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Wyatt Williams


I was supposed to love being a restaurant critic. What happened?

Wyatt Williams
Former AJC restaurant critic Wyatt Williams snaps a photo of a dish.

Photograph by Jamie Allen

Six weeks ago, I woke up at five in the morning with a stabbing pain in my side. The night before I’d been out eating dinner at a restaurant I’d meant to review, but I’d been having a strange case of chills and fever before I got there. Even after I’d been in the restaurant for 30 minutes, I still couldn’t warm up. I could hardly eat. I asked for a to-go box and signed the check and went home defeated, sick, and fell asleep early. When I woke up with that pain, it seemed like something was very wrong.

My girlfriend drove me to the emergency room, where the receiving nurse began working through some of my symptoms. Fever? Yes. Chills? Yes. Pain? Yes, right here on my side. Loss of appetite?

I wanted to laugh at that last question. I had already lost my appetite a long time ago, though I couldn’t say exactly when. That would have been a long story, hard to explain to a nurse in an emergency room at five thirty in the morning. I just said yes, and she checked the box.

So, here’s a slightly longer version: When I started writing restaurant reviews for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution four years ago, I never thought I would get my fill of it. I could hardly believe my luck. Four years later, I couldn’t have been more ready to quit. When I wrote my editor a few months ago telling her that I wouldn’t be filing reviews for the paper anymore, she, quite understandably, wanted to know why. I said I didn’t really want to talk about it, that I’d rather crawl off and do whatever it is I plan to do with the rest of my life. That explanation didn’t seem good enough to her. Eventually, it didn’t to me, either. I kept wondering: Wasn’t I supposed to love this job, going out and eating dinner and complaining about it for a living? What went wrong?

I feel compelled to mention that we’re living through a time of acute crisis. On the days when we’re collectively coping with another mass shooting, another climate-related disaster, another mandate from our xenophobic president, I’ve had a harder time wording my complaints about the cheese dip or wine list or whatever. That seems like most days lately. Yet, I know that this is not at all why I’m leaving restaurant criticism. I believe that in times of crisis we should hold strong to our arts and culture, to the things that make us human. I believe as much as I ever have that food is an essential part of that, at least as much as anything else.

I should also mention that Atlanta’s restaurant scene is in a rut, in part because of the economic climate. I used to think that a bad economy was bad for restaurants, but I had no clue how bad a good economy could be. The explosion of real estate developments and rising rents in this town have clearly encouraged a recent trend of cynical, money-grab restaurant, where the rooms are finely appointed, the menus are deeply predictable, and the cooking is barely passable. It’s been a drag to review an unusual number of mediocre restaurants over the past year or so. For all of my cynicism about the state of Atlanta’s restaurants, though, I know there are plenty of exceptions to that trend. There are so many great places to eat in this town and plenty more to come. It’s a critic’s job to eat both good and bad meals, to be able to point out the difference between the two. A few bad restaurants in a row is no reason to give that up.

The other day I called Christiane Lauterbach, this magazine’s critic and the publisher of Knife and Fork, and told her I was giving up on writing restaurant reviews. I asked her if she’d ever considered doing the same thing. Lauterbach wrote her first restaurant review in 1983, the year before I was born, and has continued writing them ever since. There have been presidencies and wars and the Olympics and 9/11 and a divorce and the invention of the internet. No matter. “I still put on my lipstick and went to dinner,” she said. “I never thought about it as a career. If I had expected to make a lot of money, I would have been out in flash. But one has to eat.”

She asked why I was giving it up. I said I felt a little like someone at the end of an affair, on the morning that you wake up in bed and realize that you haven’t been in love for some time, though you can’t say how long. There are so many great stories about falling in love with food, about the way it can take over your life and fill every meal, even every moment between them, with a new kind of meaning. The same way I turned to those stories when I first started writing about food—originally at Creative Loafing, subsequently at this magazine—I have returned to them recently, trying to figure out what changed.

I wasn’t even two pages into A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals when I came across a line I had once cherished: “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.” When I read those words a decade ago, I believed in them like they were a key, permission to open a door. I knew that I had the sort of appetite that Liebling described. I cultivated and practiced it. I fed it endlessly. I exercised this appetite, as Liebling suggests, “like a prizefighter’s hours on the road.”

Somewhere along the way, I lost my appetite. Even on the days when it does come fleetingly back, I tend to regard it with skepticism. For some time now, I’ve been dreading the meals I review. I suspect it’s not uncommon in this industry to come to a point where you stop enjoying food, or stop loving it the way you once did, though I haven’t met many who admit it. A lot of people stay in bad marriages, too, for one reason or another. In that way, I’m walking away right now while I still can. I’m writing this so I can’t come back. It feels a little shameful, like giving up. Making this decision has given me a new respect for my peers who’ve found their own ways to carry on.

