First off, I should clarify that I’m talking about the Athens in Georgia, not Greece, and about Georgia the US state, not Georgia the country in the Caucasus.
As I’ve indicated in previous posts, we flew down to Atlanta from New York last Sunday, then drove to Athens, home of the University of Georgia and fifth largest city in the state. (What’s bigger? Atlanta of course. Also Augusta, Columbus, Savannah.)
That night we had our first of many superb meals, though not at a restaurant. This one was at Dan and RuthElizabeth’s home. Ribs, macaroni and cheese, green beans and Vidalia onions (with or without bacon). A great introduction to southern cooking, even if Dan’s from right here in greater Seattle and RuthElizabeth is from Syracuse. And the red velvet cupcakes that their daughter made were a perfect ending.
Monday morning, Gail and I explored the university and downtown. Having not eaten a real breakfast, we were hungry, so we stopped for an early lunch downtown at Al’s Beef, a Chicago chain whose only non-Illinois locations for now are in Athens and Scottdale. Why Athens has one is a mystery, but I tell you what—if you stumble on an Al’s Beef somewhere, give it a try. It’s implausibly good. We both tried their classic, the Al’s Italian Beef with hot and sweet peppers and provolone.
The Masters golf tournament may be what brought us to Georgia, but once we decided to make Athens our home base (getting accommodations in Augusta would have been hopeless by the time we decided to use the tickets we won in the Masters lottery), a visit to UGA’s math department also became part of the plan, thanks to Dan’s kind invitation. I spent the afternoon in the department, after which we were taken out to dinner at 5 & 10, just down the street from campus at Five Points, pictured above.
This place is great. It is owned by Hugh Acheson. From the website:
Five & Ten is Hugh’s flagship restaurant, started from scratch in 2000. “The menu,” says Hugh, “has always been an open interpretation of Southern food, melding Georgia cookery with French and Italian influences I learned growing up. It’s been a very fun restaurant over the years.”
Acheson’s fresh approach to Southern food has earned him a great deal of recognition including Food & Wine’s Best New Chef (2002), the Atlanta Journal Constitution Restaurant of the Year (2007), a James Beard winner for Best Chef Southeast in 2012, a 2007 Rising Star and 2012 winner of the Mentor Chef award from StarChefs.com.
In 2012, the James Beard Foundation awarded Hugh’s first cookbook A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, published by Clarkson Potter, Best Cookbook in the field of American Cooking.
Gail and I shared two appetizers. One is described on the menu as 5&10 “Little Ears Pasta” stinging nettles, garlic sausage, favas, calabrian peppers, lemon. The other was Romaine Hearts classic caesar dressing, crisp parmesan, bacon, pressed bread. I started with the Caesar and didn’t want to give it up. But once I switched to the pasta, I wished I had more of that.
For the main dish, Gail had Low Country Frogmore Stew gulf shrimp, potatoes, corn, andouille, leek & tomato broth and grilled bread. I’m not a big shrimp eater, but it looked fabulous. And at the end Gail let me try it. Fabulous indeed. I had the Roasted Hanger Steak, anson mills farro, fiddlehead ferns, beet greens, abalone mushrooms. No, that doesn’t sound right. It’s what’s on the online menu, but I didn’t have farro. I had oats. Incredibly good oats, as was everything else.
They have an extensive wine list, plus additional choices by the glass. I tried a glass of Sicilian red, as did Brian. Gail had a rosé, and later a syrah-grenache blend, both French. I can’t remember what, but all were good.
For dessert, in addition to their pastries, they have a daily selection of ice cream, sorbet, and cookies. I went for a scoop of coconut ice cream and an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. I can’t remember what Gail had. The online menu lists Chocolate Nemesis cake with malt ice cream, white chocolate crumb, brandied cherries, bruleed banana, whipped cream. I know she didn’t have that, but maybe she had a variant.
I was learning fast that people eat well in Athens.
