Archive - February, 2012

La Casa Italian Grill – Alpharetta

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today I feature a guest review from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

Inside a quaint converted house on Old Roswell St less than a block from Main Street is La Casa Italian Grill.  Owner Pasquale Cardamuro opened La Casa four months ago in the old Café Efendi location to make a fresh start.  Having owned several previous strip mall and shopping mall restaurants in Atlanta, the long time Alpharetta resident longed to have a free standing building in which to serve his generations old Italian recipes.  Pasquale has gathered a loyal following in his 31 years in the restaurant business since he came to American from Naples.  All the ingredients used are locally sourced from the pasta to the herbs grown by Pasquale himself.

The house has undergone extensive renovations since purchased.  Pretty much everything except the walls has been molded to suit Pasquale’s needs.  Walking across the porch to enter the restaurant feels as if you’re going to a good friend’s home for dinner.  Inside it’s cozy, inviting, and warm.  There are several rooms to dine in, each lending an intimate feel to your meal.  La Casa would be great for either an office party or a private date out with your sweetie.  The front porch overlooks a nice fountain as well as a few herb planters that were recently added.  This spring and summer, La Casa will have live music on the porch.  The parking lot is limited, but there are plenty of other lots to choose from within walking distance.

Growing up in the South, I have experienced my fair share of “Italian” food (I’m looking at you Olive Garden).  The food you will get at La Casa is the real deal.  My wife and I visited La Casa a few weeks ago for dinner, and I was very impressed not only with the quality of the food, but also with the professional level of service.  Choices on the menu range from the more traditional spaghetti and meatballs to much more advanced dishes such as mussels marinara and scallops terramia.  All of the sauces, breads, and desserts are made in house.

After you are seated, they bring out two different type of bread along with olive oil with herbs for dipping.  Both types did not last long at our table.  I had the lasagna Bolognese and can only describe it as the best lasagna I’ve ever had.  The pasta was fresh, the cheese had  great texture and flavor, and the sauce was superb.  My wife picked the Pappardelle Bolognese, which is wide ribbons of pasta in meat sauce.  She kept commenting on how fresh tasting the pasta was.  There were no take home boxes.  She did take home a slice of cheesecake, which was gone before we got home.  She said that it rivals the cheesecakes in New York.

One interesting observation I made was one of the employees bussing a table across the room was making faces and waving at my 2 year old son.  It was nice to see someone take the time to entertain even the smallest customer.

Most of the items on the menu for dinner are in the $12-18 range, but taste much richer.  La Casa’s menu will change seasonally, and has already undergone a few changes since they have been open so check with them often for any changes.

La Casa is open Monday through Friday 11 AM -2 PM for lunch and Monday through Saturday 5-10 PM for dinner.  They are also open on Sunday noon to 8 PM for brunch, lunch, and dinner.  They are in a prime location to take advantage of the foot traffic in Alpharetta.  Take a stroll off busy Main Street and come have some real, fresh, and delicious Italian food.  We look forward to visiting La Casa many times in the coming year.  Pasquale is frequently in the dining room greeting customers with the enthusiasm and warmth that can only come from someone who has found his true home.

La Casa Italian Grill is located at 37 Old Roswell Street in historic downtown Alpharetta.

La Casa Italian Grill Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Alpharetta Restaurant News – February 2012 Postlude

I have a foolproof way to learn of the latest news in restaurants… Work all your sources then write an article about new restaurants. The very next day you will undoubtedly learn of something new that you missed. This month is no exception – except the restaurants I missed are pretty big ones. It’s worthy of publishing a Foodie Friday article mid-week to make up for it!

Joe’s New York Pizzeria – Mansell Road

A rather vanilla-sounding name for a pizza shop, don’t you think? We’ve got a lot of very good joints making New York style pies here in north Fulton. How will this place stand out? Because Joe Amitrano is behind the effort.

Amitrano is the owner of Verra-Zanno Pizzeria in Johns Creek. Regular readers of my blog will know VZ as my favorite pizza in town. The fact that he’s branching out is exciting! Look for his new shop at 1605 Mansell Road in a former Starbucks store.

