Sustainability: That’s the theme of this column. One of these restaurants is strongly committed to it, and, as a result, is minimalist. The other is kind of the opposite. Gymnopedie (675 Pulaski St., suite 1400 in the Leathers Building, no phone, http://gymnopedie.posterous.com/ for reservations) is tiny even by the standards of tiny restaurants, with a two-top, a four-top and a community table that could seat eight to 10. There is no question that it is one person’s vision, as Sarah Dunning not only cooks your food, writes the menu and picks the wines, but also may very well be your server. A transplanted Kiwi, she was once a vegan but has expanded her diet in more recent years, and the menu largely reflects those preferences. It changes every two weeks according to what’s in season and includes only a handful of dishes: a couple of desserts, and about five other options, some of which are more appetizer-sized and others closer to entrees. Everything on the menu is vegetarian, and most of it is vegan, plus the kitchen, unsurprisingly, is willing to accommodate special dietary requests.
All of this may sound unappealing, particularly if you want meat at the center of your meal, but I would encourage you nonetheless to check out Gymnopedie, which is not flawless but is thoroughly charming. Its wine list, all organic, is small but excellent and well priced, with several delicious French offerings for $6–8 a glass. No doubt the menu will be entirely different when you go, but its stress on vegetables (the restaurant emphasizes “botanical cuisine”) rather than TVP and starch is committed and leads to some beautiful results.
An entree portion of pan-roasted cauliflower with pine nuts, currants and parsley sounds a little crazy for one’s main dish, but the flavors accent one another perfectly, with the nutty, sweet and grassy notes of the central vegetable highlighted by its accompaniments. A black pepper mushroom pâté, served with sides of fresh-made applesauce and gorgeous little green pickled tomatoes that were the best thing on the table all night, isn’t quite as successful—it may need more fat to bind it together—but the presentation is careful, and the idea is lofty. I’m not sure French onion soup works in a vegan version, especially when it appears to be made with water rather than vegetable broth, but there is something to be said for the purity of its spotlight on onions. And a red-wine spaghetti with local pecans and parsley ends up a bit monotonous, bite after bite, but again there is a pleasure in its simplicity.
Dunning clearly thinks much of ingredients, and her devotion to using small amounts of perfect, seasonal vegetables reminds me of nothing so much as the now departed Dynamic Dish, in Atlanta, where David Sweeney had a similar laser-beam focus. I love The Grit, but there is room for more than one kind of vegetarian restaurant in town, and Gymnopedie’s more chef-driven approach is something we could always have more of. I cannot imagine the business model is as sustainable as the ethos, but I would encourage you to let Dunning curate your meal. The restaurant is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday.
Maximalism: On the other end of things is Off the Hook Fish House (1120 Baxter St., 706-850-8245), which is maximalist in its outlook. The management stops by your table continually, asking if you’ve gotten enough food (rather than how it is); the hush puppies are unlimited; and there’s a complimentary grits bar you may visit again and again.
When I ordered fried catfish nuggets, the staff wasn’t content with what they’d brought me, so an additional plate arrived shortly. The people who run the place are nicer than nice, and while it’s not upscale, it’s friendly and the atmosphere is relaxing. That said, there’s also nothing particularly impressive, and the big Sysco truck unloading in the back is a good hint of what to expect, although they have made some effort to serve chemical-free, domestically caught seafood.
Your best bets are the hush puppies (well-fried, well-sized, well-seasoned), which they plunk a basket of on your table almost immediately, and the grits bar, which only consists of well-executed buttered grits and cheese grits but is very welcome to a cold, empty stomach. The steaks aren’t very good, the fried fish is passable but not exciting (choose the nuggets over the fish sandwich, which is mushy and bland), and the fried corn on the cob is horrifying, a whole hunk of corn encased in a batter more sweet than savory and impossible to eat. The restaurant also offers something called a redneck doughnut, consisting of a yeast roll fried and dusted with powdered sugar, and is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.
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