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Christiane Lauterbach

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Summer is nigh. Bring on the beer gardens!

The spacious outdoor beer garden at Tucker Brewing Company
The spacious outdoor beer garden at Tucker Brewing Company

Photograph by John McDonald

As a young woman, I moved from Paris to Munich, where I had no choice but to learn to drink beer the Bavarian way: outdoors and by the liter. A dainty Parisian wine sipper whose main exposure to beer had been the demipanaché (half beer/half sparkling lemonade or Fanta Lemon) in cafes, I watched with horror as buxom wenches carried giant trays of glass mugs filled with frothy liquid gold. They adroitly negotiated a treacherous landscape of community tables where patrons swayed and sang, occasionally pounding the tables with their mugs.

My apartment, right behind one of the numerous Paulaner breweries, was often invaded by the fetid odor of the mash-boiling process. My German husband dragged me to various beer gardens, including a magnificent one in the Englischer Garten—the rolling public park in the heart of Munich—and another on top of steep Nockherberg Hill. I whined through a river of beers. Eventually, I learned to enjoy the conviviality; then, I grew passionate about the freshness of Bavarian lagers drunk under the open sky.

Atlanta feels like it should be a great town for this kind of thing. We’ve got the trees. We’ve got the climate. We even have the beer, now. Elsewhere in the U.S., the Pharmacy (Nashville) and Prost! (Portland, Oregon) are exemplars of the genre, but in Atlanta, there aren’t many true beer gardens—the Bavarian kind, reflecting a particular culture and geography. For several years, in the 1980s, the Arts Festival of Atlanta had an ideal one, with proper trees and proper fresh air. People drank beer and ate sausages. That was all, and that was great.

One of the few around here today, and one of my favorites—appropriately named Der Biergarten—is in a touristy stretch of Marietta Street downtown, serving straight-out Bavarian food and great German beer in its jovial outdoor setting. In Avondale Estates, I love the heavy outdoor tables, German hops, and casual food at the Lost Druid, and, when in Little Five Points, I’ve been known to hang out in the enclosed beer garden behind the Wrecking Bar.

But the best hope for fans of this form is a giant campus—8,500 square feet—built from scratch in a remote corner of Tucker. Snaking through a banal landscape of warehouses and light industry, one is pretty much stunned to find the family-owned Tucker Brewing Company and its terrific beer garden, a vast expanse of pebbles and newly planted trees overlooked by a bandstand. One also finds games, a sandbox for kids—even a few dogs hanging out by their masters. I am impressed by the place’s easy-drinking lagers and the hefeweizen, but my true love is the TKR Pilsner slow pour, capped with a beautiful foam dome. Food is rarely the main draw at a beer garden, but I’m happy to eat the giant pretzel with beer cheese, the tangy sauerkraut balls, and the shapely burger. I draw the line at chickpea schnitzel and abjure the gnarly bratwurst.

Another place that closely resembles a proper beer garden is the outdoor area of Wood’s Chapel BBQ in Summerhill. Especially with the new lights hanging overhead, it captures the romance of being outside on a warm day getting a slight buzz, a sessionable beer in one hand and a magically delicious plate of pork in front of you. There’s also the wonderfully located backyard of the Companion, which opened in the midst of the pandemic, abutting a low-key brick masonic lodge in Bolton. Hopefully, in the years ahead—and now that we’ve gained plenty of experience, whether we wanted it or not, eating and drinking outdoors—more places will offer the conviviality and the beer culture we deserve.

This article appears in our June 2021 issue.

St*rofoam secrets of the pandemic

styrofoam takeoutI am an ecowarrior. A meticulous recycler and a passionate composter, I try to generate as little garbage as possible. For years, I’ve made an effort to avoid purchasing prepackaged groceries, preferring, when I can, to buy in bulk—I’m intimately familiar with the process of scooping beans or rice from barrels and bins. And, of course, as a critic, I’ve always favored dining in over carrying out; it allows me to evaluate a restaurant’s ambience and amenities as well as its food.

Imagine my horror now at having my fridge invaded by takeout containers, and my under-the-sink space filled by an ever-growing supply of brown paper bags. Over the past year, some of the best meals I’ve eaten—an ultrarefined feast from Talat Market, for example, which opened in the unlucky month of April 2020—have come with no fewer than eight containers, each drib and drab of sauce or condiment encased in its own little plastic cup, the main deal portioned off in a variety of detestable disposable coffins. To-go meals—a necessity at times, both on a professional and personal level—have been the bane of my pandemic life. They’ve also been central to it.

