Grits, that simple dish of coarsely ground and boiled corn, they still astound me if only for their undeserved polarizing nature. The encounters may occur less and less frequently, but I can still vividly remember the grimaces and sneers of my more northern collegiate classmates when I would trot out a bowl of freshly cooked grit goodness. Thankfully once they buckled down and tasted a bowl of properly prepared and seasoned grits, most were quick converts. However, there are still those that equate a love of grits to a love of geocentricism or even the belief that professional wrestling is real. I will be quite honest and say I’ve only read the grits and wrestling comment once and that was from one gentleman in the area of Southern Ohio. I have to give the man credit, he was defending the honor of his favorite local rib restaurant but the quip about grits has stuck with me for months.
With grits so completely ingrained in Southern culture, it amuses me when people will scoff at grits but lavish praise upon polenta. Thankfully Alton Brown covered this perplexing situation with his Good Eats episode True Grits.
“when you remove the cultural part of the equation, grits and polenta are the same thing. You know, perception is a funny thing. I mean, polenta and grits are identical twin siblings and yet, depending on where you live, one's considered heritage and the other's considered heresy.”
What does all this have to do with Miller Union? That’s a good question and the answer is rooted in Miller Union’s mission statement: “At Miller Union, we believe in the partnership between chef and farmer. Our menu is based around the week’s harvest; we take care to preserve the true flavors of our ingredients with a simple rustic preparation.” Simple & rustic, partnership between chef and farmer, words and phrases like these warm the cockles of every food lover’s heart. Of course, being situated in the capital of the empire state of the south, there will undoubtedly be a few grits involved in this chef & farmer partnership. This is what leads me to Miller Union’s creamy grit fritters.
They’re delicate looking things aren’t they? I picked one up expecting there to be a hearty crust with a full gritty interior beneath it.
What was there couldn’t have been farther from it. These fritters were lightly battered and salted ever so slightly. That’s because there was plenty of salinity from the country ham and Thomasville tomme cheese inside each fritter. There’s nothing rustic about these fritters, they were beautifully prepared, delightfully salty and cheesy, and an absolute treat. In fact, the only thing these fritters needed was a touch of pepper.
Even though I could wax poetic about grits and Miller Union’s grit fritters for pages, I was able to try a few other dishes during my two visits to Miller Union. One of those dishes was a real gamble on my part.
I can almost read your mind right now, where’s the gamble in ordering a small bird? I don’t know about your experiences but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve ordered quail in a restaurant hoping for something succulent and been brought a small mess of overcooked, overdressed pieces of fowl.
Well, Miller Union struck again and my faith in the humble bird was restored. Well roasted, just a touch on the salty side but surprisingly juicy, this was what quail was meant to be.
As for the dirty rice, I knew that being in Atlanta, I wouldn’t be knocked over with spiciness, but I wasn’t expecting such a juicy rice. It wasn’t overly seasoned, it wasn’t tongue numbingly spicy, it was simply a pleasant bowl of dirty rice. The best part wasn’t the moistness or proportionate seasoning; it was how well the rice worked in concert with the arugula and quail. This was a well balanced and wholly satisfying plate.
All quail, dirty rice, and grit fritters aside, Miller Union has been getting an enormous amount of local press for a select few items. One of these items is the feta snack, but the other is their “daily grind” cheeseburger. The list of bloggers writing about this burger is staggering, Chow Down Atlanta, Eat It Atlanta, and Todd Brock from A Hamburger Today. Well, three sites, I guess staggering isn’t really the right word, but three people is enough to interest me in heading back to Miller Union for lunch a few weeks later.
Even though I returned to Miller Union with the express purpose of trying their cheeseburger, I was drawn to their terrine.
This may look like any other terrine, but this is the first time I’ve run across the combination of pork, pecan, and sweet onion.
As I’d come to expect from Miller Union this was a quality dish with the terrine having a that familiar chilled pork sweetness, but the onion flavor was truly surprising.
Pronounced but pleasant, this terrine was a reminder of just how well pork and onions work together.
Of course, a bit of charcuterie deserves a good spot of mustard and Miller Union does not disappoint. Onions, pork, grainy mustard, and toasted bread always make for a sublime combination.
Being the middle of summer, my daily grind cheeseburger came topped with red onions, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and the obligatory obscenely melted cheese.
As soon as I picked up the burger, I could tell this would be a juicy one. The toasted sesame seed bun was already soaked with run off.
Luckily there was no shortage of juices in the burger, as each bite brought a pronounced beef flavor that was accented with salt, pepper, cheese, and the complex sweetness of the homemade ketchup.
Cooked to near perfect medium rare, this burger was worth the wait, but when I asked about the cuts used in the grind I was flabbergasted. The waitress had to ask the kitchen to be sure, and she returned claiming it was a mix of beef and pork butt for “a nice, round flavor”. That didn’t really answer my question about which cuts of beef were used, but the fact that I was served medium rare pork did capture my attention. However my concerns were quickly forgotten as I happily savored the rest of the burger.
Forming the second half of the classic combination, the fries at Miller Union didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
Limp and a little greasy, there wasn’t anything special about these fries, but they were a fine vehicle for the stellar ketchup. Salt, pepper, garlic, Worcestershire sauce all went into the ketchup, and they worked together like a well oiled machine.
I had imagined that this would be the end of my second meal at Miller Union, but my waitress was a hell of a salesman. So when the dessert menu arrived at my table, my defenses wavered and an order of the brown butter ice cream sandwich was sent from the kitchen.
Some might argue that the whole nostalgia trend in food is overplayed but this ice cream sandwich begs to differ.
Topped with a simple dough, this was decadently rich brown butter encased in equally decadent ice cream. Like most things at Miller Union, this was a little on the salty side but that saltiness only joined the browned butter in highlighting the subtle flavor and textures of the hazelnuts inside the sandwich.
In the end, there were no survivors.
Having been blissfully ignorant of most the hype and press surrounding Miller Union the past year or so, I can’t say if Miller Union lives up to it all. I came to Miller Union looking for a burger and I was quite satisfied with what I found. Even with the disarmingly pink pork, I sit here weeks later, happy, healthy, and alive. What’s even better is that along the road to this cheeseburger, I came across a healthy selection of what else Miller Union has to offer and was pleased at every turn. From the oozing, textural goodness of the grit fritters to the sublime combination of pork and sweet onions in the terrine, each one was reason enough to return to Miller Union. I suppose all I can do is echo the words of John Kessler in his review of Miller Union “I always leave Miller Union thinking about the good ingredients I’ve eaten…. Do I leave with a major crush on any dish? Not really, but that’s part of this restaurant’s unusual appeal. Remember: simple food, good wine, stylish atmosphere. Maybe that’s what all the hype is about.”
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