The other day, Lauterbach told me, “In the pit of your stomach, you know if it makes you happy. For me, there is no better day than puttering around in my old car looking for a meal.”

I used to love a chapter from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the one where he recounts eating an oyster shucked right out of the Bassin d’Arcachon in France as a 9-year-old. This was the moment for him, the one where he got his first real taste of his own appetites. He wrote, “Everything that followed in my life—the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether it was drugs or sex or some other kind of new sensation—would all stem from this moment.” As with that line of Liebling’s, I used to see my own appetites in these words. Last year, when Bourdain was found in that hotel room in the same country where he tried his first oyster, that sentence took on a different meaning. I wish it were harder to recognize. Anyone who has lived with and for those appetites can tell you they may change after some time. The thing that used to make you want to eat can start eating you. No, I don’t like that chapter anymore.

If you were concerned about the other morning in the emergency room, let me tell you I got good news. It wasn’t anything as bad as I had imagined. They discharged me after a few tests and told me to sleep it off and be careful about what I eat. Good timing, I thought.

Should You Buy Richard Blais’s New Cookbook?


Richard Blais, television personality and arguably Atlanta’s most famous chef, publishes his first cookbook, Try This at Home, on February 26. Introduced by chatty headnotes, recipes like oatmeal risotto, macaroni and headcheese, and quail potpie reveal the techniques behind Blais’s signature remix of Americana cooking. Wondering if you should buy the book? We’ve put together an easy guide to help you decide.

1 An immersion circulator cooks food slowly in a water bath at a strictly controlled temperature. A favorite tool of molecular gastronomists (also known as “modernists”), the gadget is used to prepare food “sous-vide” in vacuum-sealed pouches.
2 Officially known as transglutaminase, this fermented bacteria often binds the meat in commercial products like chicken nuggets. Source meat glue online from sites like modernistpantry.com.
3 Seriously, this is Blais’s suggestion for acquiring a canister of liquid nitrogen, a favorite time-saver (ice cream in five minutes!) in his repertoire: “You can source [it] from an industrial gas supplier, a welder, or even a local university. Tell them you are doing a bathroom remodel with some light welding.”

Georgia Trout’s Journey

5 a.m.
Terry and Ruth Bramlett begin harvesting trout every morning—including today, a Wednesday—before dawn. Tucked deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains down a gravel road not far from Suches, Georgia, their home sits among a series of interlocking fish ponds they call Bramlett’s Trout Farm. A spring-fed creek courses down from the mountain and flows through one pond to the next, green grass sprouting at the edges, a few leaves floating along the surface. The work moves swiftly; the Bramletts have been hatching, feeding, and culling trout in these ponds for thirty-two years. They corral a school of fish into a corner and work side by side, pulling trout from the water with a pair of nets that could be used to skim a swimming pool. Their ponds yield half a million trout each year. As day breaks over the ridge, the fish jump from the water, scales iridescent in the sunlight.

Like fried chicken and artisanal bourbon, Georgia mountain trout is a fixture on Atlanta’s restaurant menus. Trout are native to the cool, shallow streams and ponds of the Appalachians. Chefs serve the fish roasted whole in wood-burning ovens, artfully plated with caviar, cured with citrus, tossed in ceviches, or simply fried atop a bowl of grits. Inland Seafood, the largest and most established fresh seafood distributor in the Southeast, doesn’t supply Georgia trout because restaurants can buy it directly from operations like the Bramletts’ farm, which provides the freshest fish in the city.

7 a.m.
The trout meet their end in an ice slurry, essentially a freezing bath that slows them into a final stillness. After loading a thousand pounds of trout into the back of their Toyota Land Cruiser, the Bramletts begin the slow and winding drive through the mountains on Highway 60 and then negotiate the congestion of Georgia 400. By midmorning they’re delivering to Midtown and Buckhead destinations like Empire State South, Holeman and Finch Public House, and Fifth Group restaurants Ecco and Lure. Later they’ll stop at Homegrown and Pura Vida. The largest order, nearly 200 pounds, arrives at the prep kitchen under Bacchanalia, the city’s most revered restaurant.

11 a.m.
The weekly shipment to Bacchanalia is greeted by Souleymane Coulibaly, who has been with Anne Quatrano and Cliff Harrison’s restaurant group—which also includes Quinones, Abattoir, and Floataway Cafe—since 1989. Coulibaly has worked in a variety of positions as Quatrano and Harrison’s empire has evolved. He now handles butchering. If you’ve ever had a cut of meat from any of their restaurants, it’s likely that it passed under his knife before landing on your plate.

