"Don't get depressed," my friend Gregg said as I surveyed a table of elderly women seated near us at the Vinings Inn (3011 Paces Mill Road, 770-438-2282).
I was nostalgic. The three very Southern, white-haired women – perfectly coiffed, perfectly dressed and perfectly accessorized – reminded me of my mother, who died last year. And the restaurant itself, built in the 1800s, reminded me of Atlanta before the wrecking ball became the city's favorite toy.
Nostalgia is unavoidable during the holidays, but I can think of few other restaurants where "Auld Lang Syne" could be sung with more sentimental conviction. The Inn has had new owners since last summer, and they have fluffed the dining rooms up with fresh paint and done a few renovations. But its old South ambiance remains.
For all its atmospheric charm, the restaurant's food has had a bad rep in recent years – so bad that I avoided it. But chef Victor Amato and sous chef Edmund Quintero have changed that, if my recent lunch there is an accurate indication. Their lunch and dinner menus both capitalize on the resurgence of Southern cooking in the city's restaurants.
At Gregg's insistence, we split a starter of house-smoked trout dip with fried capers and grilled lemon. I dreaded the stuff, fearing a fancy version of tuna salad, but it was irresistible heaped on toasted crostini. I have one complaint. It was a bit oniony – enough so that the ingredient should be listed on the menu.
Gregg ordered a holdover from the old menu – shrimp and andouille sausage over sweet corn grits with sauteed onions, bell peppers and garlic. The pan, deglazed with white wine and blended with lemon and butter, provides the sauce.
Grits showed up in my entree, too – this time spiked with jalapeños and cheddar cheese, topped by a grilled fillet of salmon. The most interesting part of the plate was a serving of collards cooked in chicken stock with bacon and some vinegar.
For dessert we elected the cobbler, an enormous bowl even for two, featuring better-than-usual peaches, topped with vanilla ice cream and peach schnapps anglaise.
The lunch menu also includes sandwiches, salads and soups, including chicken and dumplings and split pea with country ham. The evening menu includes mint-crusted rack of lamb, peach-barbecued prawns over grits, and goat-cheese-encrusted fried green tomatoes that produce raves.
In the 'hood
Although we live less than a mile from Agave (242 Boulevard, 404-588-0006), it's been about a year since we dined in this very popular Southwestern restaurant in Cabbagetown. Part of the reason is that the restaurant is swamped most nights, with a wait. You should definitely make reservations.
We did manage to get a table last Monday night without waiting. It was cold that night and we ate in the larger dining room where owner Jack Sobel had fired up the homey fireplace. Agave is one-of-a-kind in our city. It pulls off a Southwestern ambiance without knocking your eyes out with one cliché after another.
We ate very well, as usual. We sampled a relatively new white-bean soup with serrano chilies, a strong flavor of rosemary and sundry vegetables. They were served with fried serrano bread that reminded me of spicy churros.
Order the soup, but don't miss the starter of beef and pepper tostadas – a remarkable set of textures and flavors from slow-cooked beef tenderloin and peppers marinated in a citrus-chili puree. You also get black-bean crema, an avocado-chili salsa, shredded romaine, a dusting of Parmesan, citrus sour cream and, of course, the crunchy tostadas. It sounds busy as hell, but it works very well.
We also ordered the Rio Rancho tacos starter – two soft tacos filled with red-chili pork, pintos, black-bean crema and hatch-green chilies over a green chili sauce. There's more, but you get the point: also complex and yummy but without the crisp texture of the tostadas.
I ordered the evening's special – four grilled diver scallops over habanero-spiked grits with roasted tomatoes. They were garnished with grilled asparagus. The grits went overboard for my taste. Their texture was too dense because of the heavy seasonings. Wayne, however, loved them and insisted on taking the leftovers home.
More, we ate more, including what is certainly one of the best meatloafs in town. It's made of ground veal, chorizo and green chilies, served with a mushroom demiglace over Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and collards made zingy by cider and honey. Finally, we took a few bites of a pork shank marinated in a dark Mexican beer with smoked jalapeños, served with a braised vegetable sauce and, on the side, more of the honey-cider collards.
We staggered to the car, with most of the last two dishes in takeout containers, and I managed to surprise even myself by wondering aloud how we'd forgotten to order any dessert.
Beleza goes chocolate
I can't wait. The amazing Beleza will soon be offering an "erotic chocolate menu" by master chocolatier Kristen Hard. The restaurant joins Top Floor and the Chocolate Bar in offering such a menu.
Hard's chocolates, marketed under the name K Chocolat, are retailed now at the Chocolate Bar and the Cabbagetown Market. She seems to specialize in chocolate aphrodisiacs and wellness products. Among her "Daily Dose Bars" are chocolates named: Azteca Aphrodisia, Women's Wellness Bar, PMS Bar, Mind My Menopause Bar, Smarty Pants Bar, Inner Calm Bar and Be a Man Bar.
She also conducts public and private classes. My favorite mentioned on her website, KChocolat.com, is one she gave in October with gynecologist Steven Rabin on sex and chocolate.
She's also offered one my beer-loving Aussie editor would enjoy: "Beer and Chocolate": "Essentially, beer and chocolate share the same basic taste, which is a balance of bitterness – derived from the cocoa beans in chocolate, the hops in beer – and sweetness from the chocolate's sugar and the beer's malted barley. They also deliver a similar mouthfeel. ..." Uh, OK.