Atlanta Recap

For my birthday weekend in November, Marnay and I headed to Atlanta for a quick getaway. This was our first time in Atlanta and we couldn’t wait to start exploring.

Atlanta skyline from the Beltline

Friday

We flew out of BWI on Friday night. Since I work in Baltimore and Marnay works in downtown DC, this is the easiest airport to get to on work nights. We don’t typically include our flights in our travel recaps, but we had to include our meal at the airport. Varasano’s Pizzeria, which has a location in Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, is actually an incredible pizzeria. Jeff Varasano, the man who figured how to hack off the lock on the self-cleaning feature of his home oven so he could cook homemade pizzas at 800 degrees, is something of a pizza savant. While he is originally from New York, he chose Atlanta to open a pizzeria. (The main location is in the Buckhead neighborhood). As soon as we landed in Atlanta, we made our way to Concourse A. It was about 9:30pm and the restaurant was closing, so we took a Margherita Di Bufala pizza and ate it in the baggage claim. It was so much fun and so delicious.

Margharita Di Bufala pizza from Varasano's Pizza in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta

Saturday

Our Airbnb was in the Inman Park neighborhood, immediately behind the transformative rail trail called the Beltline. Inman Park is one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Atlanta, which is a very spread out city.

We wanted to explore and hike one of Georgia’s mountains so we rented a Zipcar from the Edgewood-Candler Park metro. On our 1-mile walk to the car, we picked up coffee and an incredible croissant from one of our Atlanta favorites, Bread and Butterfly. Conveniently, Bread and Butterfly was directly across the street from our Airbnb.

Breakfast at Bread and Butterfly in Atlanta

The highways in Atlanta are insane, mainly because this area has poor public transit and a tremendous amount of sprawl. We traveled to Forsyth County, in the northern exurbs, and stopped at Dutch Monkey Donuts for an excellent caramel apple fritter. Feeling sated, we drove about 20 more minutes north to Sawnee Mountain Preserve.

Eating a caramel apple fritter at Dutch Monkey Donuts in Forsyth County, Georgia

The brisk 4-mile hike led us up Sawnee Mountain on the Indian Seats Trail for some amazing views of Northern Georgia. This part of Georgia is at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, which stretch from Alabama to eastern Canada. From the top of the mountain, we could see as far as the Tennessee-North Carolina border, 52 miles away. The hike was just right – good exercise, but not so difficult that we would be worn out.

View from the top of our hike at Sawnee Mountain Preserve in Georgia

Although we had been snacking all day, we had not had an actual meal. We hopped in the car and drove to Masterpiece in Duluth, a suburb northeast of Atlanta known for its excellent Asian cuisine. Masterpiece was recently named a semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Awards, so we had high expectations. With one dish, Masterpiece immediately exceeded those expectations. The Dong Po Pork is a braised block of pork belly in an ethereal brown sauce, part sweet, part salty, party spicy. I want to eat that pork belly every day for a week.

Dong Po Pork, braised pork belly in an ethereal brown sauce at Masterpiece in Duluth, Georgia

Sunday

Since Saturday involved driving around the region, we decided to stay local on Sunday and explore the city. It was another beautiful day so Marnay and I walked on the Beltline to Little Tart Bakeshop, in Krog Street Market. Krog Street Market is a new-wave food hall in Inman Park, about half a mile from our Airbnb. Little Tart Bakeshop was a 2018 James Beard Foundation finalist for Best Baker (in the entire country!), so they also had a lot to live up to. Our best bites were a slice of the cranberry-almond butter cake and the apple gallete.

Breakfast at Little Tart Bakeshop at Krog Street Market in Atlanta

We then made a required stop at Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park to pay our respects. The park encompasses the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church and his birthplace. This is a important visit for any stay in Atlanta, as we cannot forget our country’s history.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

Afterwards, we took the Atlanta Streetcar to Centennial Olympic Park, home of the 1996 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. This is definitely the heart of the tourist area but it was a great outdoor space and surprisingly large.

Marnay and Paul at the Coca Cola sign in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta

The issue with this area, though, is that the downtown is COMPLETELY dead. One of the worst downtowns we have even seen. It is most likely because Atlanta is so spread out, but this is definitely not where the action is. That is why we stayed in Inman Park!

