“It’s … cheese,” said Dan with a grin.
With that, I knew we were in for a fun night. Sean and I were with friend Sara and her boyfriend, Dan, whom we were meeting for the first time. The location: Finch & Fifth, Surrey Center’s newest restaurant, which opened just a couple months ago in the former PJ’s Coffee & Tea Co.
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations even on Friday nights, so Sean and I got there early, at about 6:30 p.m. The restaurant looks similar to PJ’s. The long bar is still there, as well as the little tables up front and the larger ones by the windows. But the restaurant has been overhauled to give it a slightly more industrial feel – with thumping music, subway tile and moody lighting.
The concept is tapas – appetizers that are meant to be shared. Our waitress, Taylor, recommended that the four of us order four to six, and since we’d arrived before Sara and Dan, we thought we’d go ahead and get some food on the table.
I’m the queen of indecision, so Finch & Fifth’s well-edited (read: short) menu charmed me, even more so when I read the descriptions. There were two salads, a mixed green and spinach, offered with a variety of dressings – a good enough portion for a light dinner, I thought, as I peeped over at our neighbor, who had ordered one.
Nine tapas options followed, from a blue cheese dip and roasted fall vegetables to shrimp and grits and beef carpaccio. (There was also a new dish, just added to the menu, said Taylor – the catfish en croute on top of greens with a lemon remoulade, which she said was the one tapas that could serve as an entrée.)
On a separate card, the charcuterie (prepared meats) and cheese options were featured. I was distracted by the extras available – gigandes white beans and artichoke hearts among them – but got serious when Sean pointed out the pate. We constructed our cheese and meat plate around it: the chicken liver and pork pate surrounded by Sheepshead cheese, which was on special that night; Chaumes; and Georgia Gold.
I also had my eye on the list of signature cocktails and ordered the Ginger Cat. There also is a good selection of red and white wines (by the glass or bottle) and beers, including seasonal drafts. (One of the owners is Faulkner Warlick, who also manages The White Horse Wine & Spirits.)
Sara and Dan arrived, and after the introductions, we dug in. Sara took a sip of the Ginger Cat and liked it so much she ordered her own. It was just my kind of cocktail – light and sweet, but not too sweet, with honeysuckle vodka and honey balanced by fresh ginger and just a tweak of lemon.
She wasn’t sure about the pate, but I ate heartily. I fell in love with pate in Italy, and order it every chance I get. This was mixed with a light hand and a delicate flavor. I jazzed it up a bit with a tiny cube of cranberry jelly and wasn’t sure which way I liked it best.
The Sheepshead and Chaumes were both soft, mild, white cheeses with sweet flavors; in contrast, the Georgia Gold was a brassy, dry cheddar with a strong aftertaste. All were served with light-as-air crackers, which seemed to evaporate on the tongue (be sure to ask for more crackers at the get-go!).
Next, we ordered two tapas to share, but kept the menus so we could get at least one more round. First was the smoky pork, basically a deconstructed barbecue sandwich on discs of cornbread with a Brussels sprout slaw and house barbecue sauce. We all agreed – it was a sweet dish, even down to the cornbread, but oh so good. The pork was tender and moist, and the Brussels sprout slaw was amazing, both firm and tangy. It was a large portion too – nearly entrée size.
Our second dish was the crab beurre blanc – jumbo lump crab meat atop a cheddar tarragon grit cake with a citrus beurre blanc (butter sauce). I took a bite and was overwhelmed by the herby flavor of parsley and the wet, wet grits. There was no way that the few flakes of sweet crab meat could hold up against that onslaught of flavor and texture.
Round two started with the flank steak, sliced thin with a chimichurri sauce, roasted potatoes and stuffed tomato. The boys were crazy for the steak – so much so that they ordered a second plate to share! The steak was tender (warning: it’s rare) but definitely needed more than a smear of the grassy chimichurri sauce to give it flavor – and I wished more sauce had been on the plate. (I took a bite of the second plate, and to me the steak there was better seasoned.) I could have eaten a handful of the mini potatoes though – they were perfectly cooked and perfectly salty.
Our final tapas of the night was the chipotle shrimp skewer served on top of a guacamole salad. Coated in spice, the shrimp were cooled with a bite of greens and avocado in a light dressing. We each tasted one shrimp, then played a round of rock, paper, scissors to see who would get the last, and Sean was the lucky one.
I was happy to have saved room for dessert, and after Taylor reeled off the short list of options, Sara and I locked eyes in agreement – it would definitely be the chocolate flourless cake with caramel ice cream, beet dressing (!) and peanut brittle. In fact, we ordered two.
“Is it carmel or car-a-mel?” I briefly wondered. But after I took the first bite, I didn’t care how it was pronounced. I just knew it was probably the best ice cream I’d ever tasted – rich and deeply flavored with the taste of toasted sugar. Like rice or bread, the chocolate flourless cake could only serve as the base for such a delicious ice cream – which became even more delicious once you encountered a hidden piece of the crunchy, peanut-y brittle. The beet dressing, which was a bit of a question mark, was actually great – if I hadn’t known, I would have thought it was a raspberry sauce.
We floated out into the cold evening with a sense of warmth and satiety – and I knew where I would suggest for my next girls’ night out: Finch & Fifth.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Finch & Fifth, 379 Highland Ave.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday
PRICING: Tapas range from $3 to $15
SECOND HELPING: (706) 364-5300, finchandfifth.com or facebook.com/finchandfifth