PACK A BOWL: When I think about areas of town that are friendly to small, minority-owned businesses (specifically restaurants), I don’t usually think of downtown. That said, the two blocks of East Clayton between Jackson and Thomas have a fair amount going for them on that front. Sure, they house Mellow Mushroom and Taqueria Tsunami, both chains, but they’re also home to Lay-Z Shopper (which has moved into the space next door that it tried to operate a restaurant out of, but still makes delicious deli sandwiches to order), Cafe Istanbul (technically a small chain out of Atlanta, but also Athens’ only Turkish restaurant), Utage, Athens Wok (Chinese and Thai, owned by a Thai/Laotian couple) and now Ahi Hibachi and Poke (489 E. Clayton St., 706-543-8898). Enough folks seem to walk over from the Classic Center or the Hilton Garden Inn to allow all these places to do decent business, which is a positive.
Poke (pronounced po-kay and meaning “to slice” in Hawaiian) is a fairly hot trend nationwide, but this is the first place to get it in Athens. It’s fairly similar to chirashi sushi, in that it consists of a bowl of rice (in this case sushi rice or brown rice) topped with sliced raw fish and vegetables, but the toppings include pineapple, jalapeño and avocado. Often, this kind of thing can be made with far too much rice or bad rice or drowned in a sweet sauce, but Ahi gets it right. The sushi rice is plump and slightly vinegary. The brown rice isn’t too sweet. The tuna (regular or spicy, in a soy or spicy soy marinade) is clean and fresh. The tofu is a great option, cubed but not seared, silky and pure. You can also get salmon, crab meat or cooked shrimp, but the other choices seem better.
It’s probably not possible to get too many toppings, and you are allowed as many as you want from seaweed salad, onions, cucumber, pineapple, sesame seeds, jalapeño, ginger, masago (roe), corn, avocado, tempura flakes, edamame and wasabi. Honestly, you could ignore the proteins and be pretty happy with just this stuff. Try to make yourself a mix of salty, crunchy, sweet and sharp. You also get a sauce (ponzu, house spicy, sweet mango mayo, wasabi mayo and spicy mayo) drizzled over the top. What’s even better, you can fill out your entire order on a sheet of paper, sushi-ordering style, at your leisure and then hand it to the person behind the counter, meaning no awkward attempts at communicating all the things you want in your bowl of stuff while going too fast or too slow.
Ahi also does other things, like crab rangoon, calamari and gyoza, but none of them are very good, especially in comparison to the poke. And it makes fairly decent hibachi, over rice or noodles, with chicken, steak, salmon, shrimp and/or vegetables. On the whole, the closer you get to raw, fresh and simple (despite the fact that those words have become fairly tainted by the cult of “clean eating”) at Ahi, the better you’ll do.
The atmosphere is nothing super exciting, with some basic tables and a big Lucky Cat waving happily next to the cash register. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner every day and does delivery (through Cosmic) and take-out.
AFIELD: There’s not a whole lot in downtown Maysville, a small town near Commerce with a railroad line that runs right through the middle of town, but the historic buildings that line the streets have been preserved, and some of them now hold small businesses. Ganache Bakery and Bistro (9155 Gillsville Road, 706-652-3657) is one of them.
Open Thursday through Sunday for lunch and sweets, it offers sandwiches on a wide variety of breads (marble rye, sourdough, croissant, wheatberry, spinach feta, garlic cheddar, Dakota, cinnamon chip, honey wheat), made with deli meats (turkey, ham) or housemade chicken salad or pimento cheese. The chicken salad is particularly good, available in a savory version as well as the more usual sweet, and there are add-ons like jalapeno bacon to fancy up your sandwich. Kids can get a PB&J or a half panini with chips, both of which are better than they need to be. Soups vary daily, but a creamy potato soup was pretty darn good, with cheese straw-type crunchy things scattered on top.
The dessert case is a point of emphasis, with, for example, chocolate cobbler in stemmed glass dishes, sour-cream pound cake, slab pecan pie (made on a cookie sheet), lemon bars and cookies (chocolate chunk, chocolate chocolate chunk, mixed chip). It’s not listed on the menu, but the staff will tell you that the restaurant also has homemade ice cream, available in a few different flavors (vanilla, strawberry, peach). Pair a scoop of that with one of the cookies for the best dessert option.
Ganache also makes coffee drinks and tea and has a kind of tea-room atmosphere, with lots of china on display (which doesn’t mean it’s not kid-friendly). It has parking around the back, a better option than trying to book it across the main drag, where cars whip through the town.
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