My takeout vehicle of choice? On the one hand, I disapprove of expanded polystyrene foam, known widely if imprecisely as “styrofoam.” (DuPont, the maker of the real, usually pale blue Styrofoam™—invented at Dow Chemical in the 1940s and used as a building material—has tried unsuccessfully to protect its brand from genericide.) This stuff is easy to hate. Generic styrofoam is viewed as déclassé by the elite and condemned by all environmentalists. It’s so resistant to reuse that, in Atlanta, there’s only one place where ecominded citizens can take it: the aptly named Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, or CHaRM. Yet show me an iced tea that tastes better and remains cold longer in a waxed cardboard or plastic cup than in a styrofoam one.

Some of my favorite meals always have come nestled in styrofoam. Both Zyka (spicy Hyderabadi-style cuisine in Decatur) and K&K Soul Food (a splendid cafeteria in English Avenue) don’t even bother with regular plates. Even though I sometimes ask for leftovers to be packed in foil rather than foam at my beloved Taqueria del Sol, I appreciate the restaurant not degrading my food with fancy alternative containers—which may be more ecofriendly but are often a poor match for hot meals. Waxed cardboard boxes, with annoying flaps I can never reclose, make food sweaty and oily. Plastic containers, especially thick ones, are nearly impossible to wrestle open without risking their contents jumping into my lap. Biodegradable paper clamshells get soggy.

There is an easy answer to all that stress: styrofoam! And I’m not the only one who appreciates a properly insulated meal. On Twitter, the Denver-based soul food scholar and award-winning author Adrian Miller regularly posts marvelous short videos of styrofoam boxes opened slowly, as if by invisible hands, to reveal their generous contents. Speaking of revelations, I learned from a friend to insert a few toothpicks crosswise into styrofoam boxes to avoid any ill-timed spillage—wisdom that’s more important than ever now that we’re carrying so many meals home.

I vastly prefer the white containers to the black ones, which make no sense to me—and aren’t accepted at CHaRM, anyway. And even though I can’t stand the squeaky sound and the environmental impact, I salute the superior insulating and moisture-resistant properties of expanded polystyrene. Hate me if you want!

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.

The verdict on 3 new Atlanta restaurants: the Betty, Botica, and Soul: Food & Culture

The Betty Atlanta
The Betty’s grilled Cornish rock hen and Retropolitan cocktail

Photograph by Martha Williams

The Betty
Located on the first floor of the new Kimpton Sylvan, the Betty is a hotel restaurant inspired by the midcentury supper club—and if none of the preceding description particularly lights your fire, know that chef Brandon Chavannes (St. Cecilia, King + Duke) is cooking on a level way beyond workaday steak and soggy shrimp cocktail. That famous appetizer, for instance, gets a rigorous makeover, served head-on with cocktail sauce spiked with fermented lime and warming Indian spices. An Atlanta native born to Norwegian and Jamaican immigrants, Chavannes flavors his food with a deft hand and a global reach, enriching grilled Cornish rock hen with tahini and labneh, then providing an acidic counterpoint in the form of earthy salsa verde—it’s like the world’s most luxurious chicken shawarma. Steak options, de rigueur in a hotel, start with filet mignon and escalate to a porterhouse that costs more than some round-trip airfares ($169). The Betty is one of three concepts Chavannes is overseeing here: There’s also Willow Bar, a courtyard space serving cocktails and plant-centric plates, and St. Julep, a rooftop bar with more “playful” food. 374 E. Paces Ferry Road, Buckhead, 470-531-8902 —Sam Worley

Botica
The most alluring offering at amiable Botica is the shared plates: Chef Mimmo Alboumeh was born in Lebanon, lived in Spain and Italy, and cooked previously at Red Pepper Taqueria, and here, he serves not just standard party fare (nachos, guac) but also more tapas-esque dishes like a terrific, smoky octopus with crisp potatoes and aioli. You can imagine ordering them one after another, between rounds of drinks, long into the evening—if only this were the era of the shared plate, or the long evening. For me, Botica represents a happy dream of life someday soon, when sitting together at an intimate table, basking in one another’s warm company and/or airborne droplets, isn’t such a stressful proposition. For now, luckily, takeout is also available. (Though this spot might think a little harder about its protocols: Picking up my to-go order, I was invited to wait at the crowded bar, where I sat masked and anxious, like that Bernie Sanders on Inauguration Day meme. Guys: There is a bug going around!) Tacos are also on the menu, along with a few larger plates: burger, salmon, enchiladas. For those dining in—who also can choose to sit on a spacious patio facing Peachtree Road—the bar serves well-crafted margaritas and frozen drinks including an Aperol spritz frosé, which speaks of another happy dream: a summer that can’t get here soon enough. 1820 Peachtree Road, Brookwood Hills,
404-228-6358 —Sam Worley

