What’s your food mood this holiday season?
Until recently, I was feeling a bit bah humbug, uninterested in gingerbread — no matter how nicely spiced — or eggnog — no matter now nicely spiked. I’m pretty sure that’s because I was worn out by the whole “holiday season” thing. It lasts too long.
Consider that Christmas displays go up even before kids in costumes come knocking on doors for Halloween candy. Or that, as soon as back-to-school supplies are taken down from store shelves, they are replaced with red, green and gold trimmings.
If the commercial side of the winter holiday season began in September, small wonder that, when Thanksgiving rolled around, I wasn’t in the mood for turkey or much else (the exception being Uncle Carl’s spinach casserole) on a static menu that I’d eaten again and again and again.
Oh, but I’m out of the funk! And I have Andrew Bantug and Joyce Lau to thank for it.
Bantug and Lau operate Upper Room. It’s a pop-up restaurant at the Japanese restaurant Tomo in Buckhead. On select Sundays, when Tomo is closed, they use the space to offer an alternative dining experience. They’ve held ramen pop-ups, but more unique is their kamayan concept, which they launched in November.
Kamayan is a Filipino-style feast that is eaten with your hands. There are no utensils, and plates are not necessary, either, because the table is lined with a bed of banana leaves. The food — and there is a lot of it — is set directly atop those bright green leaves.
At Upper Room, you can eat intimately with a date or gather with a dozen of your best friends, because diners are seated with their own party at set reservation times. The bigger the crowd, the more a communal circus it becomes.
Lau, who handles front-of-house and dessert duties, set my party up with cups of hot tea. Then, the feast began.
Bantug scooped out spoonful after spoonful of jasmine rice until it was one long mound down the center of the table. I could feel my Scrooge-ish disposition start to change.
You see, every rice has a distinct aroma. The smell of jasmine rice, the staple rice for most Filipinos, sums up the smell of a Filipino kitchen for me. It elicits a powerfully clear picture of my grandfather’s kitchen and the rice cooker that still holds a spot on that countertop. Hello, Grandpa!
Around that sticky rice, Bantug arranged vegetable pancit. Pancit is a stir-fried noodle dish, a quintessential, home-style Filipino offering. Vegetables vary, but carrots, green beans, snow peas and cabbage are typical. And there’s the ever-present onion and garlic. It’s tossed with a sauce dominated by soy sauce and oyster sauce. Pancit often will have meat in it — Filipinos are a pork-loving people — but Bantug opted to keep his a veggie version, considering all the meat to come.
And, boy, did it come. There was pork adobo (the meat braised in soy sauce and cane vinegar), chicken inasal (barbecued chicken marinated in a mix of vinegar, lemongrass and other Filipino flavors like ginger, garlic and brown sugar), lumpia (a deep-fried eggroll stuffed with a mix of ground pork and chopped vegetables) and tocino (pork shoulder marinated in pineapple and lemon).
But Bantug didn’t stop there. He plated more eggrolls: turon, which are filled with plantain. There was grilled corn on the cob — the one item that wasn’t really Filipino, but which felt fitting for a feast here in Atlanta, he said. Also, grilled curry cauliflower, fried prawns, and little clusters of baby bok choy anointed with a vinaigrette of fish sauce, coconut oil, brown sugar and cane vinegar. Flanking the spread were mango halves, the bright yellow flesh scored for the easiest mango-eating session ever.
Eat a little. Talk a little. Eat a little. Talk a little.
After an hour, it seemed like we hadn’t made a dent.
But Bantug was back with more. This time, with Lau’s desserts: squares of giggly leche flan, along with biko, a rice cake made from sticky rice, coconut milk and brown sugar.
I walked out stuffed, but my food-loving soul revived.
Atlanta boasts restaurants for practically every cuisine from around the world, but scant Filipino spots. Here was something new. Something different.
It got me thinking about all the other new and different — and even fleeting — dining opportunities that Atlanta currently has to offer. Like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian seafood shebang that will come alive on Christmas Eve at il Giallo Osteria & Bar in Sandy Springs. There’s Miracle on Monroe, a holiday-themed cocktail pop-up bar in Midtown, open now through Dec. 24. Looking ahead to the new year, there’s a Spanish blowout fiesta called La Tamborrada at Cooks & Soldiers Jan. 19 that brings a Basque festival to westside.
Mandatory work parties, open houses, family gatherings — pretty much an overly booked calendar — plus the requisite tree trimming and gift giving can leaving us more tired than inspired. We could hope to just “get through” the holidays and make it to 2017, but I wonder if, by seeking out specialness and embracing it, our mindset gets merrier. That kamayan meal sure pulled me out of a rut.
If you’re weary and need to shake off that grumpy inner Grinch, like I did, some of the one-off events available locally (see accompanying list) are options.
But, there are other ways to shake things up. If you’re cooking at home, even grabbing one spice that you don’t use often can turn slaving over dinner into an adventure. If you’re dining out, go rogue and order a dish you’ve never tried before. Eat at a restaurant on Buford Highway you’ve never visited — and don’t decide which one when you walk out the door, just drive and see where the road takes you.
I’ll bet it gets you out of a rut and back on a happy food track.
UNIQUE EVENTS AROUND ATLANTA
Upper Room kamayan dinner. Filipino feast eaten with your fingers. $40 per person. Reservations required. Check online for schedule. Tomo Japanese Restaurant, 3630 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. upperroomatlanta.com.
Feast of the Seven Fishes. Three-course Italian dinner featuring seven varieties of fish and seafood. Dec. 24. $45 per person (exclusive of beverages, tax or gratuity). Reservations required. Il Giallo Osteria & Bar, 5920 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 404-709-2148, ilgialloatl.com.
La Tamborrada. Celebration of Basque cuisine featuring unlimited food, beverages and live entertainment. 6-11 p.m. Jan. 19. $45 per person. Purchase tickets online at brownpapertickets.com or via phone. Cooks & Soldiers, 691 14th St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-996-2623, cooksandsoldiers.com.
Miracle on Monroe. A holiday-themed pop-up bar featuring Christmas-inspired cocktails. 6 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays-Fridays and Sundays, 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturdays. Through Dec. 24. Age 21 and older. 931 Monroe Drive N.E., Atlanta. 404-481-5226, facebook.com/BudEtheElfsBar.