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Christiane Lauterbach

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Chef Günter Seeger returns to Atlanta from New York—with a plan for a new style of restaurant

Gunter Seeger
Chef Günter Seeger plans to open a new style of restaurant in Atlanta.

Photograph courtesy of Gunter Seeger NYC

Born in Germany’s Black Forest to a family of produce brokers, chef Günter Seeger helped put Atlanta on the global gourmet map when he arrived at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in 1986, a European Michelin star already in hand. In 1997, he opened his jewel-box restaurant, Seeger’s, which garnered an international reputation for its luxe, creative dishes in the decade it operated from West Paces Ferry Road.

Before Seeger’s, farm-to-table dining didn’t truly exist here. Chefs didn’t have special relationships with growers and producers; they didn’t focus on organic sources, and no one has come close to the stunning clarity of his often deceptively simple-looking dishes. While Seeger has spent the past decade in New York (operating an even more progressive eponymous restaurant from 2007 to 2009 that earned him another Michelin star before shifting gears to consulting), he recently announced a move back to Atlanta, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeger is planning to open a revolutionary restaurant concept designed for a new world. As he recently told the AJC, “it can’t just be a restaurant anymore. . . . It has to be a multi-level experience.” 

He returns to a very different city, one that embraces the practices he always embodied: the importance of local, organic produce and creating food that simultaneously delights the senses and nurtures the body. Seeger, who just turned 70, will be an elder statesman in a sea of young chefs—a scene full of great ideas but with few mentorship opportunities. Unlike embattled New York, which he describes as “Chernobyl,” Atlanta is a place more ready and able to accept new ways of doing business.

Below, Seeger discusses his decision to leave New York, the future of restaurants, and his resurrected role as an Atlanta chef.

It’s certainly a surprise that you’re coming back to Atlanta after more than a decade in New York. What factored into that decision?
We originally came down to celebrate [our daughter] Alessandra’s birthday with the grandparents. [Seeger’s wife, Leslie, is from Atlanta.] But then things started to get bad [in New York with the COVID-19 pandemic], we thought, Let’s stay a little bit longer here and see what happens. Then, things got really bad. I was working on a big project—overseeing culinary amenities for a new building owned by the Trinity Church [in Manhattan]—but the church decided to postpone the project for almost a year.

This is a very serious place we’re in. It’s not going to be business as usual [as the pandemic ends], and I think we have to be open to that. It’s just like how September 11 changed the world of traveling. It will never go back to where it was.

Looking at that, and as much as I love New York, I also have two young children [Alessandra, 8, and Katarina, 2]. And visiting Atlanta [reminded me] that as exciting as New York is, you compromise a lot. Seeing all the beautiful trees here again, it was like, wow. It’s amazing. It will also be a much better place to raise our children.

I will always do something food related, but it doesn’t need to necessarily be a small restaurant. A brick-and-mortar restaurant, in my opinion, is not a good business model anymore. It needs to be designed around the new world after.

What is the situation like in New York right now?
Everybody has jumped in now to help feed people, because there is really a need for that, but I don’t think anybody has a real plan for [what comes next]. What will be so hard for these restaurants in New York is when, economically, you’re already stretched to the limit because of the [high cost of doing business]. Then the health departments will have new restrictions. Can we go back to 100 percent—or at least 80 percent—occupancy? That’s not going to happen for a long time. I think restaurants have to look for some alternatives.

I’m totally for reopening the [economic] markets. We can’t just close ourselves up for six months. The outcome would be worse than the epidemic we’re living with. I think we have to be very careful about that and be very responsible, but it definitely will change the world.

I would imagine that 50 percent of all restaurants will not re-open. There’s just not enough income, and the costs are too high. This is going to be quite a challenge. On the other hand, it will create new opportunities.

The farm-to-table scene here has increased dramatically since you left. The Atlanta that you are re-entering is kind of your dream Atlanta.
I have a lot of the national resources [for getting fresh produce in New York], but I also went four times a week to the Union Square Market, basically picking everything for the restaurant myself. There are some really good people, but it has become very commercially driven, and, of course, it’s very difficult for these farmers because some have to drive four or five hours just to come to the market. How pristine our products are in Atlanta, there is no comparison. I’m super excited about this, because I still know most of these people, and I think we can continuously to work with them and also market and use their [produce].

