Champagne taste on a beer budget. That’s the story of my life. Though, it’s funny, about the only thing I have “champagne taste” about is food. I don’t care about name-brand clothes, designer shoes, luxury cars and all that stuff. I just love good food. And I love to travel and eat good food. When I fantasize about winning the lottery, it’s about travelling, dining out, having free reign at food specialty stores and ditching my cat-scratched, kid-stained sunken sofa. (And, maybe getting a new house with a spacious kitchen and fancy stainless steel appliances. But, I digress …) However, what I consider "champagne food" isn't really champagne and caviar. Really, I hate caviar. I'm talking about good quality, delicious, artfully prepared food. I especially enjoying dining out because I don't have to do any cleaning! It's just about relaxing and trying new foods ....ahhhh.
The choices I’ve made in life haven’t brought me lots of money, and I’m okay with that. I have a wonderful family, great friends, and have been able to spend a lot of time with my kids and forge a career path based on what I love to do, not what I have to do. However, it’s nice to fantasize and it’s nice to treat yourself every once in a while. The other day I had a doctor’s appointment in the same building as Empire State South, the Atlanta restaurant in which Hugh Acheson is a partner. It’s frequently listed as one of the top restaurants in Atlanta and very much at the forefront of “New Southern” or “Farm to Table” cuisine. My husband and I ate there once before on our wedding anniversary. With dinner entrees in the $ 20-35 range, it’s definitely a special occasion place for us.
|Empire State South (photo from website)|
Since I happened to be there around lunch time, I thought I would treat myself with a to-go lunch that I could take home and share with my husband who was working from home that day. In Atlanta, for the most part, traditional fine dining is dead. Empire State South reflects what "new fine dining” looks like. The focus is not foie gras and fancy cuts of meats – it’s grits, collard greens, pork belly and sweetbreads – down-to-earth ingredients that are faithful to Southern culinary traditions. The décor is tasteful, simple and comfortable. There’s a coffee bar and self-serve pastry table for those who want to grab and go.
The lunch menu featured items like a Veal Breast Sandwich ($13), North Carolina Catfish ($15) and a veggie plate ($15). Ever budget conscious, I went for the cauliflower soup ($7) and a jar of pimento cheese with candied bacon and toast. Then, I kind of lost my mind a little on the pastry table and could not resist a coconut cupcake, golden raisin fennel scone and a phatty cake, two ginger cookies sandwiched with vanilla mascarpone. Pastry chef Cynthia Wong is a wonder worker. The kindly bar keep rang me up and my total was $22.68. Then I forgot to get my parking validated which was another $7. Oops!
I got the “feast” home and was somewhat disappointed with the portion sizes. The $6 pimento cheese was in a to-go container the same size of one that normally holds salad dressing. The soup would not have filled one of my regular dinner bowls. The scone, while delicious, was $3.50. Had I gone to Taco Bell, I could have eaten a whole meal for that much! But, I don’t even like Taco Bell and I know that their food is terrible for me. In my opinion, a buttery scone is much better than cheap, greasy ground beef. So, herein lies the dilemma – why does food that is good (i.e. not processed, filled with preservatives, over-salted and MSG-ed) cost so much more? Further, are the prices charged by restaurants like Empire State South fair? Of course, it’s a free market economy and a restaurant can charge whatever they want. And I know it is expensive to own and operate a restaurant. This fascinating Creative Loafing article/timelapse video provides a great inside look at how the restaurant runs -- and all the people that it takes to pull off a successful operation.
|My to-go lunch from Empire State South.|
Basically, I’m conflicted – and that’s why I’m writing this. Maybe I'm like the old lady arguing with the cashier about the price of bananas: "What? 49 cents a pound is an outrage!" I'm sure that I don't get out enough. Maybe I’m the product of a generation of Americans who think big portions=value. Finally, maybe I’m a teeny bit resentful that I can’t afford to eat more often at the restaurants of all these chefs I admire. (Yes, I'm whining.) But, if we expect attitudes about food and value to change, good food has to be accessible to those without a lot of money. Of course, the onus is on those without a lot of money to put a higher priority on food. There is a mental hurdle to get over -- the hurdle that puts low cost over high quality. There's a Boar's Head radio commercial that I keep hearing with a tagline that rings true: "Compromise elsewhere."
At the end of the day, I’m just thankful that I can cook and that I can make my own cauliflower soup if I want to. I think the ability to cook and love of good food is one of the best gifts my mama gave me. I’m also thankful that home cooks are more empowered than ever with television cooking shows, millions of blogs and cooking Web sites and cookbooks by people like Hugh Acheson who have a passion for sharing their knowledge and philosophy with others. I wish the world could be more equitable and that our food economy would make sense, but at present it doesn’t. Maybe it will be so one day. Until then, I'll keep cooking, counting my pennies and being thankful for those times when I do get to sit down and enjoy a nice meal prepared by someone else.
What do you think? Can you relate? I’d love to hear from you!