Coulibaly’s years of experience are visible in the way the blade slides along each trout’s belly without a sign of effort. When the knife occasionally reveals a bright orange cache of trout roe, he carefully spills the eggs into a container to be cured for caviar. As he begins breaking the fish down into fillets, he explains that a fish this fresh is actually more difficult to work with. He holds one up by the head to explain: The body is still board-stiff from rigor mortis. Coulibaly carves out fillets from each fish, slicing up along the collar and down the spine to the tail, his knife undisturbed by the stiff bones. Once the fillets are apart from the fish, he takes a small pair of pliers and pulls pin bones, one by one, from each cut. “Count with me now,” he says, removing each with a flick of his wrist. We count, “One, two, three,” and so on until we lose track around thirty-five.

2 p.m.
Quatrano is delivering the day’s fresh supplies among her restaurants. Some of the trout goes to the seafood counter in the Star Provisions grocery. Other fillets head next door to Abattoir. Along with loaves of bread, collard greens, and African squash, trout arrive at Floataway Cafe, where chef Todd Immel is prepping for the night’s service. Immel, who recently took over the kitchen at Floataway after helming the meat program at Star Provisions for four years, does little to doctor the fillets. Before they hit the pan, he’ll only season with a bit of salt and pepper. “We don’t try to hide anything,” Immel says. “We just stay out of the way of our ingredients’ flavors.”

9 p.m.
Plates of food land at my table, tucked in the corner near the bar at Floataway Cafe. There is a pizza topped with tender slices of butternut squash, house-cured pancetta, and clumps of ricotta cheese. A massive braised lamb shank perches atop a ragu of white beans. 

The trout shows up last, one long fillet pan-roasted to golden brown and plated atop a thick smear of creamy grits. A few soft chunks of artichoke are scattered around the dish. The simple path of the day—from pond to car to knife to kitchen to dining room in just a few hours—seems almost visible on the plate. Whether one can see freshness is debatable; whether one can taste it is not.

Photograph by Jennifer Davick. This article originally appeared in our January 2013 issue.

Three Cheers


Eddie Holley, owner of Ale Yeah! (with stores in Decatur and Roswell), suggests Terrapin’s Wake ’N’ Bake, a seasonal oatmeal imperial stout. It pairs a potent 8.6 percent alcohol porter with the buzz of coffee from the brewery’s Athens neighbor, Jittery Joe’s. “I wish Spike [brewmaster Brian Buckowski] would make it year-round. Fans go rabid for it, and it’s perfect for warming up on cold winter nights,” Holley says. $12.99 for a four-pack, aleyeahbeer.com

Nate Shuman, bartender at Proof and Provision in the Georgian Terrace hotel, suggests hot buttered cider, a classic suited to large parties. Start by simmering apple cider with cinnamon sticks, cloves, black peppercorns, and thinly sliced ginger. Heat the mugs by swishing them with boiling water, then build individual cocktails with pats of butter, bitters, rum, and demerara sugar syrup topped with the spiced cider. proofandprovision.com

Eric Brown of Chamblee’s Le Caveau Fine Wines first tasted Laherte Frères Les 7, a small-estate Champagne, while on vacation in Montreal. A blend of seven grapes and a style of aging—blending current harvests with older vintages—more frequently used for rums or Madeiras makes for a remarkable sparkly worth a splurge: Scents of lime, nutmeg, green apple, and honeydew bubble up in the glass, and the flavors continue to change and bloom as the wine fizzes. $89.99, lecaveauwine.com

Photograph by Whitney Ott. This article originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.

This is what an eight course blood dinner looks like


What began as a conversation on Twitter months ago became an eight course “Blood Dinner” at Livingston last night. Chef Zeb Stevenson brought in the formidable talents of Tyler Williams, Ryan Smith, and Josh Hopkins for a collaborative meal of blood-centric dishes. The menu ranged from classical dishes like pressed squab to futuristic inventions like the “Bloody Pebbles,” which were something like the Dippin’ Dots of blood. The chefs seemed to be genuinely excited by the challenge and their enthusiasm showed on the plates. Take a look below.

One Eared Stag to host “End of the World” dinner


As you may know, the Mayan calendar predicts the world will end on December 21, 2012. (Check out the video below if you need an idea of what that will look like.) Considering that the date is coming soon, there are some things you might want to think about, like what you should wear, who you want to be with, and what you want to be doing when the world ends. Chef Robert Phalen of One Eared Stag has one suggestion: come have dinner at his restaurant. For the evening, he’s hosting a dinner of apocalyptic proportions. We asked Phalen a few questions about the dinner.

What’s the format of the dinner?
Dinner will start around 6 pm with appetizers by Tyler Williams and Andy Carson. Five courses will follow with special wines that I have picked out to enjoy during the meal. We will take a break and step outside to the patio mingle for a while enjoy cocktails and cured meats from every chef and oysters. Return inside for another five courses and wine. Some sort of special toast around 11:11 to the calendar ending and a new one beginning. Then two more courses of sweets, champagne, cocktails, etc. 