Atlanta is filled with young chefs. As someone who has been in the restaurant industry for five decades, what do you see as your role?
What I’d really like to do is get a little more into understanding the [mind of Atlanta’s] young chefs, maybe participate in their world and support them in what they’re doing. Maybe this is a new era for me, too. Hopefully I can contribute something to that world in Atlanta.

Do you plan to be based in Buckhead again?
No. My restaurant in New York wasn’t on the Upper East Side, either. If you open a new business, it has to economically work. We also need to become more original and authentic. There’s just too many restaurants just from yesterday. Authenticity and originality is, for me, something exciting. That also needs a structure around it and an area around it to support that.

Beyond the pandemic, what are some of the challenges you see right now in terms of what we’re eating and how we approach food?
Cuisine has grown into almost like a Lego cuisine. It’s just too manufactured. Even in high-end restaurants, it’s like totally manufactured food. There has to be less manufacturing. We also need to get over [how visual food has become]. Why are we trying as chefs to be painters or some artists in some ways? I don’t consider myself an artist. I want to be an extension of the land and the farmer and the product. [I want to take] what comes out of the ground, beautifully grown by the farmer, and transport it in a beautiful way, keeping the essence of it. It’s still very beautiful when it’s on your plate, and you feel good. It’s [about] well-being. How do I feel after my dinner?

We need shops like Evergreen Butcher and Baker now more than ever

Evergreen Butcher and Baker
Emma and Sean Schacke in front of their Kirkwood butcher shop and bakery

Photograph by Martha Williams

In 2018, Emma and Sean Schacke bought a quaint, free-standing building next to Kirkwood’s police station and across from its public library; the former under-the-table casino with an upstairs nightclub had been vacant for 40 years. In that building, the couple would hatch their dream: Sean would butcher whole animals; Emma would bake hearty, European-style sourdough loaves and pastries. Their long hours would be eased by the fact that they’d live upstairs.

They opened Evergreen Butcher and Baker in September 2019 and drew a steady stream of customers enamored of their mind-blowing croissants and astoundingly good brisket.

Six months later, in mid-March, their little operation became more urgent. The Schackes now bake extra bread each day to offer a free loaf to those suffering through the COVID-19 crisis—particularly members of the temporarily shuttered bar and restaurant industry. And with a few adjustments to their hours and new safety procedures (such as asking people to queue up outside), the Schackes remain committed to running a quality, community-minded shop—one that I find more necessary than ever.

Evergreen continues to source its meat and flour from local farmers and millers who’ve seen other buyers close up shop. The gratitude is mutual. “Having a local food system and supply chain to rely on is the only reason we are able to continue to provide for the community,” Emma told me.

Even before the coronavirus onslaught, I felt emotional about Evergreen’s old-fashioned sourdough pain de campagne, shapely baguettes, rustic apple cakes, and savory pastries, including sausage rolls and pot pies. Here, you can find such comforts as housemade headcheese, souse, and scrapple. The meats, sourced from nearby farms, are appropriately rosy or crimson, with cuts such as certified Angus Picanha (a top sirloin popularized by Brazilian steakhouses) and gloriously thick and fresh pork chops with a shortened bone.

Sean, who is from Athens, worked as a chef for 12 years in Atlanta and Nashville before becoming a butcher at the renowned Publican Quality Meats in Chicago; Emma, originally from Toronto, moved to Chicago when she was 19 to attend the French Pastry School and moved around every year or so, working in pastry and baking bread, learning from other bakers. Both now consider Atlanta home. And, yes, they live above the shop.

Evergreen Butcher and Baker
Loaves of Emma’s exemplary miche and sourdough

Photograph by Martha Williams

I’m crazy about the lovely aesthetics of the meticulously restored building, with its dark green and black facade. The tiny inventory speaks to my soul. There isn’t too much, but it’s enough. Sean gets half a cow a week and at least one whole pig. Standing in the middle of the floor behind a small counter, he goes about his butchering in a clean apron while his wife feeds folded fresh dough into a contraption called a sheeter to make the kind of laminated, flaky croissants I now can’t imagine living without.