The Velvet Note – Old Milton Parkway

“The Velvet Note is a modern version of the traditional English gentleman’s club.”

You might get a completely wrong impression of the place after reading this on their website. I’m pretty sure clothing stays on at this new music venue coming to Old Milton Parkway. They will feature live music in a small setting. And the menu they have posted online looks very promising. Look for them to open in April in the stripmall at 4075 Old Milton Parkway with Cuzi Fresh and the new Ipanema Grill.

The Crab Trap – Closed

Thanks to blog reader Darryl for this one. The Crab Trap on GA141 in south Forsyth has closed. They were in the old SEN Vietnamese location near the Brookwood Target. I can’t say this one surprised me much.

Alpharetta Restaurant News – February 2012

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

I don’t have a lot of new restaurants to report this month. However several from my coming soon list have finally opened. Get out and try some of these new joints!

But before I get into the new restaurants, I’d like to put in a plug for something called Have a Heart for NFCC. Several local restaurants have partnered to raise funds for North Fulton Community Charities, a very worthy cause. If you dine at one of these restaurants on their designated day, a portion of your bill will be donated to the charity. There are some decent restaurants on this list. I encourage you to participate.

Feb 20 – Slopes BBQ
Feb 21 – Altobeli’s Restaurant & Piano Bar
Feb 22 – Olde Blind Dog Irish Pub
Feb 28 – Alpine Bakery & Trattoria
Feb 29 – Sedgwick family of restaurants (Pure Taqueria, Vinny’s, Bistro VG and The Union)

Seven Seas Cafe – Devore Road

This Mediterranean restaurant quietly opened a few weeks ago in the space formerly occupied by The Spot. Not sure where this is? You’re not alone. This restaurant might as well be invisible, especially from Main Street.

I’ve yet to try this joint, but I trust the opinion of Boris Y on Yelp.

Breadtime – South Main

Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but this little mom-and-pop German bakery is sehr gut! Their made-from-scratch ravioli cooked in browned butter is amazing. But you didn’t hear it from Roots in Alpharetta, alright? A full review is forthcoming. I promised them I would wait until they secured their liquor license.

Saigon Cafe – Windward

Their grand opening is Monday, February 20th. Look for them near Smashburger and Einstein Bagels.

Liu Fu – China Inn

China Inn has relocated from Chamblee to Johns Creek. They opened this month under the name Liu Fu. A Chinese co-worker of mine tells me they are generating quite a buzz on the hyper-local Chinese websites. Check them out on 141 across from the Emory Johns Creek hospital. I suggest the Sichuan hot boiled fish.

Bassanos – Johns Creek

Now open on State Bridge Road in Tasca Latin Bistro’s old location. I ate there last weekend and was impressed with their New York-style pizza. It’s certainly worth a return trip. Watch the crowds and be patient as they work out the kinks.

And speaking of Tasca… the broker that sold this restaurant said on his blog that former Tasca chef and owner Rogerio Martins will host a cooking show on Telemundo.

Erwoods – Crabapple

They have a new chef by the name of Brian Earl. He brings steakhouse and Italian experience from past jobs at Houstons and Longhorn. Also new at Erwoods is a wood-fired pizza oven.

52 Bistro – Main Street

They also have a new chef – Adam Legrand. His past gigs include Henry’s Louisiana Grill in Acworth, Downtown Kitchen and Goin’ Coastal in Canton.

Coming Soon

El Molcajete Mexican - Coming to Zola Bistro’s old space on Highway 9 in Milton.
Alfresco - Should open any day now on Main Street and Old Milton.
Meat & Potatoes - Johns Creek in the old Rio Bravo/Star Diner space.
Ipanema Grill - Coming to Old Milton Parkway where Chip’s Southern Cooking used to be.
Construct-a-burger - Still no word on a future location. I’m removing them from this column until I hear of firm plans to open.
Carrabbas - They plan to build a free-standing out-parcel restaurant at The Avenue Forsyth.

Putting Habitat for Humanity on trial?

