First in a Series
Confession: Even before Eat It and Like It came along, I was a foodie geek. Had a trip on the horizon? I was always looking up interesting places to eat on the web, comparing menus to one another and long before I got to my destination, I had a pretty good road map of not only the city I was visiting, but the places I wanted to at least stop in for an appetizer and a cocktail. Depending on the city, that could be a very large list. Fast forward 20 or so years and I am still comparing this spot to that. Get stuck? I hit the review sites on the web for some insight. Research, research, research. Now it’s a tax write off too, but I digress.
We had a road trip to Atlanta coming up. Typically not a big deal to anyone living in Savannah. There are people who make the drive multiple times a week. Sometimes up and back same day. Depending in what part of Atlanta you will be driving to, you get where you are going comfortably in under 4 hours. I’m an early riser, so I can be in the unofficial capitol of the South before lunch.
Before we make the trek, I shoot my sister-in-law Tara an email. She lives in Decatur and is always hearing about cool new spots through work or otherwise.
“Any new spots I should know about?”
She rattles off a few, some of them new, others not, but worth a try. Fair enough. One name that kept coming around the corner, she also repeated. “The Optimist is good. I’ve been there for lunch. It’s really, really popular right now.” Ok, that works. It’s on the list.
Over two days in Atlanta, we stopped in at 9 different locations. Taste here, nibble there, bite over there. Cocktails, a beer, hit and run for the most part. There was really no time to ‘dine’ and truth be told, that was fine. This wasn’t play time. This was business. (Did I just say that?)….yeah, I did. HA!
I always chuckle at seafood places located hundreds of miles from the ocean. I spent 2 and a half years in El Paso, Texas. 9 hours from the sea if you drove into Mexico. 11 or more otherwise. Yet, I have never seen a city more obsessed with sushi. My co-workers had it for lunch almost every day. Fair enough. If it works for you, knock yourselves out. Big cities like Atlanta are a little different, obviously. If your shop has the budget you can have a fish caught yesterday off the coast of Japan and serve it today, practically before the guy’s heart stops beating. Enter, The Optimist.
The Optimist is the creation of Chef-Owner Ford Fry. (Is it me, or is that ironic?). According to their website the goal of the The Optimist was to transport ‘landlocked’ Atlantans to the coast. “To transport you to your favorite spot along the coast.” Ding! Ding! Ding! I admit I took it straight from their site, because it is absolutely true. The Optimist is a converted ham aging warehouse. As continues to be the trend, everyone is taking warehouses and making them cool again. We are all too used to that in Savannah, but some of the prettier restaurants out there are old buildings spit shined and made to look new again, with modern touches of course. This is what Mr. Fry has accomplished. It’s bright, full of light, with great woodwork and an industrial feel. The decor had me at hello.
The food? Like I said, this was a hit and run. The ones we enjoyed a little more we stayed, maybe ordered a 2nd beer or another app. But for the most part, it was you try this, I will try that, we will try each others to verify love or disdain, take some notes and move along. I ordered the Fried Oysters. My dining partner She Crab Soup. Soup that, we were told, was much sweeter and more frothy than a traditional She Crab because it was made in part with Crab Roe.
Much like fried shrimp, fried oysters are a tricky bunch. If your fry batter is too heavy or overly seasoned, you’ve got #friedseafoodfail. Typically the kind of stuff you find in turn
and burn tourist spots. The higher end places that care, get it. This is where you find The Optimist. Lightly breaded and fried just long enough to crisp the breading. Seriously, how long could that be? Seconds? It’s not like we need to really ‘cook’ the oyster, right? Most of the time we eat them raw anyway. And if you are looking for the fried taste to take away some of the seafood flavor, we are demoting you to hushpuppies. Please sit in the corner and color. 🙂
The oysters come out along with my seafood gumbo at the same time as my dining partner’s frothy soup. The soup looked like something out of Starbucks. It was frothy alright. We dig in. I will spare you the drama of how these fried oysters danced on my palate like something out of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. They did. They were absolutely, perfectly amazing. Best fried oysters I’ve ever had. “Hey, try this” I said. “Best oysters I’ve ever had.” “Yep, amazing” she agrees. Perfect fry with enough salt water kick to make them seem they like had just been pulled in from the ocean in the back yard. How they do that, I have no clue. Wow.
Seafood Gumbo? Same deal. Though I had to send it back originally because it was a bit on the warm side, not hot, it came back with a vengeance. Shrimp, clams, mussels sometimes I was told, sausage. “Pot luck” it’s called. I called it “jackpot” with a dark rich roux sprinkled with scallions. See that picture over there? I didn’t take it, but if I had, it would have looked EXACTLY like that with bread that immediately transported me to the corner of Chartres and St. Peter streets in the French Quarter.
Full disclosure: The frothy She Crab Soup spooked me. It looked like no other she crab soup I had seen before. Then this sweetness we were warned about from crab roe was another ‘seriously?’ moment I had to get beyond. It wasn’t mine, so I merely got a taste. It was wonderful. Really, really wonderful. Would I order it again? Probably not, and not because I didn’t like it, I very much did, but because I will dream about my gumbo for a while.
I’ve rambled long enough. If you are in Atlanta and enjoy fresh seafood in a beautiful, yet comfortable atmosphere, visit The Optimist. We stopped in early at lunch time, but the system that was clearly in place for nights tells me you can expect a wait. They do have tables outside to hang with one of their craft cocktails and they even a putting green to kill some time either with the guys over beers or with the kids. That could be half the fun, but the real treat will be getting inside where you will no doubt Eat It and Like It.