Food and Loathing and the 'Meisters took to the road last weekend to see Daughtress in a play at UGA in Athens, Ga. For a small college town, Athens is surprisingly foodie friendly. Tucked into the nooks and crannies of 19th-century brick buildings are numerous independently owned bistros, pubs, diners, coffee shops, pizza joints, dive bars and, yes, fine-dining establishments.
I love the vibe in Athens, and the town's plethora of noshing alternatives satisfies a colorful mix of folks responsible for this vibrant scene: artsy intellectuals, prepped-out fraternity and sorority kids, inebriated idiots, scholastic nerds, aging hipsters and musicians, grungy street people, and grungy street-people wannabes. We peg the wannabes as wealthy kids from Atlanta 'burbs who strive to look impoverished and unwashed. Not to be overlooked in this multifarious populace are obnoxiously enthusiastic Bulldog alumni and parents who demand good grub while visiting their studious offspring. Since that's my category, allow me to jump to our fine-dining experience last Saturday night.
While living in Georgia, I read about Five & Ten and its lauded chef, Hugh Acheson (named Best New Chef in 2002 by Food & Wine magazine). This restaurant was ranked "worth the drive" from Atlanta - in fact, it was the AJC's restaurant of the year in 2007 - and since Athens is an hour's drive from the ATL, I knew I had to eat here at some point during my kid's college days. Saturday night was my second time, the first being an evening last winter. That night I ordered a prix fixe three-course dinner, which I recall as good but not memorable enough to tell you what I had. This time, our table of five ordered off an ever-changing menu.
Since a home football game packed the town, the place was hopping when we arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation. This white-tablecloth but unpretentious restaurant is divided into two sections, a brightly painted sun-room-type space that overlooks the street scene in Five Points, and an interior room that contains tables and a long bar. One thing I noticed this visit was the decibel level - this is a noisy place, enough that I found myself yelling across the table to make myself heard over a boisterous woman at the bar. My first time here, I was seated in the sun room, and I would suggest requesting a table in this area if you wish to converse or if you have hearing issues.
Despite the lofty ceiling - the kind with the exposed ducts - the dining room is inviting, thanks to billowing sheers looped overhead. The contemporary restaurant occupies a space that was once a five-and-dime store, thus the name. An odd assortment of black-and-white prints adorns the walls, some Asian influenced, and others - like those above the rest rooms - resemble head shots of blond models or actors from the 1960s. Hanging on the wall of the women's bathroom is Chef Acheson's membership certificate from the Confrerie de la Chaines des Rotisseurs. I had to smile at the absurdity of reading about this prestigious gastronomic organization while sitting on the commode. This guy must have a sense of humor. Interestingly, none of the eclectic decor has anything to do with the theme of the food, which is a sophisticated take on Southern cuisine.
We began with a cheese tray and a pate appetizer for the table to share. Hubmeister solicited the server for recommendations and received nothing but nods as he inquired about a few of the cow, sheep and goat cheeses. This was the first in a series of service missteps. The server was clueless when it came to the cheeses, which were delicious and accompanied by sliced apples, grapes and sugared pecans. The pate was served with toast points and sweet chutney. The pate was mild and the cheeses sharp, so we ended up with a good balance of flavors to start things off.
I ordered Frogmore Stew, a lovely Low Country concoction of large, tender shrimp, spicy andouille sausage, delicate fingerling potatoes, leeks and sweet corn on the cob. Accompanied by a thick piece of buttery, grilled bread and served in a bowl, the shrimp, sausage and vegetables were cradled in a light, tomato-based broth. This seafood "boil" was as pretty as a picture, and I am sorry I don't have one to show you.
The other standout entree at the table was Crispy Trout wrapped in Benton Country Ham, served with Red Mule Grits. Son of Hubmeister, who claimed he wasn't hungry, never looked up from the plate as he ate every bite. Additional savory selections at our table included redfish and a pork chop with collard greens. Hubmeister remarked about the freshness and quality of the ingredients.
Unfortunately, I must return to the service stumbles. The wait staff mismatched the entrees and the diners, and never removed all of the used dishes before dessert arrived. When presenting the cheese plate, the server plopped it down without identifying the cheeses, and ignored the mess of bread crumbs that remained on the tablecloth throughout the entire meal. These details are significant when considering the cost of dining at this establishment, and the lack of professionalism in the front of the house is an insult to the high-quality creations emerging from the kitchen.
This brings me to the sweet finale. We ordered two desserts and passed them around. Daughtress selected the Chocolate Nemesis Cake with Salty Caramel Ice Cream, Bruleed Bananas and Roasted Peanuts; and Son of Hubmeister, whose appetite was miraculously revived by the superior efforts of the chef, ordered Pumpkin Mascarpone Mousse with Toasted Pepitas, Whipped Cream and Maple Reduction. The rich chocolate cake was lavalike and Daughtress enjoyed the counter-balance of the ice cream touched with salt. After tasting the pumpkin mousse, I was ready to wrestle Son of Hubmeister for it and return the following evening just for dessert. For pumpkin lovers like me, this was the epitome of an autumnal treat. The maple drizzle on the plate, the crunchy pumpkin seeds, the creamy mousse - it was an extraordinary combination and presentation.
Five & Ten has earned a stellar Zagat food rating of 28 every year since 2004. I give the food high marks too, but service is another matter. Perhaps the chef/owner is getting too busy - he currently co-owns another Athens restaurant, named The National, a wine shop, and he recently opened Empire State South, a restaurant in Atlanta. I can't wait for my next trip to the ATL.
Five & Ten
1653 S. Lumpkin Street