Breads such as flattish einkorn loaves and an especially dense, faintly sour German-style Vollkornbrot bring joyful sustenance to my household. I hungrily buy the brown eggs the store gets from Darby Farms in North Carolina. If I need orange marmalade or lard by the tub, I trust the products, made in-house, will be more exceptional than any I can find elsewhere.

In today’s uncertain times, these are the pleasures I need.

This article appears in our May 2020 issue.

Restaurant hacks can make a good dish even better

Atlanta restaurant hacks
Taqueria del Sol’s refried-bean enchilada with pork green chili is better when topped with spicy turnip greens.

Photograph by Martha Williams

Because of my role as a restaurant critic, I wouldn’t dream of asking a restaurant to tweak a dish, serve the sauce on the side, or modify anything at all—lest I compromise my fiercely neutral professional taste. If you go out to dinner with me, you pretty much eat what is in front of you and keep your mouth shut.

But do I ever mess around with my food by, for example, ordering and crumbling a few slices of bacon over a vegetarian lasagna? You bet I do. At White Tiger in Athens, I especially love the vegetarian egg scramble with various brassica, but, like chef Ken Manring, I think it tastes better if you add some sausage to it. I don’t want to encourage you to sneak a bit of chopped barbecued pork from next door into the noodles you’re about to eat at an Asian restaurant (a true story confessed to me by a colleague), but a bit of culinary creativity on the part of a diner can make a good dish better—or at least acceptably different. I have learned, for example, that you can tone down some of the spicy curries at an Indian restaurant by ordering ras malai (a boiled milk dessert flavored with cardamom and rose water) and adding some to your incendiary savory course.

Buffets are an ideal way to create your own delicious mashups, but even regular restaurants can inspire ingenuity. You can easily replicate Dave Poe BBQ’s redneck lasagna (mac ’n’ cheese with a layer of Brunswick stew) at other barbecue joints. If you feel limited by the choice of condiments in a Vietnamese pho restaurant, try squeezing lime into some oily chili paste or sriracha to create a dipping sauce for the meatballs and brisket you fish out of the broth. I learn a lot by watching customers make their own sauces, even if it’s just adding a massive amount of black pepper to some sesame oil (which I’ve witnessed at hot pot restaurants and Korean barbecue spots).

I eat at Taqueria del Sol once or twice a week, and, in order not to get bored, I sometimes do things like lift chef Eddie Hernandez’s marvelous spicy turnip greens out of their pot liquor in order to distribute them on the surface of the refried-bean enchilada with pork green chili that I always order. I mush everything together into some weird, tasty stew and drink the turnip green broth on the side. Creativity has always been encouraged at Taqueria del Sol, where manager George Trussler ordered Mexican rice, spicy turnip greens, and ranchero beans so often for his staff meal that the soupy combo is now known as “the George” and is available as an off-menu item to in-the-know diners.

I can’t say that I approve of putting peanut sauce on a bacon cheeseburger (people do it routinely at Shake Shack) or imitating the stoners who wrap their burrito in a quesadilla at Chipotle. But I do appreciate the clever hacks that deliciously improvise on a restaurant’s good work.

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.

What does it mean to be a food critic without restaurants?

75 Best Restaurants in Atlanta: Kimball House
On my birthday earlier this month, I treated myself to a dozen oysters and a glass of Muscadet at Kimball House. Little did I know it would be one of my last restaurant meals for weeks, or maybe longer, as COVID-19 wreaks its havoc.

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Growing up a neglected child in France’s biggest city made me remarkably unsentimental. I don’t remember any birthday celebrations, much less cake, candles, and songs like the one we’re now supposed to sing while scrubbing our hands like surgeons.

This year, March 11 fell on a Wednesday, and I was going to be in Barcelona, where I’ve been eating for 20 years. I planned to visit my best friends, and we had two important reservations, one the day before and one the day after my birthday, in the kind of places food critics thrill for. Direkte Boqueria, a boundary-pushing eight-seat restaurant, and Estimar, one of the city’s most daring destinations for seafood, were going to be fun. 

