GRAZING: A cornucopia of places to eat

Capella Cheese, Anis Bistro, Butaco/Buteco, Maepole, and Casseroles — a rose by any other name

#1 The Cheese Counter
Photo credit: Cliff Bostock
THE CHEESE COUNTER: Capella owner Raymond Hook dispenses cheese samples to a mystery chef of great renown.

There are Tarot cards and there are cheeses. There are fortune tellers and there are psychic cheesemongers like Raymond Hook, co-owner of the new Capella Cheese where I lunched recently with my friend Rose.

“All I have to do is ask someone a few questions,” Raymond told me. “Then I’ll know everything about them — enough to pick their perfect cheese. So, do you like it soft or hard?” I balked but told him that I prefer soft cheeses. Inwardly, I questioned myself. Why am I drawn to all that creamy, malleable decadence that resembles aged brain tissue instead of the manly upright rigidity that demands a sharp blade or grater? I looked away, embarrassed by my thoughts, and changed the subject. Raymond was unperturbed. His constant Confucius-style smile has always left me wondering if he ever pounds the table and erupts into a rant about the way bad cheese is bringing down America.

Raymond first showed up in Atlanta over 20 years ago, leaving Berkeley, CA, to manage Star Provisions and build its cheese business. His riffs about cheese and other specialty foods left most of us agog. While the aesthete in him waxed poetically about a cheese, the dude with the apparently photographic memory recounted every bit of its history and marketing. At my lunch, for example, I asked about Murray’s, whose name is all over Kroger’s cheese labels. Raymond, who became extremely active in the upper echelons of selling cheese after he left Atlanta for San Francisco and New York City, replied with a lengthy, infinitesimally-detailed profile of Murray’s (which was founded over 60 years ago and was purchased by Kroger in the last few years).

Raymond co-owns Capella, in Armour Yards, with longtime friends Clay Jackson and Samantha Naik. The shop’s name is the Latin translation of the Greek word for “goat,” which is the name given to one of the shiniest stars in the sky. To the Greeks and Romans, it referred specifically to the nanny goat Amalthea who suckled the ruling god Zeus. Growing strong, Zeus snapped off her horn, which became the “horn of plenty” (cornucopia) that magically supplies its owner with everything they want. Got that? Among those things you want is, first, a gorgeous interior with soaring ceilings — a cornucopia that’s pure minimalism on its exterior but is overflowing with sensual cheeses, wines, and other specialty foods displayed with perfect geometry. Raymond and staffers suckle shoppers with a constant flow of samples placed atop the cheese case. I spotted one of our city’s top fine-dining chefs gobbling like a feral cat.

THE CONFUCIUS OF CHEESE: Raymond Hook, perpetually smiling, has returned to the cheese counter at Capella after a high-power career in San Francisco and New York. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
HOUSE-MADE MOZZARELLA: The cheese was divine. The tomato was from Satan. Tear that sucker apart. Photo credit: Cliff Bostock

These cheeses are from around the world, extracted from Capella’s three climate-controlled rooms in which they are stored to maintain and foster perfection. One customer and food writer after another is astonished by qualities of even familiar types of cheese they’d not noticed before. Is it the placebo effect of the trance induced by Raymond Hook? Is it the wallet demanding that if you’re going to spend that much money on cheese, it better be better than, oh, psilocybin? I go to Aldi, a low-cost, European-based grocery, to stand in front of the big selection of shrink-wrapped cheeses with ex-pats who weirdly idolize the store. Aldi, oddly enough, is related to Trader Joe’s, and the cheese there’s often quite good. But here’s the good news. Raymond insists that while Capella indeed sells a lot of cheese beyond the reach of you and me, there’s plenty for everyone. In fact, he says he stays out of the pricing altogether.

Rose and I honestly just stopped by for a quick lunch at Capella, not expecting to interview Raymond, so we didn’t explore the facility or its treasures at extreme depth. We both chose one of the pre-made, plastic-wrapped sandwiches — mozzarella and a slice of tomato for me, a ham sandwich for Rose. We also got some olives, a couple of individual baguettes, and a couple of cheeses. Small lunch, right? My advice is that you compose a plate of cheese, a baguette, and some cured meat. The sandwiches were good for the most part, although the tomato on mine was so unripe that it contributed nothing more than a mealy texture to the quite glorious mozzarella that is made on the premises daily. Rose liked her ham sandwich but confided later that she was happier with the leftover half that she slathered with Dijon mustard. Here though, is evidence of Raymond’s claim. Our sandwiches were less than $10. You do know that a decent sandwich anywhere is costing close to $15 now, right?

