocolate bread pudding. Fine, I admit it — this stuff is comforting, in all its warm, sweet, chocolatey glory. Just keep it away from my burger.