Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five and Ten

It is a rare day indeed in which I eat a meal I have not cooked myself. Many factors converge to make this true, of course, not the least of which is the two small children at the dinner table who are not quite tamed enough to be taken to fancy restaurants. We are hermits these days. Years of being out and about all the time mostly satisfied our need for that sort of thing, and we are content for the most part to spend our free hours down our little dirt road with our children and our own thoughts. It should also be noted that I am a consummate penny pincher and as such, am not terribly fond of tossing money around. Eating at home promotes family bonding, sound financial discipline, and feeds into my own desires to be creative in the kitchen.

But even I have my moments.

The Carnivore and I have enjoyed the occasional meal out since the birth of our first child, but these were never romantic, candlelit dinners for the children have always joined us. And, for the most part, these are lunches at restaurants, not dinners. For Mother’s Day brunch, the family generally treats me to Farm 255, and we have had other few-and-far-between moments at other, cafĂ©-like appropriate places to take children who will most likely drop more than a few crumbs under the table. At the point in which The Big Boy reached the relatively well-behaved stage, before Little Miss Piggy came into our lives, we even all went out for dinner a time or two at better-than-family-restaurants, but frankly our standards are high when it comes to evening meals. If we’ll be dropping serious bank at an establishment, then what we really want to be eating is food that I cannot cook at home on my own. And those are not the types of places you take children to.

Miraculously, we found ourselves in the position this week to go out by ourselves, dressed up like people who have not been married for eight years, with the ability to linger at the table as if we didn’t have two young children at home asleep in their beds and under the watchful eyes of my sister-in-law. See, when you leave your kids with a Registered Nurse who is a mother herself, well, worrying about the babysitter will be the furthest thing from your mind. I highly recommend it.

The Carnivore, bless him, suggested we go to the Five and Ten, an award-winning restaurant in Athens headed by a James Beard Award-nominated chef. We had eaten there twice before, maybe six or so years ago, when we celebrated a friend’s birthday over appetizers one evening, and again for Sunday brunch following another friend’s wedding. I was not nearly as aware of fine food back then, and neither occasion really lent itself to the kind of meal in which the restaurant is truly known for. So it was with great excitement that I donned earrings the baby would not be pulling out, and packed a tiny purse that was not stocked with matchbox cars and crayons for the preschooler. ‘Twas a strange feeling indeed, though not nearly so satisfying as the moment in which we walked into the restaurant and I pointed at a high chair by the hostess stand and said, rather emphatically, “We will NOT be needing that.”

The Five and Ten serves a seasonal menu with many locally-sourced ingredients and does an immaculate job of perfectly and simply preparing some of its fresh offerings. For an appetizer, I ordered one of the specials, a sculpturally-appealing salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes, baby arugula and fried okra. The tomatoes were a revelation, firm and meaty, with a fruity flavor that was very low in acidity and was balanced by the barest hint of a delicate dressing. There were four exquisite pieces of okra that we tried hard not fight for. The breading was thin, crispy and light and somehow the okra was still bright green and ever-so-slightly-cooked, with none of the stringiness that turns most people away from the humble little vegetable.

We also ordered a cheese plate with accompaniments of quince membrillo, roasted grapes, toasted pecans, paper-thin slices of tart apple, and bread. They offered three of the Sweet Grass Dairy cheeses, all of which I have been dying to try for the past year, and with our server’s help I settled on Sweet Grass’ Green Hill, a soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese that recently won top honors in the American Cheese Society competition. Its flavor was mild, with a texture similar to cheddar, and was delightful for nibbling though I think it might get lost if used as a supporting role in a recipe. I now can’t wait to try some of their other cheeses as well. The Carnivore also chose Point Reyes Blue cheese for our plate, which we both had a lot of fun tasting. Blue cheeses are strong, and this one, while not the strongest one offered on the menu, was plenty in-your-face with its flavor while still managing to not overpower the palate.

Entrees were a difficult decision indeed. I was torn between a hand-cut pasta dish and another for North Carolina trout. Our very attentive (and cute as a button in her sundress and snow boots) server adeptly steered me towards the seafood, for which I was most grateful. The skin of the fish was crispy and well-seasoned, and the flesh was as perfectly-cooked as I have ever had, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and a bright hint of lemon. The Carnivore, of course, chose some such meat dish that meant nothing to me so he had his plate all to himself (he is no dummy).

The dessert choices stumped me again, and I waffled mightily between a chocolate trifle and fried peach turnovers with ginger ice cream. The server who up to now had no difficulty at all with being decisive hemmed and hawed for a moment when I told her my dilemma and ended up suggesting I order them both. Contrary to form, I refrained. Everything had been so delicious, so perfect, and the servings had been so sensibly-sized that I did not want to ruin it all now by gorging myself and returning home bloated and grumpy with no memory of the individual bites of such unrivaled food. I ordered the turnovers and was not disappointed. The plate arrived with two hardly-larger-than-bite-size crisp pastries filled with hot, firm chunks of fresh peach next to a small scoop of homemade ice cream spicy with ginger. When at first I wanted to turn my nose up at the overpowering flavor of the ice cream by itself, my taste buds were thrilled at the transcendent and beautifully-matched flavor when I took a bite that married the ice cream with the turnover. I meant to share the dessert with The Carnivore, but after the first couple of bites, I moved the plate much closer to myself and held out a fork as a weapon. He sat back in his chair and raised an eyebrow at me, but did not push the subject. Like I said, he’s no dummy.

It has been many years since I have had a meal so divine. I do hope it doesn’t take quite so long before we do this again. And I know just the restaurant whose doors I will want to darken…

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