A LIGHT MIDNIGHT SNACK: The pigs ate exclusively acorns and frolicked in the sunlight so that you might enjoy salami occasionally blotted with figs. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE: Grab probably the city’s finest charcuterie along with sandwiches, and house-made mozzarella in a bin flanked by mysterious chambers where cheeses are pampered before meeting your mouth. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU: Are you lost in time — old enough to recall the ’70s obsession with quiche Lorraine and how fat and happy it made you feel on Sundays? Casseroles’ brings that back with this quiche that supposedly feeds six but is like a tart for one in some households. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock

My moment with Capella came not during lunch and not with cheese but with 4 ounces of “dry-cured Iberico salami.” Twenty years ago, I spent as much time as I could in Spain, a place where I felt more like myself than anywhere else. My favorite city was Sevilla, where I rented an apartment for next to nothing. Almost every day I went for lunch in the same café. The owner always came to my table with a lengthy list of hams. The best pigs were fed acorns, but the owner could — a la Raymond — tell me exactly where on a particular mountain the pig was raised, how much sun it got daily, its complete diet, its genealogy, and its endearing peculiarities. Some days I ate with other regulars there and the first bite was like a call to prayer. When I opened the Iberico salami in the middle of the night after lunch at Capella, I was flooded with emotional memories. We often talk of memories evoked by layers of flavor and sensual aromas. It’s the measure of Raymond’s genius that he offers all his customers this opportunity. I am terrified by how much I want to eat there! Oh. Did I mention the Divina Fig Spread from Greece? When the world mistreats me, I turn to figs. Divina’s, denser than any such spread I’ve sampled, was good on my morning bagel, even better on my pork chop that night, and truly divine licked off a spoon with Quiz the Cat when nobody was looking.

Here and there

Speaking of food and nostalgia, Ms. Rose and I landed at Anis Bistro recently. I lunched there weekly for years after it opened in 1994. We arrived late, not knowing lunch service ends at 2, but our server gave us a table on the patio. I was amazed to see that the menu — and everything else about the restaurant — has remained basically the same after 28 years.

I ordered my longtime fave, three mergquez sausages with some pureed Yukon Gold potatoes, salad greens, and big dots of Dijon mustard. Ms. Rose ordered the Croque Monsieur, piling more ham on top of her Capella-born reputation as a ham fiend.

We ran into owner Arnaud Michel on the way out. He has children now, which is weird, since he was barely adolescent when I first met him. The vibe here is Provence; Arnaud grew up in Montpellier, part of the French Riviera, where his family operated a winery and owned olive fields….

I love Buteco at the Beacon in Grant Park. Since its opening in 2018, the bar has been all about Brazilian music and street food. Weirdly, it’s now (apparently) changed its name to Butaco and serves Chicano-style street food from southern California while keeping the soundtrack Braziian. I was intrigued enough to ask if this transition has occurred to fill in the blank created by the (supposedly) temporary closing of nearby Supremo Taco, another Chicano outpost. But but the man in charge, Timothy Rufino, says not. He has worked for a bunch of restaurants around town, including the revered Lazy Betty, and is happy to own the food truck that literally backs the bar.

SANDWICH OF THE MONTH: Casseroles is designed for takeout, but there are a few tables where you can feast on some dishes, like their sandwiches. This demi-baguette layered with arugula, prosciutto, and fresh mozzarella is fat and fantastically flavorful. Call ahead or check their website for the day’s menu details. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
CAN YOU SPOT THE HALLOWEEN DECORATION?: The French are so very good at hiding everything in full view, especially in Provence. The ambiance at Anis thus makes its patio a favorite spot for Ladies Who Lunch (And Want to Be Seen). Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
LUNCH AT ANIS: The Buckhead restaurant continues, after nearly 30 years, to serve classics like merguez sausages (with salad greens and mashed Yukon Golds) and a croque monsieur with housemade potato chips. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock

The menu is all tacos with a few sides like elote and dirty rice, sauces, churros, and extras. My favorites have been the al pastor and house-made chorizo. You have the option here of upgrading tacos to have them fried in cheese and served with birria, ordinarily a consommé but in Rufino’s rendering it is more likely to be a broth heavy with spicy guajillo chiles. Adding the birria alternative kind of uglifies the tacos but ups the flavor and obesity.

There’s a second location at the Southern Feedstore in East Atlanta Village. The main deal at both is coffee, cocktails, and music, but the Feedstore location — Buteco or Butaco? — doesn’t serve food….

I finally made it to Maepole, located in nearby Summerhill. It’s all about gluten-free, healthy food. Since I’ve yet to shed the gigantic blubber mass that infected me to ward off Covid during the pandemic, I thought Maepole would be a good first step toward becoming a geriatric Instagram hottie. I’ve set out to dine here several times, but my good intentions have been sabotaged by Woods Chapel BBQ, directly across the street. Wayne Johnson derailed that suggestion this time.