What’s the lineup?
Hors d’oeuvres by Tyler Williams of Abattoir and Andy Carson of Bacchanalia. 

1 – Guy Wong of Miso
2 – Bruce Logue, formerly of La Pietra Cucina
3 – One Eared Stag
4 – Josh Hopkins of STG Trattoria
5 – Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee of Heirloom BBQ
6 – Drew van Leuvan of 7 lamps
7 – Peter Dale of the National
8 – Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere of Bantam & Biddy
9 – Drew Belline of 246
10 – Adam Evans of the Optimist
11 – Ryan Smith of Empire State South
12 –  Taria Camerino of Sugar Coated Radical  

Eric Simpkins of the Lawrence and Lindy Colburn of Quality Wine & Spirits will make drinks.

So, would you rather be cooking or eating when the world ends?
I would much rather be in the back cooking surrounded by my peers all doing what we love. At least this way I know my family and friends had a great last meal. 

Do people still have to pay if the world does actually end during the dinner?
If the world does end there will be a money back guarantee, of course!   

The price is $150 per person, not including tax and gratuity.  Call One Eared Stag at (404) 525-4479 for reservations.

Anthony Bourdain announces new CNN show, Parts Unknown


A teaser clip from Anothony Bourdain’s new show for CNN, Parts Unkown, was released this afternoon. Details are scarce, but Bourdain’s mood and attitude are in full focus for the clip, in which he opines about the virtues of “sharing a pipe with a shaman” over “all inclusive” travel packages. 

After eight seasons of No Reservations, Bourdain’s relationship with the Travel Channel has apparently soured, as he explained in detail on his blog yesterday. “I CAN do something when my name and image (such as they are) are used to sell a product without my consent and in violation of prior specific and well crafted legal agreements. And I intend to,” he wrote, seeming to suggest that he’s pursuing legal action action against the channel. Hopefully, things will go better with CNN.

In case you’re wondering, that gorgeous cliff and lake featured in the teaser isn’t exactly in some off-the-grid jungle locale. It’s the Bellwood Quarry, located right here in Atlanta. It is, in fact, 3.5 miles from the CNN Center in Downtown. We assume that Bourdain will travel in somewhat deeper territory for the show. 

Local restaurants offer free meals for veterans today


A number of local restaurants are offering free meals for veterans today. 

From the Concentrics restaurant group:

“All of our locations will be offering complimentary entrees to all military personnel, with a valid military I.D. Participants include: ONE. midtown kitchen, TWO urban licks, TAP, Murphy’s, LPC, Lobby Bar and Bistro, ROOM at Twelve, FLIP – Howell Mill, FLIP – Buckhead and HD1.”

From Twisted Taco:

“Veterans eat free at the Windward and Roswell locations of Twisted Taco. No restrictions other than they get free food for lunch and dinner.”

Is your restaurant offering a deal for veterans tonight? Add it in the comments.

Photo courtesy Twisted Taco / Reynolds Group

Reservations Required: Blood Dinner at Livingston


Champagne and Caviar at Three Sheets, November 13
Three Sheets in Sandy Springs debuts a weekly feature of rotating caviar selections and champagne splits.   

Fall Harvest Dinner at Miller Union, November 13
Chef Steven Satterfield prepares a three course, communal dinner with some of the fall’s freshest ingredients.

Buckhead Dishcrawl around the W Hotel, November 13
Explore the neighborhood eats near to the W Hotel in Buckhead with fifty other adventurous diners.

Blood Dinner at Livingston, November 15
Livingston chef Zeb Stevenston invites Tyler Williams of Abattoir, Ryan Smith of Empire State South and Josh Hopkins of STG Trattoria into his kitchen for what will probably be the most boundary-pushing meal of the year, an eight-course meal that features blood in every dish.

Eric Wolitzky to headline Salon du Chocolat in NYC


Pastry chef Eric Wolitzky is having a good year. Until 2012, Wolitzky might have been best know for having a solid (but not winning) run in 2010 on the first season of Top Chef: Just Desserts. Since taking over the baking team at the expanded Bakery at Cakes & Ale, Wolitzky has recieved a glowing nod of approval on Bon Appetit’s list of Best New Restaurants for 2012. “Don’t even think about skipping dessert at this restaurant and bakery, where the last course gets top billing,” the headline glowed. They also included a gorgeous slideshow of his sweets.

This weekend, Wolitzky head to New York City to give a headlining cooking demonstration at the 15th annual Salon du Chocolat. Despite the conditions caused by Hurrican Sandy, the show, which is the largest event dedicated to chocolate in North America, will go on. The event runs from Friday, November 9 through Sunday, November 11. Check the website for the full line-up of cooking demos and activities.

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