[FOOD] The Atlanta Top Chef Tour

Last weekend, my wife Christy and I were able to take some time away from the 3 year old that consumes most of our time and take a weekend for ourselves. We were set to attend a concert by Maxwell but that ended up getting canceled. As a result, we needed a plan.

I came up with the idea of hitting up two of Atlanta’s fresh new restaurants, The Spence and Woodfire Grill. The Spence was recently opened up by Richard Blais (he of the Top Chef Masters win), and Woodfire Grill was recently re-opened with Kevin Gillespie as Executive Chef (again, runner-up in one of the many Top Chef seasons). Both these bright young chefs are some of the best in the country and both call Atlanta home. So we took the opportunity to hit up both in one weekend. Here’s how it went.

The Spence

The Spence is located in the Georgia Tech district of downtown Atlanta, and it’s location belies the type of food and atmosphere you find inside. Great modern decor is featured prominently and the music set the mood. Right away, we are seated and handed the menu in a large manila-style envelope.

The Spence’s menu for that night…changes every night.

As you can see, the menu that night featured lots of things I’d never seen or tasted before, so this was going to be one heck of a night.  The table next to us getting something odd-looking and we ask what it was: the bone marrow dish. It’s actually a bone with the marrow on it, topped with tuna tartare and a couple of fried quail eggs, and you get a couple pieces of bread to smear it all on before eating it.  So, being bold, I decide to get that.  Christy goes with the Carte De Musica, which is a type of really thin bread, covered in what looked like arugula, pecorino cheese, and white anchovies.  First, my dish:

The bone marrow, tuna tartare, fried quail egg dish

And now, Christy’s dish:

The Carte De Musica dish, with arugula, pecorino cheese and white anchovies.

Needless to say, the bone marrow dish was really, really interesting. I probably never would’ve ordered it had I not seen it first.  But, having tried it, I can honestly say it was a very well prepared dish.  Christy liked hers as well, although not a huge fan of the anchovies.  We had ordered a bottle of wine, and as such we were already feeling good this far into the meal.  We decided to each order a salad next and then we’d see how we felt about ordering either an entree or go with another small plate.

Our salads were probably the most basic part of the meal and as such, we didn’t snap pictures of those.  Christy’s was a “Not So Simple” Green Salad, and I had their version of the “Caesar” salad which was actually shredded kale.  I forgot how unbelievably dense kale is, and so I couldn’t (and didn’t want) to finish it.  Not because it wasn’t good…I just wanted to save room for something else.  We moved onto two small plates next.  Christy was going to be bold and order the uni spaghettini and I was going to get the porcini noodles.  Once the dishes arrived though, we ended up swapping and being very happy.  Here’s mine, the spaghettini:

The uni speghettini with lobster, chili and thai basil

And then, Christy’s dish:

The porcini noodles with oxtail, egg and truffle.

Both were unbelievable, but we wanted a little something to top off the meal, so we ordered what our server said was the best dessert on the menu…the milk chocolate, peanut and burnt banana ice cream.

Heaven on a plate.

This was unreal…excellent prepared, and the pieces went together like a beautiful harmony.  A great ending to the night, and a great capper.

Onto our next stop…

Woodfire Grill

Woodfire Grill is located in midtown, right off I-85, and very easy to find. There’s a bar right when you go in, and then the main dining room past that.  It was bustling with folks already when we got there around 7:30pm, and the atmosphere was nice.  It was more subdued than The Spence, and as such put us at ease immediately.  Each and every face that we saw greeted us warmly with a smile and a “Good evening”.  That was a nice touch.  Don’t get me wrong…the service at The Spence was excellent, but it was an urban setting, and as such, it really felt “fast” to me.  The feeling at Woodfire Grill was much more relaxed.