In September 2011 a violent home invasion occurred in the Glen Abbey neighborhood of Alpharetta and was widely reported in the news. This neighborhood was built by Jim Cowart Residential – a fact not reported in the media. Why? Because it’s irrelevant and doesn’t explain the crime in any way.

On Sunday a boy was senselessly murdered in Milton. Several local news outlets saw fit to mention that the neighborhood was built by Habitat for Humanity. Is this a necessary thing to report? I don’t believe it is. These townhomes are owner-occupied just like the homes in Glen Abbey. So why bring it up?

When you report a story in this way you’re making an insinuation in an ever so subtle way. And unfortunately some in our community are making very direct statements on online forums about Habitat communities and crime. It’s ugly, disrespectful, undignified and not appropriate so soon after such a tragedy.

The insinuation is that families that live in Habitat communities are undesirable or prone to crime or violence. The simple fact is that this kind of crime can occur anywhere. There are broken families in every neighborhood. There are people prone to violence in all walks of life. This murder could have happened just as easily in Windward or White Columns.

Habitat for Humanity does amazing work. Dragging them into this discussion is irresponsible. Let’s put this cowardly step-father on trail and not this amazing charity. And let’s not demean Habitat families who quite literally built their own homes in addition to paying for them.

Now is the time to mourn the loss of this young man and support his family and friends at Alpharetta High School. Say a prayer for them and hug your kids.

Valentine’s specials in Alpharetta

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Lobster stuffed filet mignon on a bed of lobster mashed potatoes.

Did I get your attention? Those are not my words but rather an Alpharetta-area restaurant trying to entice lovebirds on Valentine’s Day. It’s a busy night for higher-end restaurants and some are pulling out all the stops to get your reservation. Here are some specials I’ve found along with some others that might be a decent choice for a romantic meal.

Milton’s Cuisine

I’ve always thought of Milton’s as higher-end comfort food in a beautiful setting. You’ll never get any complaints picking this favorite for a romantic meal. On Valentine’s day they are offering a three course meal for $95 per couple. You can choose from scallops, cajun lamb lollipops and others. Don’t miss their famous carrot cake.

Village Tavern

Starting today through the 14th they are offering a four course prix fixe menu. There are several options in each course including a calamari appetizer, lobster bisque soup and filet. Their regular menu is still available.

Alpine Bakery and Trattoria

I teased this article with Alpine’s lobster-loaded surf and turf entree. Also available as a Valentine special is a sauteed salmon with passion fruit risotto. You can still order off their regular menu and the bakery is always there to tempt you. If you can’t make it there for dinner, a few tuxedo strawberries might make a neat little gift.

Sage, Spice and North Point Diner

These sister restaurants are all offering live music and candlelight dinner on Valentine’s Day.  Unfortunately they have no special menu offerings. Sage is by far the sexiest and swankiest restaurant in Alpharetta.

Windward’s Expense Account Restaurants

This is what I call Cabernet and Vinny’s. Cabernet is a great option if you’re spending someone else’s money and want to impress a client with a prime steak. It’s not a bad choice for a date night but far better alternatives are available. They are not offering a Valentine’s special.

Vinny’s (part of the Sedgwick family of restaurants) is a better alternative in this category. Someone asked about Valentine’s specials on their Facebook wall and the restaurant responded “We will have an extra special menu Valentine’s Day that will include some of our all time favorites from the regular dinner menu.” Sounds like a clever way of saying that nothing different is being offered.

There are so many others I haven’t mentioned that would make a great choice for a romantic meal. I’d consider Ray’s Killer Creek on Mansell or Sip Wine and Tapas in Crabapple. And I haven’t even touched on anything in Johns Creek. Don’t tell my wife but I have reservations at Dal Cuore tomorrow night!

If you’re all out of ideas there’s always the Johns Creek Waffle House. They are known far and wide for their white tablecloths, mood music and sharp-dressed staff on Valentine’s day. Check please!

What Valentine’s plans do you have or what romantic restaurants have I missed?

