July 4, 2012

Grub Notes

Playing Tourist

Redfearn Grille in the downtown Holiday Inn

Hotel Restaurant #1: Hotel food gets a bad rap and for good reason. Usually overpriced and underwhelming, it aims at the lowest common denominator and toward the visitor too afraid to venture beyond the familiar. In Athens, however, and especially in downtown Athens, hotels should try a little harder, with so much competition right outside the door.

The Holiday Inn at the corner of Hull and Broad streets thoroughly renovated its eatery last year, rebranding it as Redfearn Grille (706-549-4433) and redoing the decor from scratch. There’s no question the room feels more up to date, and the butter mints on the way out are a nice perk, but the food, at least during the lunch hour, isn’t any different than it ever was. That is to say: it’s an OK Southern buffet offering all-you-can-eat for about $10 a person. The focus changes depending on the day, from BBQ to meat-and-three to fried fish, but it doesn’t change that much. On a Friday, you can expect: fried whitefish (tender and well battered, but too salty), hush puppies, baked tilapia, decent mac and cheese, stuffed tomatoes, black-eyed peas, fried chicken (in case you’re not into fish), a small salad bar, clam chowder, bitter greens and a bit more this and that. The breadth is decently impressive, but most of the offerings aren’t very exciting or particularly well executed.

If you care to pick a dessert from the case at the entrance, it’s included in your total, but the slices of cake didn’t look awesome. The restaurant does expand its options at dinner, and it’s open on many holidays when little else in Athens is. It serves three squares a day, has a full bar and accepts credit cards.

2: On the other side of downtown, The Hoyt House in the Foundry Park Inn & Spa (706-549-7020) is a bit fancier, as befits its historic home setting. "Small bites" at the top of the menu isn’t false advertising, and you may feel teased by the two $8 crab and risotto cakes with a red pepper/Tabasco sauce that come on a giant platter emphasizing their miniature dimensions. That said, they are tasty, which is more than can often be said for the giant ones.

Whoever’s in the kitchen seems to have a bit of a sweet tooth, as as evidenced by items from the sauce with the crab cakes to the pimento cheese (also too runny in consistency but served on a good brioche) to the sweet potato fries served as a side (clearly cut from actual sweet potatoes and fried to a perfect texture but dusted with cinnamon sugar in copious amounts). Still, the stuff is well made. The cheese grits have the cheese on top rather than incorporated, but they’re high quality, and the chicken cordon bleu panini is flavorful and juicy. They don’t appear to be getting their ingredients out of bags, and if they are, they must be nice bags. The restaurant does breakfast and lunch every day, has a full bar and takes credit cards.

3: Perhaps the nicest surprise I had in my hotel dining experiences was that of the Georgia Center’s Savannah Room (706-542-6341). Also recently renovated to remove the floral explosion that used to bedeck its interior, the space is calmer, albeit still slightly odd with its peaked greenhouse roof in the back room. Don’t worry. If you’re looking for your old favorites, the celestial chicken (fried chicken tenders over rice) and the strawberry ice cream pie are still present. But the menu has expanded to include a daily sustainable entree, featuring veggies grown by the UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. Nor is that option lazily thrown together. On a recent Thursday, it was a lovely little roasted quail, covered in crispy bits, paired with a hunk of chorizo and served with delicious mashed potatoes and swiss chard cooked quickly over high heat with a squeeze of citrus. Every element on the plate had been thoughtfully and well cooked, and it all tasted darn good. The pot roast, while less ritzy, was equally worth eating, far from the usual depressing gray meat requiring gravy to make it passable. Sauteed mixed vegetables, on the side, were at least inoffensive, if not actually deserving an endorsement.

The prices, too, were excellent, averaging less than $8 for a lunch entree, the same price you’d pay for a sandwich at many establishments. For a buck more, you can add a salad, but the portions are sizable, and the extra roughage not required. Parking can be an issue on campus, but the restaurant also validates for two hours’ worth in the South Campus Deck, removing the last obstacle to your taking advantage of its cooking, even if you’re not staying in the hotel. The Savannah Room does lunch weekdays and dinner every day but Sunday. It has early-bird specials and a full bar and takes credit cards.

What Up?: Gymnopédie and The Local Jam closed July 1. Chipotle is open near the Alps shopping center. Pulaski Heights BBQ will open in the Leathers Building in a couple of months, sooner if we’re lucky.