We got our table right away and was greeted by Heather, our waitress.  Our menus had “Happy Birthday, Matt!” on them, which was a very nice touch (we were there celebrating my birthday, which is this Thursday, August 2nd).  The main menu had three course offerings with 3-4 choices per offering, but something that intrigued us right away was the 5-course chef’s tasting menu.  Nothing in it was on the menu, and so it’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

Right off, the amuse was delicious and tart.  it was roasted golden beets. local fromage blanc. charred lemon marmalade, served on a very small spoon.  After that, it was onto the first course:

confit georgia white shrimp. cucumber. castaveltrano olive. celery hearts. espelette and chives.

Absoutely delicious and succulent shrimp…cooked to perfection. Cold and crisp. Christy, who is not a fan of seafood, ate hers up as well. Just a great flavor combination. Onto course number two…

crispy north carolina trout. heirloom cherry tomatoes. summer pickles. dill aioli.

Probably our least favorite of the 5 courses here…not that any of it was bad. The trout was well cooked but I wasn’t a fan of the dill aioli at all.  The rest of the dish was very nice.  The aioli just overpowered everything.  Before moving onto the third course, we had an intermezzo of heirloom tomato water, basil and olive oil, served in a shot glass.  It was very good, but strong…Christy wouldn’t drink hers…something about the oil floating on top…onto course number three…

wood grilled plantation quail. summer squash and carolina gold rice casserole. crispy chow mein noodles. garlic béchamel.

Really, really great dish here…the quail was cooked to utter perfection, and the glaze was to die for. The rice casserole was a nice touch, a tip of the cap to the southern roots of the place, and the crispy chow mein was well placed.  And now, the pieces de resistance…

smoked pork loin and slow cooked pork belly. bbq pork rinds. ragout of black-eyed peas. warm peaches. bacon jus.

The masterpiece…pork four ways. The belly was the best part for me, Christy liked the pork loin the best. But you can’t go wrong with a bacon jus, can’ you?! Every single aspect of this dish was well thought out and well prepared, right down to the ragout of black-eyed peas and peaches.  Simply a marvelous dish.  And finally, for dessert…

valrhona caramelia milk chocolate. buttermilk ice cream. crushed peaches. buttermilk cake. white peach fluid gel. peanut crisp.

A lot going on in this plate…as you can tell by it’s description.  The buttermilk ice cream might’ve been my favorite part.  A light but satisfying end  to the meal.

I should say that with each and every course, including dessert, there was a wine pairing that matched up perfectly with each dish.  Heather and the gang at Woodfire Grill made my birthday sometime to remember…we’ll be back again and again.

What Dragon Age Might Look Like As An MMO (Part Three)

…or If The Darkspawn Are A Damn Race, Who The Hell Am I Fighting?!

Driving around yesterday running errands, I contemplated something pretty crucial to my whole setup for a Dragon Age MMO.  The question was this: If the Darkspawn are a playable character race in the game, and they are the main protagonists in the RPG, who the heck are the good guys gonna fight before they get to the Darkspawn PvP fights?!

Clearly, Darkspawn/Grey Warden fights are what could eventually be a huge part of the end game for this MMO, but let us not forget the struggles the Templars/Chantry have had with the Mages/Circle.  It is this conflict which is at the center of Dragon Age II, with few Darkspawn to be found at all (save for your trip into the Deep Roads for lewt, lewt and more lewt).  I think it’s very possible (and quite good actually) that you have two types of end-game conflict in the game.

So with that said, you have to then consider who or what players will fight as NPCs in the game.  I think you could probably have abominations and various beasts available for the good guys to vanquish, but this might get a little tedious.  As for the bad guys, I think the easiest thing to do would be to have groups of humans, elves or dwarves trying to “reclaim” places the Darkspawn are inhabiting.  As I indicated, this game will take place shortly after the “enlightening” of the Darkspawn at the hands of the Architect, so having semi-intelligent Darkspawn would definitely fit the lore.

That being said, there are surely going to be some groups of people in Ferelden that don’t take too kindly to having packs of Darkspawn, sentient or no, living nearby.  And there’s nothing to say that Darkspawn wouldn’t want to kill a few pigs and wolves themselves.  All of this would also apply to the Qunari, but with their homeland being so far from Ferelden itself, it might prove to be a bit more problematic for them.