We hopped right back on the streetcar to escape downtown and had some downtime at Chrome Yellow Trading Company, a very hip coffee shop near the King Historic District. We had a great time writing in our journal and sipping on a cold brew.

Drinking cold brew coffee at Chrome Yellow Trading Company near the King Historic District in Atlanta

After that relaxing time, though, it was back to more walking on the fantastic Beltline. It’s just a phenomenal addition to Atlanta (or any city), and the whole idea was cooked up by a couple of grad students. We checked out Ponce City Market, which was like a hyper-upscale version of Krog Street Market, with high-end stores in addition to food. To be honest, it was a little too much.

Walking by Ponce City Market on the Beltline in Atlanta

Later that night, after some relaxation at our Airbnb, we headed to dinner at Chai Pani in the close-in suburb of Decatur. It is so close to where we were staying, you could easily call Decatur part of Atlanta. Chai Pani, a purveyor of authentic Indian street food, ended up being our favorite meal of the trip. We were wild for the matchstick okra fries, so crispy and so salty (and absolutely not slimy). The vegetable uttapam, a rice pancake, was also stellar.

Matchstick okra fries and vegetable uttapam at Chai Pani in Atlanta

Monday

Happy birthday to me! We celebrated the morning by walking over to Bread and Butterfly for a chocolate croissant. I could have picked anything for my birthday, but all I really wanted to do was get a croissant from Bread and Butterfly and then go for a long walk on the Beltline.

Chocolate croissant and coffee at Bread and Butterfly in Atlanta

By early afternoon, unfortunately, it was time to head to the airport. But the fun wasn’t over, because that meant we could have another pizza at Varasano’s, and MAN was it good. Not only does this pizza look perfect, it tasted phenomenal. I can’t say enough about it.

Pizza at Varasano's Pizza in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta

What to know if you want to visit Atlanta:

  • Almost all of the hotels in Atlanta are downtown. There is absolutely nothing to do downtown outside of Centennial Olympic Park. Instead, try to stay in an Airbnb in a neighborhood along the Beltline, like we did.
  • Be aware that the public transit system is not great. You will need to either rent a car or take Uber/Lyft.
  • Make sure you don’t miss out on the restaurants that are just outside the city, such as Masterpiece and Chai Pani.
  • Spend some time on the Beltline! Seriously, we can’t stress that enough. It’s the coolest attraction in Atlanta.
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Ultimate Staunton Weekend

Friday

Staunton weekend was birthday weekend for me. We picked out Staunton because of the fact that we could take Amtrak there and because there was a restaurant that we wanted to try. Of course, we have taken Amtrak many times. However, we had never taken this line or been on these tracks before. I was SO excited!

On Friday morning, we got Shake Shack breakfast at Union Station. We enjoyed our greasy (in a good way) sausage and egg sandwiches and before we knew it, we were boarding Amtrak Cardinal train 52 en route to Chicago. The trip took a little over four hours and it brought us through the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. We got some picturesque views of the Shenandoah Valley after we left Charlottesville.

Once we arrived in Staunton, we walked from the station to our Airbnb. I would describe it as a fancy treehouse located on the fourth floor of a 19th century mansion, with a scenic rooftop deck.

Staunton Virginia Airbnb

We started our tour of Staunton by scaling the steep streets to the highest point, Mary Baldwin College. The main building of the college is a great example of Greek-revival architecture, slightly resembling the White House.

Mary Baldwin College

Hungry from our journey, we had an early dinner at Taste of India where we enjoyed two different types of naan, Lamb Rogan Josh and Aloo Tikka.

Taste of India

We happened to go to Staunton during their annual holiday event, known as Sparkles & Sweets. All of the stores on Beverley Street are open later than usual and they give out cookies and refreshments. Many have live music and events. Our Airbnb host owns an antique store, which was having an art show that night in their “Artisans Loft.”

Later on in the night, we checked out Yelping Dog Wine, a retail store which also served wine by the glass. Each of us had two glasses of Virginia wine. After that, we were tired and ready to call it a night.

Yelping Dog Wine

Saturday

We woke up early to go to the Staunton Farmers Market. There were a lot of vendors selling root vegetables, as you would expect this time of year. More surprising was a food truck serving Salvadoran food, which I would not expect in this corner of Appalachia.

