Atlanta: The Optimist, Cardamom Hill and Empire State South
If, when 2013 comes to an end, I name The Optimist as the place I had the best meal of the year, don’t be surprised. Everything about this meal was just incredible. Absolutely, positively incredible.
Maybe part of the reason I was blown away was because I didn’t go in with such high expectations as I have to some places. Sure, I’d heard some good things, but just hadn’t heard a whole lot. Or maybe it had something to do with it being called a “fish camp”. Not exactly the sexiest of terms, and doesn’t really conjure up a picture in my mind the type of spot I want to go for a girls’ night out on the town.
In fact, up until just a few days before leaving for Atlanta, I was on the fence about switching our reservation to another place.
Man, oh man. What I would’ve missed out on if I had done that.
When I say everything was incredible, I do mean everything. From the moment I stepped out of the car, I was completely enamored with this space.
While every inch of the interior of the restaurant is beautifully designed and so well thought out, it’s the exterior that had me at hello. Putt-putt golf on the front yard? Adirondack chairs, a guy strumming his guitar and little lights sparkling overhead? Yes, I could settle in and stay here for a spell.
Green Curry Mussels at The Optimist
Basically The Optimist experience already had my heart going pitter-patter even before any food touched my lips. But then, the food touched my lips and it just kept getting better and better.
I wish my photos did this meal justice, but they don’t. For once I decided to leave my nicer camera at home and only had my iphone on me. Remember – I went into this meal with not such high expectations, so I thought I’d snap a couple of pics, maybe put them on Instagram and be done. Oh well. Hopefully you can still appreciate the beauty of this meal even if my photos aren’t so beautiful!
After a round of cocktails at the bar, we began our dining experience with seared and chilled scallops with grapefruit, coriander and cilantro. A lovely light start. Then came The Mussels. Oh my gosh, the mussels. With green curry broth, chile and herbs, they were the best mussels I’ve had in my life, hands down. No competition. If they were here in Nashville, it would be hard for me to resist eating them at least once a week. Oh, mussels, I miss you. Sigh.
Charred Octopus at The Optimist
Even though I was lost in love with the mussels and focused on trying to soak up every single ounce of that green curry broth, I finally tore my attention away and moved on to the charred Spanish octopus. Can I say this might have been the best octopus I’ve ever had? Okay, now I’ll try to stop saying everything is the best ever. (But I’ll still be thinking it!)
Even the freaking sugar snap peas were ridiculously good!
Without going through every single thing we ordered – because I’d surely run out of descriptive adjectives – just know that it was all delicious. Fish is usually the dish I’m drawn to at restaurants because I don’t cook it that often at home, but the preparations on all of these seafood dishes was above and beyond almost any other I’ve had before.
For instance: Duck Fat Poached Swordfish. Yes, you read that correctly.
Duck fat poached swordfish with creme fraiche and garlic chile relish at The Optimist
Apparently we couldn’t even be bothered to pause and take a photo of this dish before devouring it. Words can’t even begin….
The Optimist Hushpuppies
And then there were the hushpuppies. Two orders of them to be exact. The corn milk hushpuppies at The Optimist are served “beignet style” with cane sugar butter. Yep. That. I do believe I died and went to heaven.
914 Howell Mill Road
Atlanta, GA 30318
Cardamom Hill’s Pork Vindaloo
For an entire year I’ve been looking forward to a meal at Cardamom Hill. In my look back at Atlanta Food & Wine 2012, I named their Indian spiced fried chicken breast the Best Bite I Didn’t Eat. After everyone and their brother was overheard at the festival talking about how to-die-for it was, I knew I HAD to have it.
So it might have be a full year later, but I finally had it- plus several other incredible dishes from Chef Asha Gomez.
From the vindaloo, a pork shoulder slow cooked in a vinegar sauce and served with appam, to the curry chicken puffs (we may have waved the server down to request a 2nd order after just one bite…), to the famous fried chicken, it was an amazing Indian feast.
Curry Chicken Puffs at Cardamom Hill – empanada style with curry chicken filling served with spicy mango sauce
So you’re probably wondering what makes the fried chicken here so special? A dish of South India, it’s served over rice and vegetable pilau and finished with a drizzle of coconut oil, then topped with a spicy mango sauce. Definitely not your grandma’s fried chicken– unless, of course, your grandma hails from South India!
Cardamom Hill’s Kerala Style Fried Chicken
Actually, there wasn’t much on our table that I’ve ever eaten before, even at Indian restaurants in Nashville and other cities. Each dish was unique and interesting. Even something that sounded so simple when reading it on the menu – Beef Curry- wasn’t simple at all. Served with a cooling yogurt rice and served on a banana leaf, it was completely unlike any curry I’d had in the past.
And then there was the goat. Yes, goat. Specifically, a rice biryani with boneless goat simmered in mint, cilantro, and green chili masala. Garnished with cashews, raisins, and fresh cilantro, the biryani was delicious, and possibly my favorite dish of the entire meal.
That is, if you don’t count my dessert… a cocktail called Lord Brown’s Estate: Bulleit bourbon, amaretto, coconut milk, allspice dram, and cinnamon syrup. Definitely the perfect ending!
1700 Northside Dr Northwest
Atlanta, GA 30318
Empire State South’s Georgia Coffee served in the coolest koozie I’ve ever seen
On our last day in Atlanta, we brunched at Empire State South, and what a brunch it was! It was a beautiful day for the short walk down the street from our hotel, and when we arrived at the restaurant, we were thrilled to see that we’d have the option to dine al fresco.
Which leads me to a question I’d been asking ever since our visit to The Optimist on that Friday night. Why aren’t there more cute outdoor dining spaces like this in Nashville???
Yes, that is a bocce ball court and adirondack chairs you can see in the window reflection of Empire State South. A bocce ball court, on the lawn, right next to the outdoor dining area. I want this. Are you listening Nashville restaurant owners? Oh wait. Maybe at least someone is…. sort of? Maybe? I guess we’ll see…
Empire State South’s Pimento Cheese with Bacon Marmalade
Alright, alright. Enough about aesthetics. (Except I’ve got to mention those koozies shown in the first photo- how cute are they??)
Honestly, I probably don’t even need to say much, as I think all of these photos paint a pretty vivid picture of the best brunch I’ve had in a long, long time.
Ham Biscuit – ESS sambal, peach butter, cilantro, brown sugar
Hanger Steak with creamed English peas, radish, fine herbs, hot sauce
Farm Egg – crisp carolina gold rice, onion puree, bologna, shiitake, green onion
English Muffin – chicken and pork sausage, arugula, candied bacon, egg, pepper jelly
Isn’t it great dining with friends and sharing food? Looking at this spread again, I’m both hungry and stuffed at the same time. Of course, I could definitely go for some of that pimento cheese with bacon marmalade right now. I don’t think there will ever be a time in life that I’m too stuffed to eat it!
Suffice it to say, if you go to Atlanta for the weekend and eat at any of these 3 restaurants mentioned here, you’d be a very happy camper. So go. Do it. You can thank me later.
999 Peachtree St NE #140
Atlanta, GA 30309