Early in April, a crowd of diners packed into the special-events room at the new 5 Seasons in Alpharetta. Beer was poured. Different farmers from around the state, whose produce we ate throughout the night, were invited to say a few words, explaining what they did and why they did it. It's rare for a meal to have such context -- the farmer, the chef and the diner all brought together in one room.
The revolution rarely happens where we might expect it. It should be noted that 5 Seasons chef David Larkworthy said to me last year, "We are an intown concept in an OTP location." And despite the fact that they'll soon be an intown business as well, with a location set to open on the Westside in the next year, what 5 Seasons represents is the growing appeal of the local-food movement. Sitting in the dining room of their Alpharetta location, looking out the window at the suburban scenery and around the dining room at what could be any lodge-inflected brewery in any town (or mall) in America, it's almost surreal to look down at an appetizer of perfectly cooked organic sweetbreads over local veggies, surrounded by a deft and precise reduction sauce.
It's not that the quality seems wildly out of place; it's that the ideology behind it has succeeded so well in the Sandy Springs and now Alpharetta locations. 5 Seasons, more so than any other restaurant in the Atlanta area, is bringing Slow Food to the masses.
Of course it helps that it's served with the city's best-brewed beer. Larkworthy has joked in the past that much of the relationship the restaurant has forged with local farmers is due to the fact that he's never met a farmer who doesn't like beer, and in that respect 5 Seasons has traversed a more organic (no pun intended) path to farm-to-table ideology than is the norm. Usually the fancy restaurants with the best chefs are the ones that care about buying locally, but the result is that often, farmers never get to see the end result, being that the very restaurants they sell to are part of another world, economically and socially. As the Slow Food movement grows, that has changed a little, with the farm community becoming as important a component in the ideology as the food quality. Restaurants and their patrons are becoming interested in the farms themselves, and farmers are being given respect as artisans.
But at 5 Seasons it was much simpler than that. The brewery learned that farms could use their spent grain from the brewing process as compost; a relationship was formed, and the restaurant and the farms grew to love one another's products.
While both 5 Seasons locations produce a mean burger, the place to really cash in on Larkworthy's talent, as well as the freshest local produce, is in the specials. That's where I came across the aforementioned sweetbread appetizer, a dish I would have relished in any of Atlanta's finest restaurants; and for lunch last week, a spidery soft-shell crab po'boy, tasting crisply of the ocean. Larkworthy uses local farm produce on the regular menu as much as possible, but the ever-changing specials are where the freshest food and the most innovation can be found.
There is something about Larkworthy's cooking – perhaps the balance he has crafted between cooking for a suburban lunchtime brewery crowd and a following of dedicated foodies and beer snobs – that sometimes seems unfinished, as if you are eating at the home table of an ambitious amateur cook rather than at a restaurant. This isn't a complaint really; just an observation. The pizzas on the menu come on a crispy, almost crackerlike crust, and can seem more like a fun snack than a meal. Meats sometimes can be overcooked, such as the duck breast in the "Duck Both Ways," which pairs a crispy confit leg with the breast, and a salad of fresh arugula. The lemon goat cheesecake on the dessert menu is so light and fluffy that it loses a little of the creamy sexiness longed for by the true cheesecake lover. The chocolate cake, however, gets the balance between density and fluffiness just right, managing to be both rich and light. Just when I think I've got this chef pegged, he turns out a dish of such originality and meticulousness that I wonder, why the difference? It's like there are two very different cooks in this kitchen, both with their own agendas and endearing qualities.
As for that special farmer's dinner, which started with a savory strawberry soup dotted with local goat cheese and ended with an incredible sweet-potato ice cream, I have only one complaint. While at $50 per person for five courses with beer, complaining feels a tad outrageous, I still got skipped over when it came to the special barleywine being served with dessert. I bothered every waiter who came by the table. But they ran out, after serving the folks at the other end of my table seconds. Humph.
I can tell you that, despite having an accomplished brewmaster (Glen Sprouse) at Sandy Springs, 5 Seasons cares enough about its beers and beer culture that it brought in a new brewmaster for the Alpharetta location, Crawford Moran. His ideology must be similar to that of Sprouse – they both brew complex and balanced beers, particularly the European variations.
Throughout any meal here, the overwhelming impression one gets is honesty. This is honest food, paired with honest beer and made with honest intentions. 5 Seasons has managed to take up the challenge of supporting our local farms. Now we ought to respond in kind, by supporting our local brewery.