The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Augusta Edition.

Two weeks ago, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, a town that I had imagined to be small and uninteresting. I had mentally prepared myself to exist on a mostly-caffeine diet for my marathon days, fully expecting the culinary options to be sub-par.

I quickly learned, however, that Augusta is neither small nor uninteresting. It didn’t take long for someone to inform me that Augusta National Golf Club is home to the annual Masters Tournament, so I did my tourist duty and picked up a commemorative golf ball, and then I set my sights on what really mattered: leveraging a few food-loving locals to unearth some culinary gems.

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Stop #1.  As we waited for everyone to arrive at Abel Brown, a southern kitchen and oyster bar, Maddie and I decided to order a drink. The bartender, a quirky and talkative man with a southern drawl, started chatting about Pittsburgh (a surefire way to my heart) as he expertly crafted my “Sorry, Hank!” cocktail, a silky smooth concoction of gin, elderflower and lime. I asked about the name; Sorry, Hank! isn’t something very familiar. Two of Abel Brown’s usuals – Hank and Anne, a couple in their early 70s – were sitting at the bar one afternoon. After Anne had already downed a martini or two, she asked the bartender to whip up something else he thought she might like. It was the very drink I held in my hands, and when Hank leaned over for a taste of his wife’s, she said in her sweet southern drawl, “Sorry, Hank! It’s all gowne.” Hank rolled his eyes and looked lovingly at his wife, laughing. Now, her drink is a staple on the happy hour menu at Abel Brown.

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We took our seats inside the crisp, brightly lit and minimally decorated dining room and got down to business: appetizers. We started with a cheese plate (because when you’re lactose intolerant, obviously), smoked and fried chicken wings, johnny cakes, a drool-worthy scallop ceviche and a Caesar salad, complete with real life anchovies (yuck). Maddie and I agreed without hesitation – these were the best wings we had ever had. They had an incomparable smoky flavor, and when delicately dipped in the creamy horseradish sauce served on the side, it felt like the world stopped.

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Despite already feeling full, we quickly moved on to the main event. For me, that meant Georgia White Shrimp and Grits. (Because, when you’re in the South, is there really anything else to order?) Served with andouille sausage, fried okra, blistered tomatoes and jalapeno butter, it was everything I could have possibly imagined and more. I love grits – I mean, I really love grits – and these were creamier, saltier and more wonderful than any I’ve ever had before. (Sorry Emeril.)

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Fast forward 24 hours, and we’re seated in a dimly lit booth towards the back of Stop #2: Craft & Vine, a restaurant whose name alone piqued my interest. Walking through the front door was like crossing the threshold into a different era entirely. The waiters were dressed in varying shades of blue pants and cream shirts, each outfit held together (literally) with a pair of suspenders.  If you closed your eyes, the sounds could remind you of what a speakeasy sounded like. Hushed voices, bursts of laughter, and the shimmering, shaking and slamming of cocktails being crafted behind the long, wooden bar. The leather seats felt cool on the back of my legs, and the house rules lent an air of exclusivity to the whole joint. And to think – I almost decided to stay in. But now, I was hooked.

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Craft & Vine is less of a place to get a traditional dinner, but instead, a communal tasting space at your table – more tapas than individual meals. So, I ordered a French 75 (my favorite cocktail of all time – yum), and we slid our fingers down the menu, rattling off to our young waiter everything that caught our eye. We began, in our typical fashion, with a selection of charcuterie, and then layered in the weekly adaptation of deviled eggs, which were served with crispy chicken skins and a light layer of buffalo sauce. We added in some rabbit “wings,” a beet salad and a plate of Cab Sirloin, served with roaster fingerling potatoes, bravas sauce, romesco and wood oven grilled onions. The sirloin, by far, was the winner of the night. It melted in my mouth in the most delectable way imaginable.

Maybe it’s true what they say: everything is better in the South. And maybe the anonymity of Augusta (aside from golf-lovers around the world) works in my favor. These hidden gems will always be mine.

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