Soul: Food & Culture
Born in Chicago with family roots in the South—and with a long career of Atlanta fine-dining experience now under his belt—Todd Richards is on a mission to elevate soul food to the rank it deserves. In 2018, he published his first cookbook, the autobiographical Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes. He follows it up with this new counter spot in Krog Street Market, which he developed with chef Joshua Lee. Some dishes remain from Richards’ Southern Fried, the leaner concept Richards operated solo in this same space, like chicken and waffles (plain or stuffed with collards) and a fried catfish sandwich with spicy remoulade. Chicken wings come tossed in a choice of sauces—lemon pepper with herbs and spices, hot honey with peppers and pickled red onions, and so on—with sides including collard greens with smoked chicken and mac and cheese. Richards tweaks classic soul preparations in dishes such as smoky salmon croquettes, served with stone-ground grits and jalapeño creamed corn. Results can be uneven, but don’t skip the frozen lemonade—a not-too-sweet treat that’s pure pleasure on the tongue. 99 Krog Street, Inman Park,
404-205-5913 —Christiane Lauterbach

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

The chef who changed my relationship with food

David Sweeney
Former Atlanta chef David Sweeney now lives in northeast Georgia.

Photograph by Martha Williams

Few chefs have had as big an influence on the way I eat as David Sweeney. His innovative Edgewood Avenue restaurant, Dynamic Dish, may have lasted a scant three years—from 2007 to 2010—but it earned a place in the city’s pantheon of meaningful dining experiences. Before Dynamic Dish, healthy eating in this town felt like something one did for virtue more than pleasure. But the food there—creamy kohlrabi soup with freshly grated horseradish, young kale salad scented with cumin and sweetened with Medjool dates—had the kind of exquisite purity that I, so far, had only experienced in extreme fine-dining.

If Sweeney were to start a cult in northeast Georgia, where he now lives, he would find plenty of followers, myself included. Born into a military family in Augusta and raised all over the place, mostly in Europe, Sweeney spent more than half of his 51 years in Germany, where he worked in luxury retail (Ralph Lauren, Escada, Gucci). His lifestyle (he has a confessed fondness for Beluga caviar and Champagne) changed dramatically in the early 1990s, when his partner in London tested HIV-positive. In the wake of that event, the idea of achieving optimal health through the best-possible food took root in his brain. He taught himself all he could learn about the nutritional value of nearly every ingredient.

For a while, Sweeney volleyed between the world of fashion and the world of health food. He had already launched two vegetarian catering companies in Germany when something forced his hand: His grandmother in Florida got sick, and he moved back to the States to take care of her. After she died, he opened a restaurant in Atlanta, a city he viewed as suitably progressive for his cooking and concept. Even so, Dynamic Dish’s minimalist design, communal seating, and refined, mostly vegetarian menu asked a lot from customers of that era.

For all the passion it elicited, the restaurant never gained enough of a regular following. After filing for bankruptcy in 2010, Sweeney earned a living catering events ranging from vegan society weddings to intimate dinners for his fan base. Then, in 2016, he packed up his city life for a rural one and took a six-month stint as executive chef at the Red Barn Cafe, open seasonally and attached to a winery at the foot of Rabun County’s Tiger Mountain. When the season ended, Sweeney opted to stay put.

Sweeney’s latest project, a line of healthy snacks called David’s Seedy Bars, is perfectly in line with his moral imperative to serve food beneficial to his customers’ health. (His favorite joke: “I used to hang out in seedy bars; now, I make them.”) The bars supply fiber and good fat, and, unlike most other ones marketed to the sports crowd, they cause no spike in energy. The recipe has evolved quite a bit over the past year, but the ingredients (pumpkin, amaranth, and sunflower seeds bound by brown rice syrup) haven’t. The line also includes pseudo-cereals (amaranth and other seeds sweetened with coconut sugar) that you can (and should) sprinkle on yogurt; amazingly delicious dehydrated kale crackers; and vivid schmears and pâtés crafted from turmeric, sprouted seeds, tahini, organic lemon juice, and other raw ingredients.

How has Sweeney changed my life as an eater? By refocusing my attention on the beauty of simplicity. This was true back when I came under the spell of Dynamic Dish, and it remains true today. As I wrote in my 2008 review of the restaurant, when I took the unusual step of accompanying the chef on a trip to an urban farm: “While gingerly loading the crops into a cooler, Sweeney told the grower that his customers could ‘feel the [positive] vibration’ of the ground when they ate the just-harvested vegetables.” Among Sweeney’s many enduring talents is his ability to select perfect produce: If he hands you an avocado, a sweet potato, or a mango, it is likely to be the best you’ve ever eaten.

You can usually find Sweeney’s products at the Freedom Farmers Market near the Carter Center or at Floral Park Market on the Westside.

