It’s awards season. Whoop-de-do.
While the rest of the country eats up the red carpet ruckus, I’m just eating.
That’s because I can’t keep up with the stuff of Entertainment Weekly, and I’m not in a position to debate whether “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” should be an Oscar best picture nominee. However, Hollywood awards chatter did inspire me to hit the road to dine at A-lister restaurants in two towns — Senoia and Covington — that have become filming destinations in these parts.
NIC & NORMAN’S
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I’ve never been easily swayed by celebrity restaurants. Isn’t it enough to be a movie or TV superstar? Is adding “restaurateur” to the resume a necessary marker of success as an entertainer?
Then again, if the actor kids from “Stranger Things” decided to open a restaurant together in downtown Jackson and slap signage the likes of “Stranger Eats” above the door, I’d probably stand in line to get a taste of menu items like Mike’s eggs with maple syrup or Eleven’s specialty Eggos.
That same adoration for the show and its characters is precisely why, when folks head to downtown Senoia, they pop into Nic & Norman’s, the American grill by “Walking Dead” talent Norman Reedus (Daryl on the show) and its exec producer Greg Nicotero. (For “Walking Dead” fans craving the next new episode, season eight returns Feb. 25.)
My dubious attitude was put in check the moment I entered the room. The bar is breathtaking. There’s the wood, polished to gleaming, and the bar back with its carved arches and shiny mirrors. Two beaded crystal chandeliers cast a golden glow over the dining room, warming the space and its exposed brick walls.
For a second, it felt like a saloon scene in a Western. And again when the server said that bison chili was among the soups of the day. (It has since found its own warranted spot on the menu.) Mild in heat, chock full of meat and beans, that chili was as satisfying as one could hope for on a frigid winter day.
Burgers are the draw at Nic & Norman’s. There are nearly a dozen on the menu, and the first two on the list — Norman’s Pick and Greg’s Pick — get the owners’ seal of approval.
During my visit, a bison patty was the basis for Norman’s Pick, but it came with an unusual combination: beet slices, onions, spinach and a fried egg. I ordered it with a brioche bun — as opposed to Norman’s way (an “un-bun,” aka wrapped in a lettuce leaf). The egg delivered runny yolk goodness that offset the slightly dense, lean patty, but my taste buds were confused by the role that the red root was trying to play. Norman’s Pick has since undergone a makeover. Now, it’s a vegetarian creation of a black bean patty dressed with soy ginger sauce, beets, avocado and spinach.
While the paleo and vegetarian population might gravitate to Norman’s Pick, I prefer Greg’s: a flavor-packed patty made from a blend of ground chuck, short rib and brisket that gets dressed up with blue cheese, lettuce, caramelized onions and a slice of tomato. Those on the fence about blue cheese, beware: It was piled on heavy. But the topping combo hit the mark to balance sweet and sharp notes; the patty itself spilled forth gratifying juices.
Burgers come with a side, and the winners, twice over, were the fries — thick, spiralized “sidewinder” fries as well as sweet potato fries cut into mega wedges and superbly cooked. Far too many sweet potato fries come out of the fryer flimsy. At Nic & Norman’s, they suffered no such demise; they were spot-on crispy and held up to ketchup dipping.
The restaurant also offers stick-to-your-rib entrees like meatloaf, which was a delight. It wasn’t just the moistness, due in part to a coating of special house N&N sauce, and warranting zero ketchup. It was the down-home goodness of the whole plate: the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the green beans with blistered cherry tomatoes. Mashed potatoes often have the consistency of glue, gravy is just a fatty, cold glob, and green beans are cooked to death or barely cooked at all. Here, it was all quite satisfying.
I claim that I’m not star-struck, but truth be told, I was secretly hoping to spot Norman in the room. No such luck. Afterward, my dining partners and I ambled across the street to the Georgia Mercantile Co., where you can purchase tickets for “Walking Dead” tours. A tour had departed 30 minutes earlier, so we settled for taking selfies next to human-sized, cardboard cutouts of “Dead” personalities. Burgers and fries at Nic & Norman’s plus a brush with zombies — reason enough to plan a repeat Senoia trip.
When I pulled up to the town square in Covington to find a City Hall capped with a clock tower, it felt for a moment like the set from “Back to the Future.” Covington wasn’t the site for fictional city Hill Valley, Calif., but it is a filming location, known more recently as Mystic Falls, Va., on TV series “The Vampire Diaries.” It has also been used for the NBC movie “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love” and episodes of new shows such as ABC’s “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World” and Fox’s “The Resident.”
Yet the current buzz about Covington is not about the screen. It’s about City Pharmacy.
Open since December, it sits on the square in a 1920s building that was, indeed, a drugstore. Husband-and-wife owners Tedo and Sasha Stone have restored the space to its original charm and character — positioning the bar where the soda fountain used to be, retaining the old ceramic tile floors — while adding stylish touches like patterned wallpaper to the bar back and wall — an elegant match to an equally elegant New American menu.
One glimpse at the drink list, and even if you’re like one of my dining partners who rarely orders a cocktail, you’ll be itching to try a mixed drink. Befitting the building’s former life as a pharmacy is a cocktail called Cure #1, a highly recommendable whiskey sour doctored up with Cocchi Americano and apricot liqueur, and frothy with egg white. (City Pharmacy’s version of a Penicillin, while not on the menu, is also quickly becoming another liquid cure for whatever ails patrons.) The Cherry Bourbon Phosphate, which tastes like cherry Coke spiked with bourbon and is served over crushed ice, is a boozier way to recall your soda fountain days, although you can do that with nonalcoholic sodas like strawberry habanero that brings a kick on the back end.
While two of Atlanta’s top talents — chef Todd Richards and veteran bar man Jerry Slater — consulted on the menu for City Pharmacy, it is executive chef Christian Perez helming the kitchen. Perez and her team are plating some exceptional food.
Smoked catfish croquettes were moist without falling apart, fried but not greasy, and the fish retained just enough smoke flavor to be enjoyable instead of overpowering. Resting on a dab of Old Bay mayo and topped with a scattering of a loose carrot-beet slaw, this starter was the first in a parade of fine dishes.
There was Peppered Pork Belly: fatty, salty chunks glistening with a sorghum glaze over a pool of creamed leeks. Georgia Onion Soup was a solid version of the classic; the beef jus was deeply flavorful, and the measure of melted Gruyere cheese just enough to keep things comfortably rich instead of over-the-top indulgent.
A good thing, because there’s more to savor.
Crab Stuffed Trout for Two brought a Carolina trout covered in a golden potato crust, the freshness of the fish equally matched by that of the crab filling. When my dining partners got a taste of the Heritage Pork Chop that’s generously portioned (as so many dishes at City Pharmacy are) and made all the more hearty with root veggie hash, an argument broke out as to whether the fish duo or the winter-perfect pork plate was better.
Everything Mac ‘N’ Cheese is an ever-changing concoction that lets the cooks play in the kitchen. The day I visited, it was a crab and bacon version. Although not very creamy, it was certainly cheesy.
It seems that this culinary team is having fun with every section of its menu. The kitchen had sold out of its crowd-pleasing dessert called Sweet Potato: a whole sweet potato with a bourbon sorghum, candied pecans and nutmeg ice cream. No matter. Banana Crème Pie was a deconstructed version of the original, with the filling on the bottom, crumbs of toasted pie crust on top, torched banana bits here, rum caramel there and whipped cream everywhere.
City Pharmacy may sit in a small town, but it’s putting out a dinner experience to rival many in this big city. Grab a chair before the room gets even more crowded. And if you’ve no interest in eating up Hollywood glam, eat up for real at City Pharmacy.