While riding back to Augusta with a work associate recently the conversation turned to restaurants. He lived in Savannah for several years, and still waxes nostalgic about Mrs. Wilkes’, the famed family-style restaurant that has charmed residents and visitors for at least two generations.
“There just aren’t any restaurants in Augusta that compare with the charm of Mrs. Wilkes’!” he said.
I found myself disagreeing, gently. To me, there are so many great restaurants in Augusta, from Sheehan’s on the hill to Bee’s Knees downtown to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Bac, in Evans.
I noticed a new contender recently on Facebook, when a friend posted about the opening of Taste in North Augusta’s Hammonds Ferry, just across from Manuel’s Bread Café.
When I mentioned wanting to review it, my friend Sarah volunteered to come with me. I was tired – and a little crabby from the aforementioned drive home from Athens – but glad to enjoy a night out, a glass of wine and no cooking duties.
I got there first and grabbed a table close to the door. The restaurant is small, with only 10 or so tables inside, but sophisticated. The interior is all dark wood, with a gorgeous granite bar gleaming with bottles and glassware. Thought-provoking art covers the walls – in one, a woman’s face in soft focus is juxtaposed with a large bright moon against a dark backdrop. In front of me, the tall windows let in plenty of light even on this rainy Wednesday. Sarah came skipping across puddles in the street just as our waitress was filling our glasses.
We were gabbing away for a good 15 minutes, but our waitress was patient, and brought a small glass of Prosecco for Sarah to try as we were deciding on our drinks. She pronounced it a winner, and we both ended up ordering it. It was light and bubbly – a sip of summer on a rainy late afternoon.
We turned to our menus, charmingly displayed on small clipboards. Taste’s menu features a wide range of cold and hot tapas (appetizers to eat alone or to share), as well as entrees and desserts. We ordered three tapas – each was about $10 – to share: the Caw Caw Creek pork, the shrimp and risotto special (available as either tapas or an entrée) and the Southern greens, as a veg. Later I also noticed that the families two tables down from us had ordered hand-tossed pizzas, and made a note to try those next time.
The Southern greens came first – mustard greens topped with tender white gigante lima beans in a delicious pot likker. Sarah was a good dining companion, tasting thoughtfully. She’d actually never had mustard greens, which are a cousin to collards. “It’s a little spicy!” she said in surprise. The likker was spicy, and deliciously porky as only good Southern greens are (I found a chunk of pork fat in my serving) but light and not at all oily.
Cradled in a small white bowl, the pork dish offered chunks of pork shoulder nestled atop a mound of sticky rice, with a pool of a sweet soy-based sauce surrounding it and bright green scallions scattered on top.
“Like maple syrup,” said Sarah, after tasting a bite of the pork. The pork was definitely sweet – but in a delicious, sweet-salty way, the edges almost caramelized from the soy glaze.
The shrimp risotto came last, looking beautiful with three fat pink shrimp against the pale, creamy rice and the edges of the rimmed bowl drizzled with a bright orange oil flecked with bright green bits of herb. Sarah took the first bite and almost immediately began gesturing with her fork: “This is the most perfect risotto,” she declared.
The grains of rice were al dente and much more complex than they might appear. The risotto tasted of white wine, leeks, parmesan, parsley and a hint of something else we couldn’t quite identify. It was delicious, a perfect bite of creamy goodness, as were the lightly seasoned shrimp, also cooked perfectly. Sarah let me have two shrimp in exchange for the last bite of risotto, but later, I wasn’t sure who got the better deal!
As we sipped our wine, swapped stories and passed the delicious plates of tapas, I was happy in the discovery of a new restaurant that I would be excited to share with friends. And, recalling my earlier conversation, I am glad that the food scene in and around Augusta is always changing and growing. And if first impressions are anything to judge by, Taste has come out swinging.
P.S. My husband and I went back to Taste a couple weeks later with friends Connie and Jake to sample the hand-tossed pizzas. As the waitress set ours on the table, Jake leaned over, breathed deeply, and smiled. The pizza was charmingly imperfect, with rustic edges, and dotted with sliced asparagus, melted rounds of mozzarella and country ham dust – a deep brown sprinkling of ham ground into dustlike flecks that smelled heavenly. Each bite was crisp and warm, and the salty flavor of the country ham left all of us wanting more.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Taste, 465 Railroad Ave., North Augusta (Hammonds Ferry subdivision)
HOURS: Tuesday-Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (803) 341-9881, www.EatatTaste.com, or find them on Facebook