Luckily, I canceled my trip at the eleventh hour, as COVID-19 began to tighten its grip on Europe. I instead decided I’d spend my birthday the way I usually do: alone and somewhat content. My children had bought me a plane ticket to Toronto for later in the month, and one was going to meet me there to explore the best Chinese restaurants in North America.

On March 11, I had begun to worry about the immediate future, but I wasn’t panicking yet. The sinkhole hadn’t sunk. A friend delivered a tall slice of rich birthday cake, and I scarfed it up, thinking it would be enough of a celebration. Suddenly, it was five o’clock, and I decided on a whim to treat myself to a dozen oysters and a glass of Muscadet at one of my favorite places. Kimball House wasn’t quite as packed as it normally is in the early evening, but the bar was comfortably full, with no sense of impending doom. Because there was only a single specimen left of one of the oysters I had ordered, a substitution was made, and I ended up with thirteen oysters on my platter instead of six pairs. Was it an omen?

Let’s seize the moment, I vaguely thought, and spontaneously ordered something pretty and elegant-sounding: midlings with caviar and a fine dice of crispy potatoes. I was delighted with my evening. The two young women next to me at the bar—a pediatric emergency care nurse and her spouse, who joked that she was “the world’s worst trophy wife—offered to buy me a glass of wine to celebrate my birthday. Nah, I’m fine, I said with a smile. I woke up the next morning and tweeted that we should all treat each meal as if it’s going to be our last. Then, more quickly than I had imagined, my life as a roving gourmet came to a sudden halt.

In the last 40 years, I can’t remember a week when I haven’t eaten out almost every day, sometimes twice a day. The Sunday before September 11, I was in New York for a visit and decided to take a cheap Chinatown shuttle to see my daughter in Providence, Rhode Island, which is where I was when I heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center. This is the end of the world as we know it, I remember thinking. I spent an anxious week in Providence, waiting to change my flight home. The food critic in me still needed to go out. I don’t remember where or what I ate. But I never stopped eating.

The current crisis is something entirely different, a much more direct attack on they very thing that has made my life not just exceptional but livable. Without restaurants, there is no place for me to seek the kind of comfort among strangers I’ve grown dependent on. Restaurants are closing for who knows how long, their workforce devastated, their owners and investors fearing ruin. Some are pivoting to take-out and/or delivery. They are emailing me about their gift cards or branded merchandise. These are the short-term solutions that will help keep some of them alive. But for me, restaurant food without the restaurant experience feels meaningless.

I didn’t become a food critic just because of the food. I wanted to be out in the world, mapping a city through its bodegas, cafes, and markets, wandering endlessly in search of mastery. Like most of my colleagues, I am interested in the stories behind the food. Whether or not I like a place is less important than where that place fits into the history and taxonomy of the city.

To relieve my anxiety about the current situation, I weed my garden compulsively. I also have a new routine involving slow, lonely drives through the neighborhoods I love. I look for signs of activity, unusual notices; the best I can hope for right now is to see school buses dropping off meals as opposed to picking up children, as is happening in several cities.

Do I want to go back to a world where I can eat a fried fish sandwich at a restaurant bar for lunch and sit down for a 12-course tasting menu for dinner on the same day? There’s nothing I want more. But by the time that happens, the spaces I inhabit and strangers I meet will have been transformed by the suffering they endured. And so will I.

I don’t even like snacking at home—why should I at a restaurant?

Buckhead Diner’s homemade potato chips
A totally acceptable snack: Buckhead Diner’s homemade potato chips

Photograph by Martha Williams

Sometimes I worry that I wasn’t a good mom. I didn’t carry little baggies of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish in my purse everywhere I went to ensure my children had constant nourishment. When I packed their lunchboxes, I included restaurant leftovers, fruit leathers from the health-food store, and the occasional animal crackers—but there were no cutesy snacks such as gummies pretending to be fruit or finger-staining cheese crunchies. For the most part, nonstop noshing wasn’t encouraged in my home.