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

The verdict on 3 new Atlanta restaurants: Baffi, Ford’s BBQ, and Scoville Hot Chicken

Baffi Atlanta
Roast chicken with salsa verde

Photograph by Martha Williams

Baffi
Over four decades, Jonathan Waxman has built a small empire of convivial Cali-Italian restaurants, notably Manhattan’s iconic Barbuto. If the name of that restaurant (“bearded” in Italian) nods at Waxman’s now gray facial hair, his newest—Baffi—salutes the mustache. Situated in the old Donetto space in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhood, Baffi is a leaner version of Waxman’s Ponce City Market restaurant Brezza Cucina, which closed in 2020. What’s amazing is how effortless he makes it all seem. True maturity, the art of not doing too much or too little, is in evidence everywhere—in Baffi’s modern-rustic look, its talented staff, and a menu that includes the same wonderful roast chicken with warm salsa verde (fresh herbs, capers, and garlic in extra-virgin olive oil) and crisp rosemary potatoes Waxman has served at his restaurants for as long as I can remember. Also on offer: a couple of simple but perfect wood-oven pizzas, one topped with burrata, burst tomatoes, and basil; roasted oysters with breadcrumbs; trout cooked in cast iron; and a dish of astonishingly tender and eerily smooth pork and veal meatballs served over rich mascarpone grits. The wines, including options from small producers in Italy’s Friuli and Abruzzo regions, are eminently drinkable. The patio scene is civilized. A pantry just inside the restaurant’s entrance, meanwhile, sells some of the same products the kitchen uses. 976 Brady Avenue, Westside, 404-724-9700 —CL

Ford’s BBQ
What’s apparent as you enter this new barbecue restaurant deep in the heart of Tucker: Someone here loves both Texas (as evidenced by the giant Tito’s vodka sign and the powerful scent of beef brisket greeting you at the door) and Ford automotive memorabilia. Like other restaurants from the same ownership group (Local No. 7 across the street, Stratford Pub in Avondale Estates), this spot feels mainstream cozy. Of course, you can order Saint Louis ribs by the rack and chopped pork by the pound, but the main deal at Ford’s is the beef. Answer the classic brisket questions (fat or lean? sliced or chopped?) and you are on your way to meat heaven. My standard answer is half and half and, of course, sliced. I don’t normally care to slather barbecue sauce on smoked meats, but Ford’s marvelously tangy and balanced house sauce is the ideal thing to elevate its deeply charred, tender brisket. While the platters feel generous, the sandwiches are a bit miserly. The skinny smoked sausage, for instance, arranged awkwardly on an onion bun, is no great shakes. But the sides and extras (chili con carne, queso and fresh chips, fried okra, vinegar slaw) make for a jolly experience in a place where families can be at ease. Heaters warm half of the patio, which is almost as big as the entire dining room and bar space, and there are good safety protocols in place. 2337 Main Street, Tucker, 678-691-7075 —CL

Scoville Hot Chicken
This brightly painted spot in a Sandy Springs strip mall does only one thing—fried hot chicken sandwiches with French fries—and does it extremely well. Made with tender, juicy breast meat, the sandwiches come in six spice levels ranging from “Not Spicy” to “Reaper,” which the restaurant claims has a blistering 1 million Scoville heat units—the scale used to rank hot peppers. (For comparison, a jalapeño ranges from 2,500 to 10,000 units.) Warning signs posted on the wall and floor caution that the Reaper could cause “stomach pain, sweating, hiccups,” and even “rare instances . . . of ‘thunderclap headaches’ that may require medical attention.” Yikes. But for lovers of spicy food, the “Hot” level is plenty. Don’t skip the coleslaw on top, which helps tame the heat, and consider springing for an extra container of creamy garlic aioli for the seasoned crinkle fries. The restaurant is optimized for takeout, with touchscreens to take your order and lemonade, tea, and a variety of cane sugar–based Stubborn Sodas on tap. (Go for the agave vanilla cream soda.) Word of Scoville Hot Chicken has spread, so if you’re going on a weekend night, think about ordering in advance online. 4959 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs —MW

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.

Serenbe is an even greater respite than chef Nicolas Bour imagined

Nicolas Bour
Nicolas Bour, one of the first chefs to cook at Serenbe, made a comeback a dozen years later.

Photograph by Heather Fulbright

The spelling of his first name betrays Chef Nicolas Bour’s origins. Even though he grew up in California and Canada and speaks English without an accent, Nic, as his peers call him, is more French than anything else. His father, a Parisian who came to the States to attend college, and his grandparents, born in Alsace and loyal to France during World War II, shaped who he is as a person and a cook.