Apartments in mixed-use – a root cause

Take a look at this beautiful artist’s rendering of a mixed-use building. This is from the Glenwood Park mixed-use project in Atlanta. You have to admit, this looks nice with retail on the ground floor and a respectable number of condos above. Were a consultant to put this picture in an LCI survey questionnaire it would no doubt score high marks.

But there’s a cloud hanging over beautiful buildings like these – an external force that makes these types of mixed-use buildings practically unmarketable to buyers. I believe this external influence may be the root cause for Alpharetta’s and Avalon’s recent shift towards apartments in mixed-use.

Fannie Mae, Freedie Mac and HUD have all put restrictions on condo financing. Among these restrictions are limits on retail usage within a building with condos. They may vary from 10% to 30% of total square footage. This means that the more retail there is in a building, the less likely a condo buyer can qualify for a mortgage that conforms to these standards. The pictured building from Glenwood Park likely has a retail component of near 35%, something that stalled a portion of this development.

There are two ways a mixed-use developer can work around these restrictions. They can…

Go Vertical

Build ‘em higher! Just start stacking floor over floor, condo over condo until the ratio is tilted more in the favor of residential. Of course this increases height of buildings, something that isn’t favorable to the community and even to potential buyers.

Apartments

Don’t sell condos at all. If residents rent the units then there is no fussing with conforming mortgage nonsense. It might explain Avalon’s apartments, all of which are proposed in four story buildings.

It might also explain Alpharetta’s interest in removing nearly all restrictions on apartments in mixed-use zoning. The city’s mixed-use ordinances were likely developed before Fannie and Freddie clamped down on mixed-use condos.

It’s all a curious thing to consider. Proponents of mixed-use are frustrated by policies like this that favor (what they consider failed) single-family residences in suburbia over more “progressive” mixed-use.

In my mind this is a problem at the Federal level in agencies laden with unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy. I don’t believe municipalities like Alpharetta should have to bear the brunt of this by changing ordinances and land use policies in a manner against the will of the people. Fix the problem where it exists or ask developers to look for other solutions that work within the existing set of rules.

Thanks to Michael Hadden for his help researching this issue. Michael’s blog is New Urban Roswell. And I’m done writing about Avalon for a little bit!

Changing the rules as you go along

I remember as a kid playing stickball games in my front yard with the younger kid next door. We’d invent rules on where to hit the ball and how to score. What happens if you find yourself losing the game? No sweat! You just change the rules as you go along. You score things differently until the outcome matches what you want.

I had a flashback to this childhood memory yesterday. I was scrolling through the Alpharetta City Council meeting agenda for Monday when I came across a request from the Community Development Department. It seems they are suggesting changes be made to the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan (which is barely two months old).

The proposed changes would allow mixed use zoning on properties as small as 10 acres and would exempt apartments in mixed use from the 85/15 for-sale to for-rent ratio. Councilmen were given a page (which is not provided on the city’s website) that shows how the Avalon project would compare to the proposed changes. According to the cover memo, this page “demonstrates that Avalon would meet the modified MU regulations without variances.”

Remember that North American Properties wants 250 for-rent apartments in their Avalon development. Their request easily violates the 85/15 guideline. Is Alpharetta’s Community Development department suggesting a land use change so as to allow Avalon’s project to pass without a variance?

Councilman Mike Kennedy told me Monday’s discussion is to be about allowing different mixed use densities in each character area of Alpharetta. But this concept isn’t touched upon in the proposal from Community Development.

Kennedy eased some of my concern with this assurance: “It is not my intention – nor is it anyone else’s that I know of – that Avalon be considered under anything other than the CURRENT Mixed Use code as it is written today.”

At best this change is a suspicious and inappropriate matter to consider at this time. I would be most upset if I were a Councilman considering allowing Avalon to have apartments. This memo and its wording taint any vote in favor of apartments, even if that vote is made with the best of pure intentions. Let’s strive to be above reproach, guys!

Photo Credit: ChrisGoldNY (creative commons)

Crafty Draught – The Avenue Forsyth

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Andre Airich and his partner Cody Anderson accomplished much before their business even opened. In a few short months they managed to change the law in Forsyth County. They successfully lobbied for a change to an alcohol ordinance, a remarkable feat here in the South. We’re not exactly known for our forward-thinking laws when it comes to booze.

