Monkfish Tail, in the shape of a miniature cornucopia, sits on a small bed of fluffy basmati rice and curried chickpeas. Tikka masala sauce artfully dribbles down one side of the fish into a scarlet pool on the plate. Its synced, grooving flavors—a bass line of cumin and coriander, the smooth phrasing of heavy cream, ginger, and garlic in close harmony—mingle with the meaty swimmer and hum like a Motown chart-topper. A dab of cucumber chutney on the side adds a shimmering falsetto note.
If I were to blind-taste this dish, clearly lifted from the Indian lexicon, and try to guess the restaurant that served it, I would never come up with Woodfire Grill. Until Tyler Williams took over as executive chef in March, this restaurant—long the belle of Cheshire Bridge Road—traded in bold, largely straightforward nuances of New American cooking. Chef Michael Tuohy opened Woodfire Grill in 2002; whole roasted free-range chicken over garlicky greens was an early signature. Tuohy returned to his native California in 2008, selling the restaurant to Bernard Moussa and Nicolas Quinones, who soon partnered with Kevin Gillespie, previously Woodfire’s chef de cuisine. Gillespie’s star-making turn on the sixth season of Top Chef gave the restaurant a second life. He left in January to open Gunshow, his daring reenvisioning of the restaurant experience, where the chefs themselves circulate through the open dining room with their array of weekly changing dishes.
But Woodfire, too, took a plucky turn. Williams was previously executive chef at Westside’s Abattoir: I remember savoring his beef tartare with Asian pear and pine nuts, as well as that haunting tikka masala sauce draped over shrimp and grits. But his time at Abattoir only hinted at the experimental streak he now has free rein to express.
Habitues expecting recognizable Woodfire fare will be contented by the likes of avocado and lobster salad or a gutsy grilled spinalis steak (the ribeye cap). However, Williams puts his richest efforts into the compositions that reflect his revolving culinary infatuations—like Indian cuisine. Beyond the lilting monkfish entree, he also shows off his knowing way with spices in curried blue-crab stew, a soothing riff on a West Indies staple dotted with tiny herbed dumplings and a poached quail egg.
I’m impressed by Williams’s reach as a cook and by his stubbornness to make an idea work. In early September I tried his veal sweetbreads encased in thin phyllo, scattered with escargot and dressed with red wine bordelaise sauce. The dish didn’t click—the textures turned sodden too quickly and never quite melded. But Williams obviously was fixed on the interplay between supple sweetbreads and crisp dough: Two weeks later he served sweetbreads in a crackly spring roll with a side of sweet-sour egg drop soup and, for a chuckle, plastic carryout packets of spicy mustard. This time, he nailed it.
One of the city’s finest service teams supports and elevates Williams’s viewpoint. Quinones (who as of May became the restaurant’s sole owner) and sommelier Patrick Guilfoil compile a dazzler of a wine list, complete with bargains like the 2009 Zantho Zweigelt, a light and cherry-forward Austrian red, for $32. Servers include veterans from Atlanta’s other fine-dining restaurants. They help smooth the transition for Williams. He differs mightily from his predecessors, but his restless imagination—he says he’ll be incorporating dishes inspired by Italy, Mexico, Russia, and American junk food (!) into the menu over the coming months—makes Woodfire worth discovering anew.
So who took williams’s place at Abattoir? The restaurant’s longtime sous chef, Brett Ashcroft, briefly filled the role. Then in July, owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison (who also operate Bacchanalia, Floataway Cafe, and Star Provisions) hired a shocker of a replacement: Hector Santiago, whose beloved Pura Vida in Poncey-Highland closed last December after he couldn’t come to a new lease agreement with the building’s landlord. The choice astounded me (and other food lovers) because Quatrano and Harrison adhere to such a specific aesthetic: California-Mediterranean, with the obligatory devotion to seasonal ingredients. How exactly would Santiago’s Latin-fusion rhythms fit into the menu’s clearly defined focus?
Subtly, in his first few months on the job. Hawaiian ahi poke—accented with coconut, cilantro, bits of corn, and lime juice—is the only recent dish that overtly stands out as Santiago’s. (The lineup changes constantly.) But hints of his trademarks pop up elsewhere. Mango and a tingly hot pepper essence rev up a plump crab fritter, a mainstay of Quatrano and Harrison’s repertoire. Chimichurri lends herby complexity to a twelve-ounce New York strip. Sofrito—an aromatic vegetable mix that includes garlic, onions, and chiles and is the foundation for many recipes in Puerto Rico, Santiago’s homeland—livens up ubiquitous Georgia trout.
The flashes of gusto are welcome and frankly overdue. Abattoir has always suffered from an identity crisis. The name, a synonym for “slaughterhouse” (its location in the White Provisions building was once a meatpacking plant), sounds disquieting, but the restaurant is no meat orgy. Seafood and vegetables receive equal billing, and the fringiest creations like lamb sweetbreads draped in a sour plum sauce long ago disappeared. The pommes frites have always been worth shoveling down the hatch, and Floataway-esque dishes like Georgia shrimp in a light-as-tempura batter always satisfied, but before Santiago’s arrival, the overall lineup was veering into the doldrums.
His Latin flourishes invigorate the kitchen, and if you are an adventurous eater, Santiago is bringing back some edge with a semisecret “butcher’s menu”—you have to know to ask for it—that glorifies offal. It often includes goodies like grilled chicken hearts, lamb tongue, and goat ribs. A silky foie gras–blood sausage made me swoon (while my tablemates winced). At dessert time, though, my open mind slammed shut: Morcilla dulce, a chocolate cake flavored with blood, clanged with a metallic taste that made me shudder. Ah, but one of Quatrano’s classic fig–brown butter tarts with a shattering crust and a swipe of torched meringue quickly erased its memory. The checks and balances in this unlikely marriage of culinary approaches may give Abattoir the magnetic personality it’s always needed.
Rated three stars (excellent)
1782 Cheshire Bridge Road
HOURS Tuesday–Saturday 5:30–11 p.m.
Rated two stars (very good)
1170 Howell Mill Road
HOURS Tuesday–Saturday 6–11 p.m.
This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.