I recently scoped out two new grocery stores not far from my neighborhood: the giant Publix on Memorial Drive and the two-story Kroger on Ponce de Leon Avenue. I walked the aisles to orient myself in the event I actually wanted to come back and shop. I was appalled by how much space was devoted to snacks: row after row of colorful cardboard boxes and pouches containing crunchy, salty, airy stuff absent nutritional value—air-popped and freeze-dried fruit and vegetables masquerading as convenience but meant to obliterate the need for disciplined eating.

My children must have heard a thousand times that, growing up in France, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a snack until, at the age of 22, I was gifted a bag of Fritos brought from America in a friend’s suitcase. After decades in the States, have I finally adjusted to a life of Doritos and potato chips? Mostly yes, but I hate myself for it. I still consider snacking the enemy of eating.

Restaurants have picked up on people’s ever-increasing need to graze and often include a “snacks” section—in addition to appetizers—on their menu. Only while sitting at a bar do I find it acceptable to eat such things as fried pork skins, tiny meatballs, roasted, salted chickpeas, and warm beer nuts. The same food eaten at a proper dinner table seems silly, even vulgar. Why would you want to eat a calorie-dense mini-meal before a proper one?

I’ve been known to make exceptions to my general ban on restaurant snacks. Always the pioneer, Hugh Acheson has for years devoted a portion of his menu to what he calls “snackies” at both Five & Ten and Empire State South; of course, no one in their right mind could mistake flatbread and cheeses, boiled peanuts, and little mason jars of Southern spreads for junk food. I’m also a supporter of the huge, housemade potato chips smothered with blue cheese at Buckhead Diner; the Frito pies at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, where the chili is poured directly into a branded bag of corn chips; the choriquesos (small, deep-fried quesadillas with a layer of chorizo slapped over the cheese and a dab of tomatillo salsa on top) at the new Supremo Taco to-go stand on Memorial Drive; and the “Crispy Chicharrónes from the Farm” (pork, beef, chicken, and veggie chicharrónes with Tajín-seasoned ranch) at Joey Ward’s ultrasnacky new restaurant, Southern Belle.

On the whole, though, I prefer to jump into a meal with a pleasantly empty stomach.

This article appears in our March 2020 issue.

Review: Southern Belle, from a former Gunshow chef, offers a modern take on the South

Southern Belle Atlanta
Vietnamese Grilled Pork Belly for Two

Photograph by Martha Williams

The name of Chef Joey Ward’s new restaurant, two doors down from the Plaza Theatre, may lead you to expect something swankier and more traditional than what you’ll actually find. Southern Belle, more serious than a bar but less formal than a typical restaurant, is a fun, cocktail-forward hangout with smart but playful small plates. (Ward’s other restaurant, Georgia Boy—the prix-fixe, chef-table/speakeasy affair in the back of Southern Belle—is another beast; more about that here.) The names of these sibling (er, spousal?) restaurants might seem ironic, but they’re not. They allude to the identities of Ward, who was born in suburban Atlanta, and his wife, a former Miss Georgia and now attorney. Being in their early 30s, the Wards have only experienced the South as a modernizing region with a diverse population, a place where grits, fried chicken, and biscuits are no longer center stage—and that shows in Southern Belle’s menu.

Originally planned as a bar—until Emily Ward informed her husband that people would be more interested in eating his food than drinking his drinks—Southern Belle is ideally located to attract the next-generation clientele flocking to Ponce de Leon Avenue. Speaking of next-generation, initiatives such as running one of the first zero-food-waste kitchens in Atlanta are integral to the restaurant’s ethos.

There’s a connection between Southern Belle and Georgia Boy (some of the same prep and line cooks rotate between the two, keeping the energy fresh), but the fussiness of the latter’s 10- to 16-course menu feels like too much hoopla and arty technical virtuosity. I’m more attracted to the joyous informality of the more relaxed anteroom restaurant.

THE TEAM

Ward, an only child who started watching cooking shows because they came on just after Saturday morning cartoons, only ever wanted to be a chef. After a stint cooking at the Cherokee Town and Country Club, he attended the Culinary Institute of America and honed his skills at places as varied as the St. Regis and Woodfire Grill, where he became Kevin Gillespie’s sous-chef. He followed his then boss to the bold, innovative Gunshow, where many folks, myself included, considered him the best member of Gillespie’s unusual, egalitarian team of chefs.