Self-trained, as many of my favorite chefs are, he has taken a circuitous path. Not many people remember, but back in 2006, he was one of the first chefs to cook at the Farmhouse restaurant attached to the Inn at Serenbe, where, in late 2018, he made a felicitous return. Some restaurants are just restaurants. The Farmhouse, part of the agrarian and new-urbanism idyll developed by former Peasant Restaurants honcho Steve Nygren, is a special place. Because of its location (in the lightly wooded Chattahoochee Hills area southwest of Atlanta), its progressive architecture, its cultural programs, its working organic farm, and its stables and animal husbandry, Serenbe is a dream place to work for a chef with certain sensibilities. At 51, Bour is finally in the right place at the right time.

A versatile chef who’d cooked at Elizabeth’s on 37th Street in Savannah, he moved to Atlanta after Günter Seeger hired him at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in 1994. His pioneering restaurant in East Atlanta, Iris, was way ahead of its time in 2001, serving duck confit and beef carpaccio in a neighborhood that wasn’t as grown-up a dining destination as it is now. After he left East Atlanta, he took high-level chef roles at various upscale hotel properties, including in San Diego, but Bour was uneasy with the flashy California lifestyle that surrounded him. He had gotten married and had a daughter whom he didn’t want to grow up among the dominant contingent of rich kids.

In 2018, when Nygren offered him a job overseeing the various restaurants on the Serenbe compound and creating some new ones, he knew it was the ideal move for him and his family. As the executive chef for all Nygren-owned restaurants on the property (the Hill, the Farmhouse, and the latest, Halsa, a Scandinavian-inspired restaurant), Bour is happy talking every day to farmer Ian Giusto, who grows vegetables for him. He gets to cook on the line at the Farmhouse, which he calls his “baby.” He does fried chicken and biscuits for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Once a month, he puts up vast reserves of his beloved duck confit rubbed with salt, rinsed, and pressed with herbs, garlic, peppercorns, and star anise. The restaurant attached to the inn doesn’t have a million-dollar kitchen, but most of what it serves is local, farm-to-table, and, under Bour, more ambitious and French than before. The clientele, which now includes movie stars from the new studios in Fayette County as well as regulars among the roughly 1,000 Serenbe residents, gets to sit down to $60 New York strips, pistachio-crusted scallops, and roasted acorn squash stuffed with ratatouille.

Socially distanced tables are arranged inside or outdoors at the Farmhouse, where the porch and the open kitchen are among the most relaxing seating options. A new series of dinners pairs celebrity chefs and emerging voices. Seeger, for one, is planning a foraged dinner.

Bour couldn’t have anticipated when he took the job at Serenbe that the restaurant industry would be upended by a pandemic. But now, he’s even more grateful to have landed where he did; he can imagine no better respite—for him and, he hopes, his diners—from Covid-19’s many stressors.

This article appears in our February 2021 issue.

The verdict on 3 new Atlanta restaurants: Girl Diver, Ok Yaki, and the Chastain

Girl Diver
Green Curry Mussels at Girl Diver

Photograph by Andrew thomas lee

Girl Diver
Announced originally as a Vietnamese-Cajun seafood restaurant, Richard Tang’s new dining venue in Madison Yards looks a lot like his place in Inman Park, a Korean barbecue restaurant named Char: colorful, modern, bar-driven, and with plenty of covered outdoor seating. A mural with a terrifying brick-red octopus wrapped around a female pearl diver is a bit overwhelming in the small space. Some of the menu is devoted to expensive shareable seafood platters best suited for dining with a crowd, but there is much to praise about the seafood by the pound that includes boiled crawfish, lobster, and (a favorite of mine) tail-on shrimp with semidetached heads. The kitchen has many subtle ways to elevate dishes such as mussels in green curry, green papaya salad with shaved shrimp, braised pork belly with baby carrots, and saucy shaken beef. Don’t expect much that will feel Cajun or Vietnamese, but the mix of Chinese, Thai, and other dishes gathered from around Asia is well curated. Modernist twists, mostly perfect textures, and a clever menu of cocktails and sake recommend this new restaurant, especially with the great hospitality that is one of Tang’s many talents. 955 Memorial Drive, Reynoldstown, 404-525-2424

Ok Yaki
In the parking lot behind the Ormewood Park Hodgepodge Coffeehouse, I was looking at the new Ok Yaki when the Japanese word for “cute,” “kawaii,” popped into my mind. I was flooded with happy memories of the many snacky meals I associate with Osaka, a birthplace of okonomiyaki. The new Ok Yaki, an expansion of Corban Irby’s pop-ups at We Suki Suki, is as authentic a corner of Japan as exists in our city. The tiny, low-slung building, painted manga-style in cheerful tints of rose and turquoise unmistakably evokes Japanese culture. The food—mainly the okonomiyaki, which is a savory shredded cabbage pancake topped with dancing bonito flakes, seaweed, drizzles of Kewpie mayo, and soy—is an exciting addition to Moreland Avenue. Toppings such as shrimp, pork belly, tofu, and more are available for both the rich house specialty and the sauteed thin wheat noodles (yakisoba) sprinkled with bright-red pickled ginger. Handmade gyoza dumplings, Japanese curry, extra-large tonkatsu pork cutlets fried in panko crumbs, and an evolving roster of Osaka-style foods are well worth ordering. 714 Moreland Avenue, East Atlanta,
404-999-9254

