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Magic numbers

Athens' Five and Ten only gets better as the years add up

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My friend Carol, a brassy Athens chef with whom I worked a lifetime ago, incites a good-natured quarrel while we're waiting for dessert. The subject is cobbler.

"It should be made with pie crust," she challenges.

"What are you talking about?" I counter. "It should be topped with biscuit dough."

"Pie crust!"

"Biscuit dough!!"

Our mutual friend rolls her eyes and sighs with relief when the plum cobbler in question arrives. It's covered with a glossy overlay of pie dough. Carol gloats, and I glower until I dunk my spoon in for a first bite. The crust half crackles, half melts in my mouth, giving way to juicy, toothsome slices of black plum. Rivulets of ginger ice cream simultaneously soothe and brighten the flavors in the fruit.

I laugh and concede: It can be made both ways.

And it is in that moment -- as I fondly absorb the earthy digs, observe the college-town mix of customers, and prepare to tackle the other astute desserts on the table -- that I truly appreciate what makes Five and Ten worth the trek to Athens.

In Atlanta, Hugh Acheson would be regarded as too gifted a chef to exercise his talents in a space as funky as this one. But the offbeat combination is exactly what gives the restaurant its cheeky sweetness and accomplished individuality.

Acheson seemed to be spackled all over the media when I first reviewed Five and Ten in 2002. Since then, he and his restaurant have settled into the long haul of day-to-day excellence. Service now has a cultivated confidence, and lovely ingredients prepared with ambitious imagination bring extra spark to the food. And yet there's no stuffiness or trendoid pandemonium to make the experience an uptight, trying one.

I always sit in the main room, with a view of the low-key bar and the aging blackboard where the specials are written. Fetching squares of cork have been hung from the pressed-tin ceiling to reduce noise. The rec room wood paneling against the back wall always reminds me that this restaurant was previously a steakhouse called the Lighthouse.

But each visit I'm also drawn to at least peer into the side room, where wacky umbrellas dangle overhead alongside huge fuzzy letters and ampersands that spell out the restaurant's name. That's a decorating touch you won't glimpse at a Bob Amick restaurant.

The same unexpected whimsy often shows up on the plate. Acheson is not a chef who constricts himself to a region or a sense of restraint. The menu hints of Italy, Morocco, France and the Deep South, and every entree needs two lines to fit the descriptions of accompanying ragouts, vinaigrettes and reductions.

So start by easing your way into the evening with one of the simpler "snackies" listed in small print at the top of the page (and also be sure to spend some time pondering the spunky wine list full of unusual but affordable vino). Maybe choose the grilled flatbread topped with blue cheese and ripe, fleshy figs, or a round of house-cured pickles that pucker your appetite.

Now you're ready for joyful sensory overload. Baby artichokes get buried under a playful pileup of arugula, satiny prosciutto, roasted tomatoes, Parmesan, leeks and subtle tapenade vinaigrette. Startlingly, no one ingredient bullies the others. Pan-roasted Muscovy duck breast and crispy duck leg are girded in a kaleidoscope of warming autumnal preparations: honey-cumin baby carrots, butter-braised Napa cabbage, Yukon Gold potato hash and scallion vinaigrette with a sweet-and-sour splash of pomegranate gastrite.

Not every dish zigzags with so many elements. A recent appetizer special paired two bacony strips of pork belly with tiny lentils and a pert tuft of wilted arugula. The nubbly lentils and sharp but satiny greens concisely heightened the pork's saline crunchiness. Foie gras is a mainstay on the menu, though what surrounds it on the plate changes with the seasons and Acheson's impulses. The seared ingot of foie I tried came with a restrained collage of fig jam, pleasantly sour caramelized shallot, and crispy slabs of Pullman toast. No more embellishment needed.

But more dishes than not take you on a carnival ride of flavor and texture. Be on the lookout for those with gastronomic grace notes inspired by the South. Even though Acheson is Canadian by birth, he's got some Southerner in his soul. A generous portion of skate wing is enriched with balsamic caper brown butter -- a classic European treatment. But a slick of Red Mule grits cozies up alongside the skate, and a cleansing garnish of fennel confit cuts the richness. Down-home fish and grits? Meet your long-lost city-slicker cousin.

Acheson's signature dish, frogmore stew, remains a Lowcountry-inspired stunner. Buxom Georgia shrimp, feisty andouille sausage, lithe fingerling potatoes and a humble stub of corn-on-the-cob are united by a tomato broth. The kicky broth both draws out distinctive aspects of the ingredients -- the acidity of the tomato magnifies the shrimp's sweetness, for example -- while helping to maintain their distinct individuality.

The menu changes frequently at Five and Ten, and while that level of creativity typically makes for a dynamic dining experience, it also means some fly-by-night clunkers are apt to appear. A tortilla soup is overwhelmed by the taste -- not just the spice -- of chile. Shards of pulled chicken, avocado and pea shoots become superfluous in a wash of ruddy red bog.

The Serrano ham wrapped around an otherwise nice piece of cod is chewy rather than crispy, and a tomato "salsa cruda" turns out to be cottony cherry tomatoes halved and tossed with too-harsh garlic. At least the mustard greens underneath the fish have bite, and the leek mashed potatoes happily butter up your innards.

If you've come all the way to Athens to eat a fine meal, don't gorge too much before you reach the rousing third act of the Five and Ten experience. The cheese offerings here have resonated in my memory for years, and I'm glad to find they are still intriguing and thoroughly satisfying.

For fromage freaks, the cheeses themselves aren't startlingly new discoveries. The revelations lay in the accompaniments. Green olives and roasted chile sounds jarring with Hombolt Fog (a creamy-ish goat cheese from California), but the duo's pungency magically melds with its nuances. Not too salty, not too spicy. Great call. A slightly vinegary pear chutney brings out a delicate grassiness in intensely creamy St. Andre. And nibbling on complex chestnut honey matched with Robiola, a multifaceted cow and sheep's milk Italian, is like eavesdropping on a conversation between two roguish lovers who realize they've each met their match.

Poached peach with polenta pound cake may be gone from the menu by now, but the peach -- what sourcing wonders did the kitchen pull? -- still had an expressive rosy depth in mid-October. More in tune with fall are figs whose sexually stirring essence has been intensified by roasting. Almonds and orange-glazed madeleines appear with the figs, but they are mere foreplay for the main event.

I'm relieved not to find crème brûlée or molten chocolate cake on the dessert list. Relieved, but not surprised. Hugh Acheson is clearly a man who thinks for himself in the kitchen. In forging a style that constantly teeters between puckish and profound, and by resisting the temptation to showcase his food in unnecessarily cushy quarters, he has proven himself to be one of our most valuable culinary practitioners in the state.

Even if he does make his cobbler with pie crust.

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