Southern Belle Atlanta
Ceviche Like in Peru

Photograph by Martha Williams

THE FOOD

Start your meal with the marvelous Crispy Chicharrones from the Farm (fried pork and chicken skins, thinly sliced beef tendons, and an amalgam of pureed vegetable odds and ends that Ward turns into chips, bound with tapioca). The various “skins” are served in a cute glass “sack” along with saltshakers filled with Doritos-inspired spices and are a fitting introduction to the chef’s whimsy. The blue crab Beau Monde, a gorgeous dip that comes with grilled bread and housemade benne crackers, is a proper ode to fresh seafood. The same can be said of the a la minute ceviche, inspired by versions Ward tried in Lima and crafted from line-caught flounder, microdiced sweet potato, avocado pearls, fermented chilies, and a coconut and lime leche de tigre poured tableside, topped with an almost weightless sweet-potato lattice.

A memorably fragrant, warm pumpkin bread with whipped feta and pumpkin seed-and-skin agrodolce is easily the most unusual “bread and cheese” presentation I can think of. That and many of the other intriguing small plates—spicy Sichuan sweet potatoes with tofu mayo, mellow chestnut gnocchi with shaved green apples, earthy sunchoke risotto with local mushrooms—will rotate off the menu with the seasons, but I have high hopes for whatever plant-based dishes succeed them.

In contrast, a classic French pâté en croute with dried cherry mostarda and truffled apple butter is clunky in this informal setting. More fitting is a linear arrangement of short ribs braised in Dr. Pepper and interspersed with layers of winter squash. Visually stunning and with a rich, caramelized taste of fermented black beans, it comes close to being an entree—but the only truly full-sized dish on the menu is the Vietnamese Grilled Pork Belly for Two, which comes with lettuce leaves, herbs, jalapeños, fried shallots, and a squeeze bottle of Kewpie mayo to assemble your own wraps.

There’s only one dessert, and it’s a masterpiece of ingenuity. The waiter will roll up to your table a Delta beverage cart with a hand-cranked KitchenAid mixer. For this far-from-stodgy sticky toffee pudding, you get to watch a show involving crushed Biscoff cookies, East Pole coffee, and bourbon sauce whisked by hand with liquid nitrogen. The result is a magically crumbly substance topped with ice cream and with a flavor reminiscent of the beloved cookie available on Delta flights.

THE DRINKS

Bartenders extraordinaire Greg Best, Paul Calvert, and Evan Millman from Ticonderoga Club have created for Southern Belle a cocktail menu as engaging and lighthearted as Ward’s food. A shimmery tequila Negroni called Now Starring occupies one end of the potency spectrum and the crazy seductive, zero-proof Smoke + a Pancake—served under a glass cloche filled with smoke—is at the other. Because they work behind a service bar instead of having to hold conversations with guests, the bar staff concentrates fiercely on their art.

THE VIBE

The Art Deco storefront, formerly a flower shop, is resplendent with authentic details (check out the penny-tile floor and the pressed-tin ceiling), and madcap Southern art hangs on exposed brick and deep maroon walls with robin’s egg baseboards. It feels like a modern yet vintage salon. The service bar sports a soffit on which “Bless Your Heart” is spelled in neon against a background of luminous magnolia wallpaper. The lighting is lovely, with signature touches such as vanity-looking mirrors with bulbs screwed directly in, and there are enough rugs and velvet-upholstered pieces to muffle the usual din of a busy restaurant. A hidden patio boasting a communal picnic table, a Big Green Egg, and live music is the centerpiece of what the restaurant calls “Sunday Funday.” It can be a grand time, especially when the weather cooperates.

THE VERDICT

This effortlessly fun cocktail salon and small-plates restaurant is a worthy destination for a few drinks and a meal of creative grazing—especially if you’re in search of a modern, youthful vision of the South.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
Very Good
1043 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Poncey-Highland
470-851-2752

What to drink

Southern Belle AtlantaNow Starring
An even stiffer riff on a Negroni casts tequila in the lead role.

Southern Belle AtlantaThe Golden Child
This pineapple-y tiki drink that mixes rum, mezcal, and sherry is on fire—literally (for a brief moment).