Next, we took a self-guided tour of the 19th century homes in the Gospel Hill neighborhood. There is some truly stunning architecture in this area.

Staunton Virginia architecture

Staunton Virginia architecture

After traipsing around Gospel Hill, we walked north and checked out Gypsy Hill Park and sat around the duck pond. We watched the birds and the children trying to play with them.

Paul standing at Gypsy Hill Park

On the walk back, we shared a maple bacon doughnut from Rolling Pin Pastries. Rolling Pin is only open 3 hours a day, 3 days a week and the doughnut was one of my best bites of the weekend.

Rolling Pin Pastries: maple bacon doughnut

Still hungry, we shared a bratwurst sandwich with local sausage from By & By. At this point, we had done a lot of walking and a lot of snacking, so we headed back to the treehouse to nap. The big activity of the day, anyway, was dinner at The Shack.

The Shack lives up to its name; it really is a shack, and in a less than desirable location at that. These factors allow the chef, Ian Boden, to focus on food rather than trying to make rent. By the way, our Airbnb hosts were actually the chef’s parents! They were very nice and welcoming to us.

We went with the four course pre-fixe meal at The Shack. Both the food and the hospitality met our high expectations. Some highlights included crispy sunchokes and sweet potatoes with black garlic and chile dressing, squid ink rigatoni with pesto, crispy garlic chips and bottarga and an apple fry pie.

The Shack: Squid Ink Rigatoni

The Shack: Farro Pappardelle

The Shack: Lambchette

The Shack: Wild Black Bass

Sunday

On Sunday morning, we made coffee and enjoyed the mountain views from our Airbnb’s rooftop deck one last time. Next, we walked down the hill on Beverley Street for bagel sandwiches at the By & By.

By & By bagels

Fortified by breakfast, we walked up a very steep hill in the Sears Hill neighborhood. Our reward was the overlook at Wilson Park, where we got a view of the entire town. We stopped in Gospel Hill to see the homes and then got a quick lunch to go at Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery, a natural foods store.

Wilson Park

At 2:03pm, exactly on time, Amtrak Train 50 stopped at Staunton and we started our journey home. I am emphasizing the fact that it was on time because the train left Chicago at 5:45pm Saturday!

Staunton makes a great weekend trip from the DC area and is accessible by public transportation. It has a perfect combination of history, nature and food. We highly recommend it!

Ultimate Staunton Weekend: Marnay and Paul

Where we went
Taste of India: 105 West Beverley Street Staunton, VA 24401
Yelping Dog Wine: 9 East Beverley Street Staunton, VA 24401
Gypsy Hill Park: 600 Churchville Avenue Staunton, VA 24401
Rolling Pin Pastries: 302 N Central Ave Staunton, VA 24401
By & By: 140 East Beverley Street Staunton, VA 24401
The Shack: 105 S Coalter Street Staunton, VA 24401
Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery: 7 S New Street Staunton, VA 24401

Centrolina

For Marnay’s birthday celebration, we made reservations at Chef Amy Brandwein’s Centrolina, located in CityCenter DC.  We were 15 minutes late for our 8:00pm reservation—our fault, although we did call ahead to let them know.  However, we were not seated until 8:35pm—their fault.  They acknowledged it and made up for it, though, with a gratis cheese plate.  Not the first time that I have seen this technique in a restaurant and I think it works really well to engender good will.

Centrolina gratis cheese plate

Centrolina (pronunciation: “Chen-tro-leena”) specializes in housemade pasta dishes, which we were most excited about.  We ordered one small plate, one large plate and two pastas.  The melone with cucumber, tomato and extra virgin olive oil was refreshing on a hot day, although it would have been better if the salt and pepper was applied evenly.  The few bites I tried with salt and pepper were markedly better than the ones without.

Centrolina melone appetizer

The branzino was a standout, with its crispy exterior.  The crisp skin and tender flesh went well with the cool butter beans and yogurt sauce it was resting on.  We would get this dish again.