The Chastain
No restaurant opened during the pandemic has come close to matching the level of excitement generated by the Chastain. Originally a humble country store converted into a rustic dining spot by Bill Daly in 1946, the Red Barn Inn was a hangout for the moneyed elite for decades. Becoming the Horseradish Grill in 1994, it channeled the South under chef Scott Peacock. Now, the newly renovated barn feels modern and swank under new ownership. Christopher Grossman, who formerly headed the kitchen of Atlas, is a chef you can trust implicitly. The place may function as a cafe, serving Brash coffee, housemade pastries, and quiches during the day, but come dinnertime, it’s all about foie gras (with sweet potatoes and peppercorn meringue), butter-poached lobster (in and around tender agnolotti with chanterelles and sugar snap peas), and other deluxe vittles. The presence of witty (and less expensive) treats—such as a crisp turkey wing (Buffalo-style with blue cheese and hot sauces) and, less successfully, an unorthodox version of shrimp and grits—balances the seriousness of items ranging from lamb loin marinated in yogurt to a beautifully rendered Georgia mountain trout dusted with potato and bacon and plated on creamy greens. The highlight is the nontraditional but obscenely crisp and tender profiteroles filled with Chantilly cream, garnished with a transparent sugar tuile and just the right amount of salted caramel. The wine list has depth and charm, and cocktails play a major role. 4320 Powers Ferry Road, Chastain Park, 404-257-6416

This article appears in our March 2021 issue.

The verdict on 3 new Atlanta restaurants: Nick’s Westside, Mukja Korean Fried Chicken, and Elsewhere Brewing

Nick's Westside
Bouillabaisse at Nick’s Westside

Photograph by Martha Williams

Nick’s Westside
Nick Leahy’s splashy, side-by-side restaurants, Aix and Tin Tin, were known for great wines and for dishes honoring the South of France. Last fall, almost two years after they opened, they morphed into something more casual and pandemic-appropriate. It feels strange to me that the new concept, Nick’s Westside, serves burgers and fries in what used to be such a fancy setting. Of course, the double-stacked Westside burger, dripping with white American cheese and garnished with jalapeños, caramelized onions, and a brilliant aioli, is very much a luxury product.

Leahy still offers his bouillabaisse (Saturday only, I am afraid), brimming with fish, shrimp, scallops, and mussels in a saffron-scented broth. His rouille (I am particularly fond of the aioli variation), meant to be slathered on the bread served with the bouillabaisse, is appropriately garlicky but could use stronger, hotter spices. A local kale “Caesar” with biscuit crumbs, Parmesan, and capers hardly qualifies as a Caesar, but the (inexpensive!) addition of house-cured salmon upgrades the dish to a tasty, light meal. Dessert will change with the seasons, but it always will be worth ordering here; I got a shapely and insanely rich persimmon upside-down cake soaked in caramel and topped with thin slices of fresh persimmon. I’d recommend this pastry kitchen to anyone.

The wine list is still brilliantly curated and the lineup of cocktails equally trustworthy. And though Nick’s doesn’t feel like a simple neighborhood restaurant and bar, it does just fine as a more glamorous one. 956 Brady Avenue, Westside, 770-838-3501

Mukja Korean Fried Chicken
Korean fried chicken, extra crispy and usually served with sweet and spicy sauces, used to be confined to the suburbs. In the past, I regularly traipsed to Duluth, Suwanee, and Doraville in search of the ideal pairing of Korean beer and beer-friendly Korean food—but I used to worry about the trip back. Mukja (“enjoy food,” in Korean) in the heart of Midtown makes it easy to grab a favorite brew (Hite or Cass, in my case) and such treats as said chicken.

The restaurant, opened by two friends who hatched this dream in college, is modern and clamorous, like a typical Korean beer hall. It doesn’t face Peachtree but is easy to find across from Sweet Hut. The chicken pieces, heavily crusted and a little too hard-fried for my taste, are satisfactory rather than stellar; the wings are mostly batter. But the house sauces (Korean sweet heat, garlic and soy, and honey butter) are fun for dipping. The bird comes in three sizes—quarter, half, or whole, conveniently cut into pieces—and while there may not be as many sides here as the more typical suburban spot, you can choose between thin waffles stuffed with a paste of scallions, garlic, and jalapeños; Korean loaded fries; mac and cheese with kimchi, smoked bacon, and smoked Gouda; and something typically Korean called the Standard (green cabbage, white onion, sweet corn, gochujang) that’s the best of the lot. 933 Peachtree Street, Midtown, 404-855-5516

Elsewhere Brewing
This brewery and Argentine grill is one more reason to head to the Beacon in Grant Park, an already superfun development that’s mostly about eating and drinking. With its cheerful mural and hospitable patio, Elsewhere is a far cry from the usual dark and masculine atmosphere one associates with beer culture.