Tuesday was Masters day. We were on the road to Augusta with Dan and RE by 6:45 in the morning, back around 7:15 in the evening. Once we collected the girls (well, they were collected in stages, but no matter), we headed to Cali-N-Tito’s, which is just a block up from 5 & 10, in walking distance of both our on-campus hotel and Dan and RE’s house. It’s a Cuban restaurant, the kind of place where you order and pay at the counter, take a number, and wait for the food to be brought to your table. The line to order was about 25 minutes long, giving Gail and me loads of time to study the menu.
Given Cali-N-Titos’ proximity to campus and the preponderance of students among the diners, I might have had low expectations if not for Dan and RE’s having chosen it. The food came quickly after ordering, and it was good. More than good. I’ve never had a better Cubano sandwich. Standards are high in Athens.
Wednesday Dan and RE joined us for a tour of UGA’s Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. It’s the UGA sports Hall of Fame—the central atrium anyway—with the offices of the Department of Athletics, workout space, and more in the corners and below. And it’s amazing, to the extent that a university sports museum can be amazing. National championship trophies, Heisman trophies, history, photos, old football helmets, and on and on. One could wander the space for hours.
Next stop was the Georgia Museum of Art, the university art museum that doubles as the state art museum. We were running into time pressure at this point, since we were all supposed to meet Natalie (another Washington native who has found her way to Athens) for lunch, after which Dan and Natalie had to get on with their days. So we cut the museum visit short in order to get over to The Grit.
Natalie had suggested The Grit while we were texting back and forth from the art museum, and I remembered reading about it before the trip, so I instantly agreed. We would meet up in about half an hour, with Gail and me returning to the museum on our own after lunch.
According to The Grit’s wikipedia entry—which is where I must have read about it, since the website information is minimal—
The Grit is perhaps best known for its relationship to the Athens music scene. It is located on the edge of downtown Athens, site of numerous performance venues. The Grit is a popular stop for touring performers and local musicians. Although he is not involved in the operation of the restaurant, the building is owned by R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe. In 2001 the restaurant’s owners published The Grit Cookbook: World-Wise, Down-Home Recipes, which contains testimonials from many of The Grit’s fans in the music industry and elsewhere. Admirers included Stipe, Kate Pierson (of the B-52’s), Kevn Kinney, Vic Chesnutt and Spalding Gray, along with members of Pylon, Widespread Panic, Fugazi, The Jayhawks, Counting Crows, and even Hee Haw’s Marianne Rogers. The Grit’s menu is entirely vegetarian, and a significant portion of items are vegan.
And from the website:
If you’ve never visited The Grit, you should know that we’ve been an old favorite in Athens, GA for more than two decades. We serve vegetarian food in a way that appeals to ALL kinds of eaters. The lure of delicious homemade food served in generous portions at inexpensive prices, coupled with a lovingly restored pair of handsome dining rooms in a splendid historic building…it all brings people back and back again. So again, welcome to TheGrit.com!
I started with the day’s soup special, the lentil soup, though the split pea dal sounded tempting too. Then I had the Falafel Platter: Five chickpea fritters served with lemon-tahini dressing, pita points, cucumbers, carrots, celery and radishes. I’ve been eating falafel a long time. Like, since my Israeli cousin ordered them for me in an Arab restaurant in Jaffa in July 1970. And these were as good as any I’ve ever had. Tasty and light.
Another option is The Grit Veggie Plate, in which you choose three items from among the dishes on the special board or from a selection of regular menu items. Gail went for this. I can’t remember which three she chose, other than one being two falafels and another being one of the soups. Maybe the other special of the day, a bean soup. Oh, and tabouli salad. She was as delighted as I was.
We don’t seem to get to vegetarian restaurants too often. One thing we realized is that when it comes to desserts, their offerings aren’t much different from the offerings of non-vegetarian restaurants. For instance, a beautiful red velvet cake from which one can order slices. And homemade cookies. Natalie and I split a cookie. We all shared a slice of cake.
The Grit’s website description is accurate. Their food does appeal to “ALL kinds of eaters.” It is indeed “delicious homemade food served in generous portions at inexpensive prices, coupled with a lovingly restored pair of handsome dining rooms in a splendid historic building.” And it would bring me “back and back again.”
That last line applies, by the way, to Athens dining—and Athens—in general. I’m hooked.