Centrolina branzino

Centrolina needs to hold on to the server we had.  She was in charge of the entire room and extremely knowledgeable about the menu.  She gave us our space but also understood when we needed some help.    Marnay’s Mom loves Prosecco, although it was not on the menu by the glass.  Instead, the server steered her towards a glass of Franciacorta, a sparkling white from Lombardy made using the champagne method.  That means that it undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle, as opposed to a steel tank like Prosecco.

As mentioned early, we were excited about the pasta dishes.  My take is that they were mostly good, although a bit of a mixed bag.  The fusilli with tomato, fennel sausage and calamari was delicious, the salty sausage and the chewy calamari going particularly well with the fusilli.  The neri, or squid ink pasta, with tuna crudo and spicy nonnata di pesce loaded with Calabrian chiles was good, but also could have benefited from more salt.  I have had a similar dish at Osteria Morini in the Navy Yard which was considerably better.

Centrolina fusilli and neri pasta dishes

It’s worth noting that the fusilli was the only dried pasta on the menu.  I could taste the difference, in favor of the dried pasta.  It held its chew and soaked up more sauce than the slippery fresh squid ink pasta.

We tipped off our server that it was Marnay’s birthday, so the pudding-like budino we shared for dessert came with a candle on top.  Centrolina is a solid restaurant with good, but not amazing food.  It is worth a trip if you are in the area.

Centrolina birthday cake

Best Bite
Paul: Fusilli pasta
Marnay: Branzino

Address
Centrolina: 974 Palmer Alley NW, Washington, DC 20001
Closest Metro: Metro Center

Bartlett Pear Inn

We stayed in Easton during my birthday weekend, our first trip to this part of the Eastern Shore. I let the restaurant know on the opentable reservation that this was my birthday dinner. When we walked in, the hostess sat us in this little private alcove by the window. Sitting on the table was a “Happy Birthday” envelope and inside was a note signed by every member of the staff! Even the chef! This gesture was only a sign of things to come.

The restaurant is in a historic house and it is very cozy. It really feels like you were invited to a dinner party at someone’s home. The place reminded us of the Kitchen at Rock Hall, a little further up the Eastern Shore, which unfortunately is no longer in existence.

The first thing that I noticed about our server was a jarring lack of polish. I thought about it for a while, and then I remember that this place is on the rural Eastern Shore. There is not exactly a large pool of experienced servers who have worked in a fine dining atmosphere.

We started with a half bottle of Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley. A good wine will complement an occasion, and this wine only made the night better. Before we ordered, we were served a house made baguette from the Inn baker, along with butter molded in the shape of a pear and sprinkled with coarse black pepper and salt.

We could not decide on our entrees, so we put in an order for the Duo of Tuna Tartare. Half of the dish was slices of raw tuna crusted in what tasted like Old Bay and then sprinkled with coarse salt. The Old-Bay-like crust was different, but I liked the familiar taste of the spice blend. The coarse salt could have been applied more evenly, however. I got a few bites with no salt.

The other half of the dish was a more traditional tartare, with small chunks of raw tuna in what tasted like a sesame oil marinade. Rounding out the dish were roasted beets in a very light cream sauce, raw almonds and a black and white sesame seed cracker.

All of the dishes at the restaurant are served in the modernist-style, with very small portions and beautiful arrangements. For Marnay’s entrée, she got Rhode Island Sea Scallops with beluga lentils, swiss chard and bacon lardons. The bacon made everything SO deliciously smoky and the large scallops were perfectly seared.

I got the seared duck breast with pickled walnuts, baby greens, pomegranate-quinoa and a cherry dark-chocolate jus. We shared our entrees, each eating about half and were happy with how they came out.

Afterwards, we decided that we had room for dessert. Marnay got a scoop of house made vanilla ice cream, while I opted for a pear liquor. Much to our surprise, the server came out with a chocolate soufflé and crème anglaise! Dessert was incredible and was our favorite part of the meal. The chocolate soufflé with crème anglaise poured in the center may have been my favorite dessert EVER. And the vanilla ice cream had such an intense yet balanced vanilla flavor that I am still thinking about it. Who would have thought, memorable vanilla ice cream!

I want to reserve the last part of this post to talk about how genuinely warm every member of the staff was at the Bartlett Pear Inn. This was a birthday meal that I will not soon forget, and I would go back in a heartbeat next year!

Address
Bartlett Pear Inn: 28 S Harrison St, Easton, MD 21601