Even if you don’t drink beer or eat meat, the trip would be worthwhile because of the restaurant’s magical empanadas. Filled with wild mushrooms and dry-aged mozzarella; smoked trout, confit leeks, and green peas; or, the most typically Argentinean of the lot, Kobe beef and roasted onions, they easily boast the most perfect, flaky dough in Atlanta. Like pretty much everything on the menu, including the asado mixed grill (chicken, steak, chorizo, guava shrimp, and fries) and the easy-to-love choripan sandwich (locally made mild Argentinean chorizo on house bread), the empanadas come with chimichurri sauce (lots of parsley, garlic, and oil) for a fresh kick.

You may not share my beer preferences—I loved some and hated others—but I can vouch for the fresh taste of the German-style Hefeweizen (Promised Marvels), the dark Czech lager (Gest), and even the Marzen beer (Zicke Zacke) that I couldn’t stand. 1039 Grant Street, Grant Park, 770-727-0009

This article appears in our February 2020 issue.

An ode to the Atlanta restaurants and bars we lost during the pandemic

Don Quixote Atlanta closed
Allen Suh outside Donquixote on Buford Highway, shortly before he closed the restaurant for good.

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

Restaurants open and close all the time. With few exceptions, I don’t pine for those that have run their course for more or less standard reasons. Some are the victims of greedy landlords squeezing the life out of tenants who may not be able to find an equally advantageous location. Others fail to adapt to a fast-evolving city or lose a chef essential to the restaurant. Most peter out in a way we barely notice.

That was then. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many places and their skeleton crews have been hanging onto whatever semblance of normalcy they can. Rather than mass extinction, ours is now the age of moribund restaurants, ghostly places where we line up or idle at the curb to collect food that reminds us of better times.

This is a year when too many beloved spots had to shut down for reasons that transcend the standard ones (and for reasons that, at this time last year, would have been unimaginable), and I fear many more will follow. Business closures are human tragedies, leaving behind bereft owners and empty-pocketed employees. What has affected me disproportionately this year is the vanishing of young restaurants that seemed so promising.

Cardinal and its companion market, Third Street Goods, were a fascinating combo of cocktail den and Southern grocer powered by female energy; they have left us way too soon. No more nesting among artists and low-key hipsters clutching CBD aperitifs and grazing on simple yet clever noshes. I had high hopes, too, for Hazel Jane’s. (I never even got to publish the column I wrote about the place; the virus was that swift.) The menu played second fiddle to the natural wines that are the owners’ true passion, but the pandemic dinners to-go were similarly top-notch.

When the couple who opened La Calavera, a Latin-inflected bakery originally located in Decatur, had to shutter their business shortly after a move to Kirkwood, I felt sorry for them and myself. No more rough loaves studded with healthy grains, no more perfect bolillos on this side of town. I didn’t even have the time to revisit Donquixote, a long-lived and ever eccentric Korean restaurant on Buford Highway, after it had been taken over by hipster chef Allen Suh, whose career I have followed with rapt interest for years. Suh’s decision to close the decades-old institution only months after he took it over was heartbreaking.

The bad news kept coming. I am sadder about the loss of Krog Bar, the first and last of the true tapas bars, opened by force-of-nature Kevin Rathbun in a minuscule space across from Krog Street Market (back when KSM was an empty husk of a warehouse), than I am about the closure of the chef’s eponymous restaurant. I’ve long considered Rathbun’s to be a lovable haunt of the Inman Park gentry with a dated kitchen. All the same, I will miss them both.

The last location of Octane, started on the Westside by an enterprising couple who were ahead of the coffee trends, devolved over the years into barely more than a study hall (it was purchased by Birmingham-based Revelator in 2017), but its impact on the neighborhood can’t be stressed enough, and I will always cherish the memories of cultural events there fueled by caffeine. Someone asked me recently where to buy a box of special chocolates as a gift, and I could only think of Cacao, the ultrarefined bean-to-bar chocolatier, uncomfortably aware that its jewel box of a store had closed in Virginia Highland.

It’s a travesty, and not just for Georgia Tech, that the Canteen, the charming micro–food hall from the owners of the General Muir, is no longer around to offer good bagels, fat burgers, and inexpensive cocktails under one roof.

