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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Trip report: Top Chef Atlanta!

Top Chef is my very favorite television show. 
I've seen every episode. 
Several times.
I've rooted and cheered for eight seasons.
Now, I've tasted their food.
My mom, sister and I decided to meet in Atlanta for a girls' weekend where we would go to Richard Blais's restaurant FLIP and Kevin Gillespie's restaurant Woodfire Grill.  As fate would have it, Blais won Top Chef All-Stars just before we went.  Even better, Blais is my favorite Top Chef contestant of all time.  Kevin comes in a close second.
My geek level for this trip was off.the.charts.
Atlanta is just four short hours from Charlotte.  I loaded up a road-trip play list on the iphone and headed out.  Mom, Katy and I met early afternoon and went straight to Flip. 

The goal was to taste as much as possible.  I apologize in advance that these are all iphone pics.

So we decided on ordering two burgers, all of the FLIP sides and two shakes (made with liquid nitrogen!) to share.

We chose the Pimento cheeseburger and the turkey burger.  YUM.  As in crazy yum.  The burgers were juicy and flavorful.  The turkey burger had sprouts and avocado on it (as well as other stuff).  The cheeseburger had thinly sliced bacon and (we all agreed) not enough pimento cheese.

The FLIP sides will haunt my dreams for years to come.  Let's start with the sweetbreads.  I was the only one willing to try them.  Sweetbreads are the cow's thymus gland.  They were deep fried and covered with a spicy buffalo sauce.  I liked the first three.  The texture got me on number four.  Plus, I was full.  Next, tempura onion rings served with a smoky ranch sauce.  Awesome.  Not a lot of onion involved though.  The french fries are fried in duck fat.  Need I say more?  Served with Richard's famous curried ketchup and smoked mayo.  Loved the smoked mayo.  Loved.
Now, let's talk about his fried pickles.
Pause for a moment to allow the angels to sing at their mere mention.
They make their own pickles.  Slightly sweet... but not sugary.  Fried perfectly.  Heaven.  I could have eaten a whole bucket of those fried pickles.

Now for the nitrogen shakes!  We got the burnt marshmallow/nutella shake and the krispe kreme shake.  Yum.
 When you're having the nutella shake... EAT IT WITH THE MARSHMALLOWS... don't just drink the liquid.  The burnt taste cuts the richness of the nutella.  Divine.  The krispe kreme shake tasted just like you'd expect.  I loved it because it was slightly salty.

Also - a Food Network star was there while we were.  Can you see her in this pic?  If you can tell me her name I'll kiss you square on the cheek... I can't remember it for the life of me.

Flip is a casual fun restaurant.  There are two Atlanta locations.  Buckhead and Midtown.  They also have Flip in Birmingham, Al.  If you have the chance GO!  They change the menu regularly though so all I can advise is be adventurous and you won't be disappointed.

The next night we had reservations at Woodfire Grill.  This is a fine dining restaurant and the absolute highlight of the weekend.  I've read tons of reviews online and I knew we wouldn't be let down.  I also knew that the restaurant is in a rough neighborhood.  Glad I knew that in advance.  Lots of gritty strip clubs near Woodfire Grill.  Don't let that deter you.
The restaurant offers complimentary valet parking so your experience really starts in the parking lot.  The valets were friendly with a "Welcome to Woodfire Grill" and I have to say I was so excited/nervous that I couldn't even respond.  Walking in, the first thing we noticed was the smell of the actual wood-fired grill.  It smells smoky and wonderful without smelling like the restaurant is burning down.  Think camp fire but in a beautiful restaurant.  We were seated right away (next to the grill!) and our waitress came right over with the menu.  We'd decided long ago to do the five-course tasting menu.  Our waitress suggested that we mix it up and have one of the three of us get the vegetarian tasting.  Genius.  It was like we got to taste 10 dishes!

It started with an amuse of compressed celery root, lemon marinated raisins, pecan aioli and micro celery.  The amuse is meant to be one perfect bite of food that sets the tone for the meal.  What made this so special was the pecan aioli with the raisins.  Sweet, delicious, it made is so excited for what was to come.

Next they brought a basket of homemade breads (three different kids) and a herbed butter.  I don't know if I can go back to regular butter.  This stuff made me want to lick the bowl.

Time for the first course.  We had "First of the season wild salmon tartare. red potatoes. english peas. ginger aioli. lemon vinaigrette. micro greens".
Apologies again for the bad picture.  I was in a hurry to eat! That blurry pic is mom's plate.  Turnips with grapefruit, aged balsamic and micro greens. (I don't have her souvenir menu so I can't give their exact description unfortunately)
We decided to do a Top Chef judging to compare vegetarian to regular and this course went to the meat-eaters.  I've never had salmon tartare before and it blew me away.

Second course. Pan roasted diver scallop, crispy red potatoes, local arugula, spicy tomato frito.
 Cabbage leaf stuffed with black eyed peas and other yummies.
My mom and sister voted for the vegetarian plate this course. I loved my scallop.  Perfectly cooked.  The rich flavor of the frito was balanced nicely by the crisp arugula.

Time for a palate cleanser.  Chilled potato soup, crispy country ham, chives.  Mom had the same thing minus the bacon.  I've never had a cold potato soup.  One shot of this was enough.  A bowl would have been too much.  Rich but tasty and a nice transition to the heavier items.

Third course.  What I came here for.  The pork belly (to be specific).  Wood grilled local quail and smoked pork belly.  roasted local turnips.  creamed sweet onion farro.  turnip salsa verde.
My eyes welled with tears when I took that first bite of quail.  Delicate but intensely flavored.   I've never had quail before and I don't know if I can again.  This was too perfect.  The pork belly was smoky and fatty and it melted in your mouth.  But for me the real star of the course was the farro and turnips.  I can still remember the taste... so new to me... and so instantly wonderful.  If I had to pick one dish to have again this would be it.
 My mom's third course was the first of the season pea risotto.  This was her absolute favorite dish of the night.  I believe it was my sister's favorite as well.  the amazing thing about this dish was how much better it tasted when you ate the risotto with the salad that came on top.  It cut the richness and really changed the whole flavor.

 Fourth Course:  Wood grilled grass-fed Colorado bison coated in pastrami spices.  Bubble and squeak, country ham, sweet mustard, pickled onion.  Yum.  One bite of bison, mustard and picked onion is all you need to know why this is genius.  Delicious.

The vegetarian fourth course was a bit of a snoozer.  Grilled mushrooms with salad on top.  It was very meh.  Bison won hands down.

Fifth and last course.  We were sad that our evening was coming to an end.  We had the chocolate bread pudding with Frangelico Bavarian, coffee ice cream, hazelnut cocoa nib crumble.  Now, I am not a coffee girl.  I was a little crest fallen when coffee ice cream came as part of the desert but I knew Kevin wouldn't lead us astray.  So I ate it.  And I'm so glad I did.   It tasted just like coffee smells.  Sweet and a bit bitter but combined with the richness of the chocolate bread pudding... um, yea.  It was fantastic.  The perfect follow to the rich bison.

 The vegetarian desert was notably lighter.  That's a rose sorbet on a (I believe) vanilla Bavarian with strawberries in strawberry water.  It was amazing.  Vegetarians win the desert course hands down.

I haven't even mentioned yet the impeccable service.
We made our reservations six weeks out and got one of three remaining tables so be sure to plan ahead.   But most of all, go!  This is an experience not to be missed!!
Best of all getting to spend so much time with my mom and sister was a real treat.  We're already talking about our next girls' weekend!


  1. Great review. I've had dinner at Woodfire 3 times and each visit was better than the last. I am a vegetarian and have not been disappointed yet. Chef Gillespie is truly a gifted chef. We have reservations again in June and really looking forward to it.

  2. I loved.. LOVED reading this post!! You did a great job describing all of the food, I could almost taste each thing. :) I'm so glad you got to do this... SO awesome!

  3. Oh Julianna!! Your trip sounds heavenly! I didn't even know what "amuse" meant in that context. I guess I need to start watching Top Chef! (Don't stone me for never having watched it ;) I'm so happy that you got to experience this with two of your favorite people.

  4. Is that that barefoot contessa lady? Okay I LOVE Top Chef as well and have seen every episode of every season. I'm so glad Richard one this season although I was rooting for Carla and Fabio too even though there was no way he would win. Remember when Hosea and Leah made out and they both had significant others? And when they all tried to shave Marcel's head? Oh man...good times. Marcel makes me crazy by the way. That is so awesome you got to go to two Top Chef's resturaunts!! My geek level would have matched yours squeal for squeal.

  5. @Sarah - The Food Network lady turned out to be someone named Alex. It was her for sure. And I'm right with you on Top Chef's awesomeness. Do you know how much I detest Hosea? When he came back this season I got all angry again.
    Oh and Marcel and his "raps" - I mean really??? I get so uncomfortable when he busts out with a rhyme. All I can think is that he must lay in bed at night and think of all of the things he wished he'd never said or done. Remember his Wolverine hair?
    Oh - and did you hate Angelo during the DC season but like him during All-Stars? Because that's what happened to me. Now I feel like I should watch DC again since I don't hate him now.

  6. I didn't hate Angelo on DC season but he got on my nerves a ton. And I did like him so much more on the all stars season. And I don't even know why Tiffany was one of the All-stars, she's so forgettable. I didn't have such a strong reaction to Hosea but Leah drove me bonkers. And Jamie makes me crazy! I also really like both of the Dales. P.S. I meant Richard Blais WON, not ONE in my last comment. I know you know that but I had to acknowledge it.