It’s very rare that a restaurant captivates me the way that Gymnopedie, in Athens, Georgia, did. It’s a tiny space–seats sixteen people–and it’s a vegetarian restaurant, something most chefs would shy away from, but it’s a space that tells stories–stories about food, about place, about each ingredient’s potential, and, most importantly, stories that reflect back on a chef who cares intensely about her ingredients and, it seems, is living out her dream exactly how she intends to. And these stories are the most genuine ones I can imagine.
There was something about walking into the space–a loft-studio next to rail road tracks (almost an homage in location to Athens history), decorated with tapestries and contemporary art, with it’s tall two storey ceiling and only three tables gracing the dining room (all intimately close, almost family style given the constraints)–that made me feel like I was walking into a nest or a dream. Maybe a dream nest. While the walls are stark white, the paintings and the tapestry and the candles are cozy, the menu printed on a white chalkboard and the quiet sounds of the kitchen give a familiar feel, like it’s the home you never knew you had. In the first few seconds I stood in the restaurant, I knew I was going to love it. And love it I did.
The chef, Sarah Dunning, changes her menu monthly, and the menu for February was, coincidentally, all vegan–an excellent surprise for K who is vegan as well as for myself since I love seeing how chefs rethink vegan cuisine. We decided to order the entire menu along with a double of one of the more main courses in order to sample everything. First course consisted of Marinated Carrots & Castelvetrano Olives–lightly pickled carrots served with fruity, crisp olives, and some sesame seeds sprinkled on top. K, who notoriously abhors olives, shied away from the olives, but was pleasantly surprised to see that the typical briney flavor didn’t spill onto the carrots. The carrots themselves were sweet and the marinade lended a tart, acidic note while not overpowering the tender earthiness of the carrots. The dish set the tone for the night–simple preparation that highlights the ingredients.
Second course consisted of a Bruschetta Trio of Lima Beans & Capers, Garlic Hummus, and Blood Orange Hummus served on an incredible crusty bread that, if not made in house, I should have requested the bakery name to buy a couple of loaves to freeze for later. It was that darn good. The bruschetta was fabulous–the lima beans bright and fresh with a perfect salty hint from capers, the garlic hummus good and garlicky (just the way I like it), and the blood orange hummus with a surprising sweet and slightly tart depth, unlike any hummus I’ve ever tried. G & my favorite was the lima bean bruchetta because it was so unique, I think with parsley mixed in with the capers and lima beans, giving it an earthy, spring-like energy. Plus there’s nothing like greenness in the middle of winter (no matter how warm its been lately).
Next up was a Salad of Chayote, Grapefruit, and Vanilla. Chayote. Chayote: the not-so-elusive Latin American squash-gourd that I see prepared on Top Chef, think to myself, wow, that looks yummy, and then never remember to play around with in the kitchen. I don’t believe I’d ever eaten it until the night at Gymnopedie. Which is such a shame because, wow, is it incredible. Chef Dunning shaved it into think lasagna-wide ribbons on a mandoline and then dressed it and served it with grapefruit (another ingredient I always forget about–how sad is that, i forget about grapefruit). The salad was a whiff of summer–bright, fresh, slightly tart with a mellow warmness from the vanilla, and the slightly bitter chayote really brought it all together. I was a bit apprehensive about the dish, but walked away with a new appreciation for both chayote and grapefruit–as well as some delicious ideas for summer grilling side dishes.
Fourth course was an Arugula Salad with Shaved Fennel, Pear, Mint, and Toasted Almonds. In other words, a ridiculously good, simple salad with little notes of surprise like the perfectly toasted almonds that tasted the most almond-y of any almond I’ve eaten. Those almonds aren’t your nut mix variety. Between the spicy deepness of the arugula, the earthy notes of fennel, and the bright lift of the pear and mint, this salad elevated the idea of a simple tossed salad. Instead of being drenched in dressing, every piece of the salad shone with its own taste, and when combined, it created a perfect harmony. Again, I’m inspired to get back to the drawing board with what I consider a salad, to really reconsider the ingredients and enjoy them for what they are, not what they could be all dressed up.
Fifth course was our double order of Blue Oyster Mushrooms with Seared Mustard Greens and Quinoa. Who knew that something other than a regular oyster mushroom existed? (After a little Googling, it looks like the raw mushrooms are actually blue–I’m now fascinated, I must grow some!) If I could redesign my idea of comfort food, I think this dish would be my new dish–perfectly cooked quinoa (where every little grain seems toasted and perfectly sphere, no mush anywhere), mustard greens just barely wilted and seared in the pan, and oyster mushrooms that taste like a bit of the woods without any of the grit. I couldn’t detect any marinade or flavorings other than olive oil, salt, and pepper (I think the quinoa had some tamari or Bragg’s or something), but even though most would call it bland, the entire plate was bursting with flavor, the richness of the ingredients. Even with two portions, we found ourselves fighting over bites, practically licking the bowls clean before our server took them away.
While the savory courses were phenomenal, we couldn’t not order the desserts–not when they included chocolate and Early Grey ice cream. Vegan Early Grey ice cream. The Chocolate Ganache Tarte with Rosewater Ice Cream is a must. Apparently it’s something of a standard for Chef Dunning and I can see why–the chocolate was so rich that it would have been work for one person to finish. Delicious work, but work nonetheless. Incredible to think that it was vegan, I can’t even guess what it is made out of–I doubt any soy. The rosewater ice cream paired perfectly with the intense chocolate, lending a light, floral freshness to the dish. What could have been rich on rich was tempered by the ice cream, a perfect pairing for the intensity of the tarte.
The Banana Split, on the other hand, was playful and light with blueberries, almonds, and the infamous Earl Grey ice cream. Not being a huge banana fan, it wouldn’t ever be my first pick, but damn, who am I to pass up Earl Grey ice cream? The ice cream did, indeed, taste like a cold sip of Earl Grey tea. And it balanced out the sweetness of the bananas. The blueberries added a nice punch of acid and the almonds gave a little roasted depth. All in all, a delicious, less rich dessert heralded by the fantastic ice cream.
By the end of the meal, we were all in agreement–Gymnopedie is an incredibly special place run by a talented chef who loves and celebrates seasonal ingredients in a genuine way. No shticks here. An intimate restaurant, Chef Dunning invited us to rethink food and to meditate on the ingredients themselves. Not to say it was all serious–playful elements dotted the menu from the twist on a banana split to blood orange infused hummus. In a way, I’m glad Gymnopedie isn’t in my back yard–I’d spend too many nights there. But I do wish it were slightly closer. I’m a believer in the dream world Gymnopedie created–one rooted in the soil and the space of Athens, one that celebrates the natural world and the treasures that it holds for those who take them time discover the flavors and dimensions of each individual ingredient.
675 Pulaski St
Athens, GA 30601