What did Airich and Anderson change? Forsyth now allows retailers to break the original packaging of beer. This paves the way for growlers. What’s a growler? It’s a 64 ounce glass jug used to transport draught beer. Their newly opened beer store, the Crafty Draught, will fill your growler with one of twenty craft beers they have on-tap. It’s a new concept for this area, something I had to try.

Crafty Draught’s selection changes almost daily. It’s best to check their website ahead of time to see what’s pouring. Also be sure to check their “coming soon” page. It’s sort of an on-deck circle of beer – a list of kegs in the backroom waiting to be tapped. When they empty a keg, one of these will replace it.

Most beers are in the $10 to $12 range for the 64 oz growler portion although some can reach as high as $20. Unfortunately samples are not available. New growlers can be purchased for $5, a one-time cost.

On my visit I met co-owner Andre Airich and secretly put him to the test. I explained that I don’t like beers with a lot of hops. I also mentioned my love of Bavarian hefe-weizens. Both of these statements are true which probably completely ruins any credibility I may have with the beer drinking world.

Being wintertime their selection is geared towards a lot of stouts and IPAs. Thankfully Airich didn’t steer me towards any of these. I let him talk me into a highly-rated beer called Ommegang Abbey, a Belgium-style ale made by a microbrewery in Cooperstown, NY. Twenty bucks later I had paid for my beer and new growler. Yikes, this had better be good! How did I like it?

Airich didn’t lead me astray. The beer had a yeasty character much like the hefe-weizens I enjoy. I tasted a lot of rich flavor going on including toasted nuts and honey. I can see why this brew wins awards. It also had a higher alcohol content, something I’m not accustomed to. Let’s just say I would avoid operating heavy machinery or writing wordpress blogs while  enjoying this beer.

Airich and Anderson might make successful political lobbyist if this beer gig doesn’t work out. I doubt that career change will be necessary. Crafty Draught is a cool little shop and I wish these young men much success. If this concept catches on I’d imagine they might have some competition soon. They’re well prepared to face it in my opinion. Check them out at 415 Peachtree Parkway, across the street from the Avenue Forsyth. I also like they’re active and effective use of social media. Follow them on Facebook and twitter @CraftyDraught.

Photo Copyright Robyn Guy Photography, used with permission

Apartments and Avalon

I want condos at Avalon.

That’s certainly something you won’t see me say a lot, but it’s true. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Let’s get back to apartments in a minute.

2030 Comprehensive Plan

North American Properties’ recently proposed Avalon project violates Alpharetta’s new 2030 Comprehensive Plan. It’s ironic in a way. The plan very much supports and encourages mixed-use projects like Avalon. I was critical of this and still believe this isn’t the will of the people. But it is what it is.

Avalon violates the land use plan by proposing 250 apartments in the development. The land use plan continues Alpharetta’s history of limiting apartments. It calls for a 85/15 ratio of houses to apartments in the city. Currently the fraction is skewed too far towards the apartment side.

It is certainly the will of suburbanites to have a healthy, yet limited mix of apartments. Avalon’s proposed 250 apartments would push the 85/15 ratio ever farther out of kilter.

So the ink isn’t even dry on the 2030 Plan and it’s already being challenged. This will be a critical first test of Alpharetta’s very young City Council. Everyone wants Avalon to be successful but it shouldn’t come at the cost of violating this longstanding vision. It also shouldn’t set a precedent of approving apartments in spite of limits on them. Does the council have the courage to stand up to Mark Toro on this matter? They should.

This will also be a critical test of North American Properties. Will they compromise and agree to abide by the city’s new land use plan? Or will they seek to undermine a plan that was designed to encourage their type of project?

In my mind I’d already resigned the fact that condos would be a part of Avalon. The only question left unanswered was how many we’d see. So when NAP proposed apartments it caught me off guard. I would be much more likely to support the project if the apartments were changed to condos. Let’s see how this chapter of the project unfolds.

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