Change is scary. Five & Ten (1073 S. Milledge Ave., 706-546-7300) didn’t have to move, and when its move was announced, even the faithful probably had a qualm or two. When everything’s working so nicely and the balance is just right, do you really want to mess with the equation? There were plenty of rumors, too, that the prices would go skyrocketing with the fancier digs, due to increased costs on the back end. That doesn’t seem to have been the case in any way, and although the restaurant is expensive for Athens, it’s still a relative bargain for the quality of its offerings and in comparison to Atlanta.
The chemistry has been preserved. The entrance is a bit fancier, with dedicated parking in back that has a snazzy little stoplight to tell you when to hold up due to oncoming traffic. The house itself is grand, but the decor is simple, painted in blues and grays that establish calmness rather than frenetic hipness. The structure of the building has been preserved, which means a lot of smallish rooms, some of which you may like better than others. There’s nothing innovative in the basics of how the restaurant works (no fancy community table, no prioritizing of the experience at the sake of the food, no modernist bathroom fixtures that lead to mystification), and that is a relief rather than a disappointment.
The food is still excellent. Kyle Jacovino may not be a fixture in the kitchen (he’ll be off to head up Hugh Acheson’s new Savannah venture Five , The Florence, next year), but while he’s here he’s asserting his presence, with a great sense for mustards and pickles, in particular. The anchovies that used to be in the “Snackies” section of the menu are gone, partly because they weren’t popular and partly, I assume, due to a general refresh of that area, which now boasts pimento cheese, boiled peanut hummus, Anson Mills popcorn, Medjool dates and edamame, plus the usual selection of oysters.
The charcuterie plate will run you $26, but it’s meant to be shared, and it is worth it. Four items that may include pork rillettes (often either not fatty enough or too fatty at other restaurants; here nicely balanced and pleasantly herbal at times), chicken livers good enough to provoke delighted profanity, sweetbreads formed into a kind of loose patty resembling a crab cake and a housemade ground sausage breaded and similar in some ways to arancini, the fried Italian rice balls. To say that the plate comes with “assorted pickles and mustard with house made bread,” as the menu does, is a major undersell. Each type of pickle or smear of mustard is a new pleasure, and the bread is marvelous.
The watermelon salad (with feta and serrano vinaigrette) that resides on the menu in the summer months is there at the moment, thinner, more refined and spicier than it has been. Garganelli, a preserved sardine dressed with flowering basil, garlic breadcrumbs and house-cured pepperoni, all in a complex, earthy broth, is liberal on the salt but not overwhelming or inappropriate in its seasoning. The crisp pork belly comes with tiny spaetzle, chard, pickled mustard seeds that pop between your teeth and the most beautiful tiny quail egg, quivering on top.
The coffee room off the large, comfortable bar has retained its fancy wallpaper and gets great light in the earlier part of the day, when the restaurant offers tartines (open-faced sandwiches) and caffeine on weekdays. Acheson has been emphatic about the fact that it’s not a proper full-service lunch, but it is far more than a casual spot for a muffin. Yes, you order at the counter and you refill your own water, but the latter is spiked with cucumbers and lemon. There are specials. There are salad and soup. The staff brings your food to your table. It looks rather a lot like lunch. The tartines are well-constructed in terms of flavor profile and attractiveness, and I recommend that you Letitia Baldridge it up and eat yours with a knife and a fork, lest you find yourself tugging frantically on a piece of carpaccio like a hungry dog. The Benton’s Country Ham with peaches, basil and local honey is particularly well put together, not too sweet, as its description suggests. The pork belly confit with cilantro, kimchi, pickled carrots, cucumber and shaved radish is a like a banh mi that ran into a fried pork chop; it’s cross-cultural without being showy.
There’s also brunch (a wonderful salad of chunks of warm smoked trout atop frisee and butterhead lettuce with pickled shallots, dots of yogurt and a bacon vinaigrette; a sweet and delicate corn soup that may be a bit stingy with the poached shrimp that hide within; good latkes). Steps, in other words, have not been lost. The staff is still on point, ready when you want them and absent when you don’t. And the atmosphere finally matches the ambitions of the food, both attempting to make you feel at home, like the best hosts, without compromising integrity and vision.
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