“Why is it called Food 101?” we wonder as we dissect the menu. After four visits, I still puzzle over the name, finding little that is elementary about the food — until I learn its history.
Though its name is unchanged, Food 101’s menu today bears little resemblance to the one it opened with 11 years ago. The meatloaf and fried chicken are the last remaining vestiges of its original down-home-style menu. With Chef Justin Keith now at the helm, the restaurant serves food with what it calls “urban polish.”
Some dishes, such as the pulled-pork barbecue sandwich ($11), on paper may sound like 101 intro-level items, but tasting them betrays their graduate-level status. The barbecue sandwich is more sophisticated than its standard foil-wrapped cousin. Here, the pork is slathered with mustard and hickory-smoked in-house for eight to 10 hours. Topped with lightly dressed coleslaw, the pork drips juices and spicy-sweet sauce into the challah bun. This is one of few sandwiches I don’t mind rolling up my sleeves to eat.
I also savor the catfish ($13), coated in a surprisingly light and delicate cornmeal-flour batter. Not your basic catfish, it pairs nicely with a very lemony aioli and peppery arugula. The grits served with it, however, are too heavy and an uncomfortable partner for the citrus aioli, deflating the freshness of the dish. Don’t miss the catfish — just try a different side.
At dinner, Food 101 offers house-made snacks including boiled peanuts and pickled vegetables. Looking for the urban polish, we opt for the pickled-shrimp jar ($7). Beautifully presented, the jar sits atop a footed wooden board with a spray of saltine crackers. I spear shrimp and chunks of crunchy carrot, celery and onion out of the fennel-lemon-celery-seed brine. I appreciate the bold-tart flavor of the lemon brine but find the shrimp to be a bit rubbery.
We also try the bibb lettuce salad ($7), where the genius lies in the thoughtful plating. A creamy herb-buttermilk vinaigrette lines the plate. Bibb lettuce, slices of pink grapefruit, avocado and shaved Parmesan dance on top. With the dressing on the bottom, salad ingredients remain light, fresh and unencumbered.
An enthusiastic waiter sells us the enormous Kobe beef brisket burrito ($20), an item that might have been too “exotic” for the original menu. The beef is enveloped in a mole sauce with peanut butter, dark chocolate and brewed coffee. Alas, a heavy hand in the peanut butter jar flubs the dish. The dominant peanut butter imparts a heavy-earthy tone that overwhelms the beef and is oddly paired with the burrito’s thin-buttery queso and jammy-tomato relish.
I am more pleased with brunch, where the kitchen gets playful with standard breakfast fare. I order the lobster omelet ($16) and am surprised to find a deconstructed version of the classic omelet. I peel back the egg to reveal delicious mounds of lobster, Boursin cheese, avocado and arugula.
On the sweeter side, the not-too-eggy brioche French toast ($10) dazzles us. Stuffed with a rich-cinnamon cream cheese, it is studded with chunks of persimmon and tart dried cranberries. But it’s the tangy-sweet pomegranate-maple syrup that elevates the French toast to star status.
While the name Food 101 may no longer aptly describe the food, it is part of the restaurant’s evolutionary past — an evolution that will likely continue and possibly stretch Food 101 beyond its current neighborhood niche.FOOD 101 4969 Roswell Road, Atlanta, 404-497-9700 Food: American Service: Servers enthusiastic and knowledgeable about wine Best dishes: Barbecue pork sandwich, cornmeal-crusted catfish, brioche stuffed French toast Vegetarian selections: Appetizer salads, soups, roasted-pumpkin ravioli Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, Amex, Discover Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays, 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays, 5:30- 11 p.m. Saturdays Children: No children’s menu but high chairs available; best to bring them for brunch Parking: Shared lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Low Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes