Our critics recall their favorite bites from the restaurants they reviewed this year.
FROM LIGAYA FIGUERAS
Wood-grilled whole branzino at Drift Oyster Bar
Drift may have the words “oyster bar” in its name, but what I fancied most on that menu was its fresh fish. Bay of Fundy salmon, mahi-mahi... Some offerings have been swapped, or kept seasonal with change ups in vegetables, sauces and vins, but the dish still the same as when I reviewed Drift in June is the branzino. A beautifully grilled whole fish, the flesh flaky and moist, served with a swath of the North African herb sauce chermoula that’s similar to chimichurri and decorated with a delicate seven-herb salad plus a charred half-lemon at the ready. “I’m pausing here to close my eyes and savor again in my head each of these dishes, the preparation gratifyingly simple and unmasked, the execution and composition so superb,” I wrote then. Six months later, I can still close my eyes and savor these fish dishes in my head.
4475 Roswell Road, Marietta. 770-635-7641, driftoysterbar.com
Daily specials at Murphy’s Restaurant
One thing I learned after visiting Murphy’s in Virginia-Highland, is that any day of the week is a good day to visit this neighborhood restaurant because of the daily specials. On a Friday back in April, there was a special of veal strip loin, the tender meat artfully arranged, encircled in a heady red wine sauce and crowned with purple violets and pea shoots. Also outstanding was a Wednesday offering of spiced venison with quinoa and fava beans, the plate painted with a bold orange clementine jus. Murphy’s sticks with the seasons, so these days, you’ll instead find Cider Braised Pork Shank with roasted fall vegetables on Fridays. Or Duck & Lamb Ragu with rigatoni on Wednesdays. What remains the same as when I wrote the review: “Color. Texture. Flavor. Bite after bite after bite.”
997 Virginia Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-872-0904, murphys-atlanta-restaurant.com
FROM WYATT WILLIAMS
Barbecue shrimp and spoonbread at W.H. Stiles Fish Camp
The most casual of Anne Quatrano’s restaurant empire delivered the best bite I tasted at any of her restaurants this year. Chef Daniel Chance’s soufflé-like spoonbread covered in a luxurious but local take on barbecue shrimp made for a dish that was both distinctly Southern and noticeably refined. More than a satisfying fish-counter dish, this one was stunning enough I would've been happy with it at Bacchanalia.
675 Ponce De Leon Ave., Atlanta. 678-235-3929, starprovisions.com/fish-camp.
Lao sausage at Hot Café
Most of the time when I’m reviewing restaurants, I’m chasing the newest dish at the hottest restaurant. Finally coming across the divey Hot Café, a restaurant specializing in Lao and Thai food that’s been open nearly two decades, was a surprising revelation. This snappy, crisp Lao sausage, full of lemongrass and coarse chopped pork, transported me halfway around the globe.
Hot Cafe, 5286 Riverdale Road, Forest Park. 770-996-6544.
FROM ELIZABETH LENHARD
Soup and Salad at Eat Me Speak Me
When considering a rotating menu that always features sexy proteins like lime-laced raw beef or sausage fashioned out of catfish and sunchokes, hailing Eat Me Speak Me’s soups and salads seems contrarian. But chef Jarrett Stieber has a magical way with veg. Thus, long after a meal at his Candler Park pop-up, I’m usually most haunted by his velvety root-based soups and his finely layered salads. You can always count on their complexity, their bright colors, their whimsical adornments of “adorable croutons” or “frivolous garnish” and most of all, their deliciousness. I can still remember a shallow dish of rutabaga soup I ate there, pink-streaked with prickly pear oil and dotted with the hot crunch of chili’d pecans. These days, Stieber is turning out popcorn-dotted salads and soups flavored with burnt marshmallow. Which is to say, these oft-overlooked starters only get more interesting at Eat Me Speak Me.
Invincible Dan Dan Mazemen at Ton Ton
Am I the only one who finds brothless ramen even more intoxicating than noodles swimming in soup? At least, that’s how I feel about Guy Wong’s chili-oiled Dan Dan ramen. Without the distractingly delicious swirl of meat-rich broth, I can focus in this dish on the tastiness of the crinkled noodles and the custardy richness of the egg perched atop them. Ground pork, well-lubed with deep red chili oil, stays succulent and intensely spicy and cucumber slivers keep their cool. These noodles are perhaps too vibrant to be considered comfort food. Nevertheless, I crave their warmth every time the winter cold seeps into my bones.