BUTECO/BUTACO: You can still listen to samba and fado at Buteco but you’ll be eating Chicano tacos from Southern California. Here are the house-made chorizo and al pastor tacos messily, deliciously fried in cheese and served with a guajillo birria beyond the usual consommé. Get ‘em with dirty rice and black beans. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
BUTACO, THE MAN: Timothy Rufino owns the food truck that has transformed Buteco. He’s a veteran of the restaurant scene, including Lazy Betty. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock

Maepole is from Athens and I feared it would recall the hippie health food I ate during my college years. Of course, back then 10 inhalations of ganja made dirt appetizing. Maepole’s food is a step way up from raw mashed-up garbanzos soaked with canola oil impersonating olive oil, but I had problems with it. Probably because we arrived about 30 minutes before they closed, the food — served cafeteria-style — was not pretty. Much of it was super dry, although sauces, served stingily by the squirt, helped.

You have the opportunity here to select pre-composed “chef plates” in the way you do at a pizzeria, but we both went for the build-your-own option. The food is served in recyclable-looking paper-ish rectangles. I had quinoa (fluffy-good), pork shredded and spiced Latino style with citrus notes (quite tasty but way dry; needed extra sauce), roasted potatoes and mushrooms (smoky filler), braised red cabbage (I want more), a light dose of honey-sriracha sauce (no discernible heat for a chile-head, even with a side of kimchi), and a hard-boiled egg (extra protein!). Wayne got many of the same ingredients plus slaw. He chose blackeyed-pea fritters for his protein. That was actually my first choice, but he got almost all that were left. Honestly, after tasting them — no crispness — I’m very glad I went for the pork. He made the very good choice of two sauces — buttermilk and romesco — that moisturized and enlivened things, like a good facial cream does for a hungover drag queen.

I really, seriously wanted to like Maepole and maybe I’ll go back. The restaurant markets itself as healthy southern comfort food, but I want greens on my plate as well as mac and cheese, which was there but looked way too wrinkled. Anyway, I ran up to Big Softie for ice cream to reward myself for eating so healthy and I hit Woods Chapel two days later to compound my reward. That Cuban sandwich remains irresistible….

Of all the sandwiches I’ve eaten recently, the best has been a demi-baguette with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, layered thick with arugula, anointed with pesto, at Casseroles in Virginia-Highland, located in a subterranean space across from Alon’s. My huge sandwich was only $10! While the main intent here is takeout, there are a few tables available.

The kitchen here prepares soups, salads, and a variety of main plates that aren’t all casseroles. Specials are available daily but there’s a long list of customer favorites that are always available refrigerated or frozen. I tampered with three or four of the casseroles — all recommended by friends — over a few weeks but never seemed to get the heating right. True, my oven is rickety, but I have thermometers! And then there’s the influence of my mother who, despite being bred in rural South Carolina, disdained casseroles as peasant crapola. Sorry, mama, keep spinning in that grave because I’m going to keep trying the casseroles.

THE PRETTIER ALTERNATIVE: Out of fairness to the leaner and fussier, Butaco serves tacos straight-up without the delicious gunk. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
WHAT IS IT?: It is two recyclable plates of reasonably healthy ingredients with kimchi on the side. Advice: Go to Maepole well before closing in order to avoid food that’s languished too long in the steam trays. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock
THE SLEEK HIDES THE MESSY: Service is cafeteria-style at Maepole. If you can’t play the build-your-own game, you can order chefs’ plates. The problem with that is that you might not see the state of the ingredients being used. Go with your gut, man. Photo Credit: Cliff Bostock

I do have one super-strong recommendation: the store’s quiche Lorraine. I had not eaten this since the ‘70s when my partner and his mom mass-produced them on Sundays and I had never heard of “cholesterol.” It’s all cream, bacon, and Swiss cheese. Casseroles’ website says one quiche “serves approximately six people.” No, one serves one person for dinner and a midnight snack. That one person, consumed with guilt, might force the final slice (one quarter of the quiche) on another person….

I’m sure you all read the “antiwork”sub-reddit, right? I encourage diners and servers to check out this thread: “I should have just quit after this.” 

It’s a hilarious, sad, angry, shocking, often surprising description of tipping in America and other countries. I know…you servers have heard it all, but it’s a true education for people who are debating whether to add two percentage points to their 10-percent usual….It is truly flabbergasting how many excellent pop-ups are regularly hosted in our city now. Keeping track of them is impossible without “How do you Atlanta?”  The source and structure is confusing but you’ll find links there to Punk Foodie’s ITP and OTP lists that include specific locations and times. For more than listings, consult Punk Foodie’s Linktree—CL—

Capella Cheese, 255 Ottley Dr. #110, 404-882-3974,  @capellacheese

Anis Bistro, 2974 Grandview Ave., 404-233-9889, IG: @aniscafebistro  FB &TW: @anisbistro

Buteco/Butaco, 1039 Grant St., 404-963-2929,  @butecoatl

Maepole, 72 Georgia Ave., 404-907-4355, , @maepole_

Casseroles, 1393 North Highland Ave., 404-228-3260,  @casserolesATL

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