A few blocks north of the Canteen, Shaun Doty’s the Federal functioned like a secret French restaurant, a sexy Midtown room almost untouched by the light of day, where steak frites and game dishes could be a romantic indulgence. Aix, splashier and more obviously ambitious, didn’t nail as many of its “elevated” Provençal dishes as I’d hoped, but what a great spot it was to hang out with a big wine glass full of Champagne at the bar. And what a shame to have two fewer French restaurants in a town already low on them.

I’m not too bothered by the demise of Horseradish Grill near Chastain Park, knowing that its closure does not spell the end of this historic location (once known as the Red Barn Inn and decorated with horse blankets). A multimillion-dollar investment will transform it into the Chastain, helmed by Christopher Grossman, who ran Atlas in Buckhead with such aplomb. At least fine-dining isn’t totally dead. That said, it is down one of its most remarkable innovators: Staplehouse has transitioned from a trailblazing, tasting-menu restaurant to a market offering impeccably crafted pantry staples, beer and wine, and to-go meals, snacks, and cocktails. I support whatever needs to happen to keep Staplehouse afloat—and I hope that, one day soon, it can pivot back to its (unstuffy) fine-dining roots.

A few doors down from Staplehouse, there’s now a notable and regrettable void. I am in mourning for the loss of the wonderful DJ booth of the Sound Table and the presence of king-of-the-hipsters Karl Injex wearing his signature Kangol and introducing everyone to his talented bartenders. (I can only hope that there will remain at that site a regular rotation of the murals like the ones that have famously graced the Sound Table’s massive exterior wall.) [Editor’s Note: Sadly, on December 2, after this article was published, the western wall known for its large murals collapsed, possibly due to nearby construction.] In a different vein, the closing of the Tavern at Phipps after 28 years is a significant blow to a more old-fashioned milieu of wealthy, clean-cut singles who appreciated the loud music on the terrace.

I’d like to end this elegy to restaurants we have lost by honoring a family in Suwanee that has kept its kitchen running through the crisis despite the tragic death of their matriarch and chief tamale maker. Long live La Mixteca, and may Rosa Hernandez Lopez, a victim of the long-range toll on the body of Covid-19, rest in peace in the love of her daughters and her many fans.

This article appears in our December 2020 issue.

What’s next for restaurant criticism?

Southern Belle Atlanta
My review of Southern Belle was the last that I published before the pandemic.

Photograph by Martha Williams

I haven’t set foot in a restaurant since my prepandemic birthday dinner at Kimball House in early March. In the months since, I’ve become surprisingly comfortable with cooking three meals a day for myself, many of them based on what I can pull from my garden. Sitting alone at the gigantic, industrial-style table where I eat (and which now doubles as a charging station for all my suddenly indispensable devices), I wonder what happened to the woman whose appetite for restaurant food was insatiable, the one who collected Michelin-starred meals all over the globe and couldn’t hear other people gloat about their culinary discoveries without burning with envy.

Am I such a wimp now? While I no longer wipe down every banana that comes into the house with isopropyl alcohol or toss groceries into the freezer to decontaminate them, I am far from relaxed about exposing myself to a deadly virus by entering into a renewed relationship with indoor dining. And why would I want vulnerable humans to prepare and serve food just so that I can indulge? (I’m also trying to square that sentiment with the knowledge that many of these workers—and the restaurants that employ them—conversely might not be able to financially survive without willing diners.) As someone who grew up a motherless child with an anarchist father, I knew nothing about restaurants until I went to a Greek taverna off the Boulevard Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter of Paris when I was almost 20. I can easily revert to a lifestyle of going without.

Very few of my fellow food critics nationwide are publishing rated restaurant reviews. Whether or not we sneak out for meals in ad hoc outdoor settings, we know that expressing our candid opinion (“the ribs were gristly and undercooked” or “the sandwiches are overpriced”) is now a no-no. True restaurant reviews analyze a complex and potentially stable operation. But there currently is no potential for stability. We critics are mindful of the historical and social context into which restaurants fit, and we compare each new place to what else is on the scene at the moment and emerging more widely. There isn’t enough long-range data to do any of that now.

Yes, some new places have opened. Some fine-dining chefs have turned to smoking meats or frying chickens to keep their business going. Pop-ups are mushrooming. But have I heard of a concept likely to bring back the joy of dining out? Such a concept, for me, is all but impossible these days. Sitting in some parking lot, paying the same price as in the before times, when groovy decor and access to indoor restrooms were part of the deal, doesn’t make emotional sense. Also, I would have to rebuild a crew of dinner dates willing to share my space, and I don’t know where to start with that.

When I can feel truly safe eating out again, I intend to return to my basic mission as a critic: to deliver a highly opinionated yet fair representation of a given restaurant based on several visits. That mission shouldn’t change. But I also will return to criticism with renewed empathy for how difficult it is to keep a restaurant alive.

This article appears in our November 2020 issue.

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