Through the half-light of Five Seasons' teeming dining room, I spot my prompt, already-seated friends. I'm 15 minutes late for our reservation, and I hate to be late.
They don't seem to mind, though. Unabashed vinophiles, they've already scoured the wine list and are comparing each other's Pinots and Zinfandels in the language of wine lovers: "Ooh, nice -- not too barnyardy." "Oh, I've had this one before! Brambly and jammy ... ."
I'd typically jump right into such a conversation. I'm a wino, too. But tonight, I'm here for the brew. I've yet to explore the world of beer, and that's been gnawing at me lately. It's just never been my drink of choice. I made it through college without ever succumbing to the seductions of the keg, and I jumped right into wine appreciation when I started waiting tables after graduation.
Still, it's an awful big aspect of global gastronomy for me to leave uninvestigated. So it is that I've come to the center of Atlanta's beer culture to initiate myself into the cult of hops.
While my tablemates peruse appetizer choices, I flip the menu over and scrutinize the descriptions of Five Seasons' handcrafted beers. They've got names that make you grin. Names like Kounterfeit Kölsch, Chug Monkey Cream Ale and Blackbird Porter. Some of the words used in their background info -- DÜsseldorf, Djokker, Fuggle -- sound like wizards and creatures in a Harry Potter novel.
Then I read about the Me262 Maibock: "A German Bock bier brewed for the late spring." Seasonal? Now you're talkin' in my lingo.
The Maibock's approachable flaxen color belies its brawny character. It has a bold, rich heat cut by just a suggestion of caramel at the end of each swig. It's smooth and easy to swallow. I could learn to dig this stuff.
Our server scoots by, bound for another table. He's clutching a wooden paddle filled with five small glasses of beer, each a different hue. A sampler? Hey, I want one!
The stalwart Blackbird Porter becomes a favorite. It tastes just like the description said it would -- clear flavors of coffee and chocolate, with a pronounced molasses finish. I'm not as crazy about the Kounterfeit Kölsch: It's light in the mouth, but bitter and hoppy. The Djokker Wit stings with a sour edge that's tempered by a trill of orange. This one's a challenge for me as well. But then, I'm a newbie. In wine-speak, I'm in a Riesling/Pinot Grigio stage. I trust I'll learn to appreciate the complex Cabs of the beer realm in due course.
All this drinking makes me ravenous. And here's where Five Seasons really wins me over. It's clear that ebullient owner Dennis Lange encourages his partner and chef, David Larkworthy, to craft an ambitious, rangy menu that complements the meticulously crafted beers. The printed list is already expansive, but my God is there a long list of specials. I imagine the staff all bent over their pads before service, scribbling furiously in miniscule print so they'll be able to recite the litany without forgetting a single dish.
I'm sated by the "little plates" -- a crisp lobster cake with a splotch of guacamole and lime; addictive little crab and cheese dumplings; a bowl full of small blue crab fingers with tangy honey-mustard dipping sauce. And there are some appealing salads, including a nicely proportioned beet and goat cheese number with an Afro of micro-greens tumbling off to the side.
What I really crave first off, though, is a grilled pizza. It's the sad truth, my friends, but we are an underprivileged town when it comes to pizza. Now, Five Seasons doesn't provide a gooey slice meant to be folded in half as you stuff it down your gullet, but its pizzas still satisfy in that elemental way.
One night, the pizza special sports duck and goat cheese. The smoky little wedges crunch a smidge when you bite into them, then give way to the warm, earthy flavors of the toppings. Not into designer 'za? The vine-ripened tomato variation with an even gloss of cheese and micro-basil is modest and superb. A friend of mine taught me to order it with the addition of ripe avocado slices. Oh, yeah. Even better.
I know the pommes frites are a source of pride at Five Seasons, and justifiably so. Thin, bronze and poised somewhere between crispy and droopy, they're the kind of French fries you grab and down by the fistful. They make an appropriate base for the tilapia fish and chips (you can't have a brewpub without fish and chips!), though they don't always arrive quite as piping hot as I'd like them.
I tend to gravitate toward meat here, maybe because beer and meat make such gallant companions. Or perhaps because the voices of the wonderfully riotous crowd rebound off the multi-tiered room's roasty-toasty wood and put me in the mood for hearty sustenance. (There is the lovely biergarten -- i.e., patio -- but it's in heavy demand and most folks, eager to imbibe, just settle for inside.)
A hormone-free rib eye has a gutsy sear and is doused with a sop-it-all-up Madeira cream sauce. A Niman Ranch pork chop has been lightly smoked, imparting the savory flavor and texture of ham. With it, you get all the sides pork pleads for: cheddar grit cakes, not-too-sweet caramelized apples and long-braised greens. Waiter? Another Maibock, please? (For $4 a glass! Beer is so cheap!)
The only dish I don't take a shine to is the tuna tataki with wakame salad. The seared slices of tuna are bland and chewy, and the seaweed's over-salty zing and flabby consistency suggest it's spent too long bathing in a marinade.
I wasn't jazzed about dessert, either. I'm told they're all made in-house, but the offerings -- bread pudding, apple pie and the like -- are so heavy it's hard to enjoy them after all the munchies, robust fare and filling beer. The nuts in a pecan tart do achieve that toothy balance where they're soft yet still resistant. And the crust has an appropriate, buttery heft. Otherwise, throw down on fries and call it a night.
Servers here tag-team tables and somehow manage to keep it together, even when the place turns into a full-throttle madhouse. We're shocked one night when a server we haven't seen for an hour and who's probably handled 10 tables since then looks at my friend and asks, "Another glass of Shiraz?" Hello, 10 points for memory skills.
And yes, through the entire meal, my friends stick to their juice in the bulbous stemware whilst I glug the brewsky. They actually have quite the commendable wine list. But look around the room and you'll see most people modeling frothy beer moustaches. It feels so good to sit and bask in the relaxed gusto of this restaurant that follows its passion, has found its community and still emanates a genuine sense of welcome.
Even for a novice like me.