We took our seats in the smaller dining room at Frank Ma's South (2088 Briarcliff Road, 404-320-7373). Four teenage boys were eating greedily at a table across the room. I was impressed.
Frank Ma's food is not weird, but it sure isn't the Chinese-American stuff most of us grew up eating. It's always good to see young gourmets.
"How is it?" Wayne shouted across the room.
"Great!" one of them shouted back.
Frank Ma came over to our table at that point and handed us his huge menu. We began looking through it.
"What's good?" Wayne asked the guys.
They all looked up at one another. "The wings," one of them said. "We love the wings."
Doh! That's the odd thing about this latest venue for Frank Ma, who has probably been the city's favorite Chinese restaurant operator for the last three decades or so. He's moved into a space occupied by Wingnuts and Chopstix, which both specialize in mediocre, cheap food best consumed when you're ravenous.
Only a window sign informs you that Ma and wife Amy have moved here, after working less than a year at Dinho in Chamblee. Ma, who had retired, was hired as a managing consultant there and the place became an overnight hit. Then, Ma told me, the owner told him he wanted to convert the restaurant to an all-Cantonese menu. Ma has no idea what motivated the owner's decision but, being disinterested in the project, he left and moved here. (Reports are that Dinho's business has declined precipitously since making the change.)
Frank and Amy Ma are gregarious and make everyone feel like an honored guest. I have one piece of advice, though. The menu is overwhelming and you will likely feel tempted to ask their recommendations. If you do this, they will invariably recommend the same things.
For example, we were in our chairs barely five minutes when Amy came by and said, "You want an onion pancake, yes? One order of that only. And some pan-fried dumplings. Very good." She disappeared. The boys across the room all broke into laughter.
I do love both of these starters, but I was in the mood for something different. Nonetheless, we devoured them. They are without question the best in the city. The pancake, actually made with scallions instead of onions, is just the right texture – a bit dry, almost flaky, slightly oniony. You do not need to put a drop of sauce on it. The dumplings are likewise perfect – glossy, browned just right, tender, holding a fresh-tasting mixture of seasoned pork. Honestly, I found the food at this odd new location better than at Dinho.
We were granted a little more freedom in our choice of entrees. I've had Ma's delicious sliced fish in hot oil a zillion times and was determined to avoid it. Likewise for the pork belly with leeks. But I could not resist the three cups chicken, one of my favorites. It's hacked up pieces of chicken wings browned and served in a peppery, slightly sweet sauce full of sliced ginger and whole garlic cloves. It's one of those dishes that could cure an illness.
I've been craving snow pea vines for months, so we ordered them here, stir-fried with fat shrimp in a light, glossy sauce. I'm tired of being served tasteless shrimp in our city, but these tasted fresh. We also ordered home-style tofu – thick, chewy pieces in another mildly spicy sauce.
Our main entertainment during dinner was provided by Angela, the Mas' young granddaughter. She gave us basically an entire history of her family's restaurant business while rolling a bubble gum jaw breaker around in her tiny hands.
Back to Top Flr
Top Flr (674 Myrtle St., 404-685-3110) has expanded its downstairs space, which is good news for people who can't surmount the stairs to the dining room. The new space, adjacent to the bar, is black and white and cool all over.
The menu hasn't changed much since the place opened, but it remains one of the best for the money in our city. I'm not kidding. I started with an artisan cheese plate that seemed fairly pricey at $11 – until it arrived and was clearly meant for two people. Thank God I'm a professional eater.
Wayne started with an arugula salad with Georgia peaches, toasted almonds, Perano cheese and citrus vinaigrette, followed by a pizza made with chorizo, roasted onions, Oaxca cheese and a tomatillo cilantro relish. In other words, it was a Mexican-flavored pizza, made with very good chorizo. With appetizers, it also could feed two.
My entrée was the hanger steak, cooked medium rare, served with a black pepper jus. The menu also mentioned lavender, but I couldn't find it, which is odd, because it's a fragrance I love. Entrees here are priced a la carte. So, while my steak was only $13, a side of purple potato hash with corn, scallions and pancetta added $6 to the cost.
Outside of the food, the best part of our experience was our server, Patrick Labouff, a graduate student in economics who should open a school for servers. It wasn't the usual marks of a good server that impressed us so much, though he was certainly competent in that respect.
I've never had a server who seemed as well-educated and passionate about food. When we asked him what he thought about particular dishes, he discoursed at length about his experiences elsewhere, say, with chorizo. Meanwhile he made allusions along the way to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Honestly, this is what good food is supposed to do. It opens the mind as well as stimulates the palate, so that a virtual synesthesia occurs. It's a kind of sensate memory, more than just a feeling of nostalgia. When I smell lavender, I can virtually taste the ice cream I ate outside Apt in Provence during the lavender harvest. Some of these sensory associations are mystifying and revelatory to explore.
So, ask for Patrick when you visit Top Flr and check out our blog, OmnivoreAtl.com, for a post about synesthesia and food.