I would create a level cap of say, 50 levels, and let Level 35 be the point where anyone on the good guy side could begin the ritual of becoming a Grey Warden.  The only problem with building this into the game is that it only seems fair to do the same type of change for the bad guys…I just don’t know what you could do though.  The guys at Bioware would probably be able to answer that more readily, but there would need to be some sort of equivalent to the Grey Warden ritual for Darkspawn and Qunari (not becoming a Grey Warden though).

The only other option would be to do what I suggest you not do in the first part of this series, which is make Grey Warden a playable race from the start of the game.  This would allow anyone to become one right off the bat.  But it would alleviate the need to create something for the bad guys to call their own on that level.

As there is literally tons of lands with which to work with, I think the thing to do as end-game approaches is to open up new areas of the map, and let the higher players fight it out for control of those cities.  This could be handled in much the same way other games handle PvP-type content, with battlegrounds set up and maybe have specific spots on the map up for grabs.  Each side would be able to control the map and therefore gain advantages to having control that the other side would not have.

What could really be cool is if the Darkspawn ever gained control of enough of the map, they could perhaps initiate a Blight, calling forth a NPC-controlled Archdemon that would then have to be wiped out before the Blight was over.  I don’t know if this is something that would play out frequently, as there have only been 5 Blights in the history of Ferelden (a long time presumably), but as far as end-game content goes, you don’t get much better than a Blight.

What Dragon Age Might Look Like As An MMO (Part Two)

…or Where The Hell Are We Starting This Thing At?!

So having decided what the races and classes will be for this game, it’s time now to look at the storyline.  The first two games (Origins and II) fall fairly close together, although the span of the second game is long (some years).  So I would propose that it would be best from a lore standpoint to have the MMO start sometime after the Champion’s rise to power, but sometime before the fall of Kirkwall.  I think the first thing to do on this post would be to pick the starting areas for each race.

Human – Denerim
The capital city in Ferelden, and to me, it makes the most sense as the starting area for the human race.

Dwarf – Orzammar
Again, the last city in the Dwarven empire, it makes the most sense that any dwarf start his journey here.

Elf – City in Brecilian Forest (TBD)
The Elves are mostly nomadic in nature, surviving in the wilds and in poor districts in the larger cities.  To keep the population down in the starter cities, I say create a town or city in the forest for the Elves to begin their journey.

Darkspawn – Dragonbone Wastes
Create a city-like atmosphere here, and let the storyline be that the Darkspawn that survived with the Architect put their roots down in this area of the world.

Qunari – Par Vollen
Pretty easy here…this is the homeland of the Qunari, and as yet, has not been ‘revealed’ in any Dragon Age game.  Probably makes this race one of the more desirable ones to play.

So now that we have the starting areas covered, let’s talk about game play.  Clearly, as an MMO, each class would have a set of skills they could ‘purchase’ as they level up.  Each starting area would have it’s own bevy of merchants, skill trainers, etc.  PvP would be by player-decision only (by flag), and there would also be PvP-only areas (undiscovered areas of the Deep Roads come to mind here).  I think there would need to be crafting (armor, weapons, etc.) as well as things like herbology and the like for those interested in that.  You could be a cook as well.

The cool thing about games like Rift are the “live events” that take place randomly throughout the game.  I think this could be accomplished in this game with raids done by either side to the other’s home cities, as well as skirmishes in the game map.

I’ll pick this up with Part Three, talking about Grey Wardens and how they fit into the mix.

There’s no party like a Dragon Age II party cuz a Dragon Age II party don’t stop

There comes a time in every gamer’s life when they realize what they are as it relates to their hobby. Are you a console or PC gamer? Are you a fan of RPGs? MMOs? FPSs? Do you like hot women and bare-chested men? Ahem…

I just finished up with my first go-round with Dragon Age II, and I must say, it was quite the ride.  For those of you who are still playing through your first go, I encourage you to stop reading this now…I’ll give you a break in the action just to be fair… Continue reading