Southern Belle AtlantaSmoke + A Pancake
Who says a zero-proof cocktail can’t take center stage? No one puts Smoke + A Pancake in the corner.

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.

Review: At By George, Hugh Acheson brings some dazzle to downtown Atlanta’s dim dining scene

By George Review Atlanta Hugh Acheson interior
Inside By George

Photograph by Martha Williams

For more than a decade, ever since the 2009 closure of City Grill in the historic Hurt Building, there have been tragically few destination restaurants downtown. That’s a shame for many reasons, among them the abundance of architecturally significant spaces to house such restaurants. But with the recent restoration of the Candler Building, a 17-story blunt flatiron in the same style as the Hurt (which it predates), downtown is reclaiming some of its lost luster—and has gained one of its most posh restaurants in ages.

Completed in 1906 on a triangular piece of land at the northern edge of Woodruff Park, the Candler first served as the headquarters of Coca-Cola cofounder Asa Griggs Candler’s Central Bank and Trust—though it more recently gained acclaim as the scene of the bank robbery at the beginning of Baby Driver. Late last year, the building began a new chapter as a boutique hotel, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection. The entrance, rather modest for such a prestigious project, is on a side street, where an elegant, thin marquee leads to a double set of heavily polished original brass doors. The grand marble staircase with carved cherubs, the Beaux-Arts details, and the plush little lobby communicate a sense of old-world luxury that’s increasingly elusive downtown.

A short walk through the lobby brings you to By George, the restaurant named after the building’s original architects, George E. Murphy and George Stewart, and created for the hotel by celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. Like most hotel restaurants, By George serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it has been a blessing for downtowners in search of a luxe spot for happy hour. As for the food itself, Acheson has come up with a felicitous theme: classic French cuisine to match the grandeur of the location.

THE TEAM

Raised in Ottawa, Acheson followed his now ex-wife to Athens, where she was pursuing a graduate degree and, in 2000, opened what would become the college town’s best restaurant, Five and Ten. That was followed by a second Athens spot, the National, and Empire State South in Atlanta. As a competitor on the third season of Top Chef Masters and a judge for five successive Top Chef series, Acheson became widely known for his debating skills, charisma, and unibrow. The By George project appealed to him in part because, in his words, “many people haven’t experienced classic French cuisine.” To execute the menu he created, Acheson relies on chef Ian Quinn, who has fine-dining experience with Linton Hopkins’s Resurgens Hospitality Group and hotel experience with the Four Seasons in Washington D.C.

By George Review Atlanta Hugh Acheson chicken
The poulet roti wears thick slices of fresh, raw turnip like oversized jewelry.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

THE FOOD

If only everything at By George could achieve the gorgeous simplicity of the classic poulet roti (which is really a poussin, a smaller, younger chicken) and the pommes Dauphines. The roasted bird wears thick slices of fresh, raw turnip like oversized jewelry, and the fried potato puffs, served with sauce gribiche (similar to mayonnaise but made from cooked yolks and mixed with diced cornichons), provide pillowy comfort. Together, they make a meal at By George an irresistible affair.

The vichyssoise (a summer dish, to most) tastes more like buttermilk than leek and potato but makes up in delicacy what it lacks in authority. At the other end of the seasonal spectrum, the “gratin” section of the menu is a wonderfully wintry idea, with a choice of tangy Belgian endive, salsify (a root vegetable) with smoked oysters, or spaghetti squash with a blanket of Comte overlaid with crunchy breadcrumbs. The kitchen also knows its way around French lentilles du Puy and knife-cut steak tartare topped with shreds of fried leeks.

Alas, much of the rest of the food is still a work in progress. Some of that work is progressing in the right direction. The pot au feu, which early on was executed as a daube (France’s fancy version of a pot roast), has evolved into a properly brothy dish, the tender meat accompanied by a fetching melange of young carrots and waxy baby potatoes briefly simmered in the rich, slow-cooked broth, all of it served in an elegant, oval copper pan.

Almost everything I tried multiple times changed from one visit to the next—and not always for the better. An appetizer of blue crab and celeriac in creamy remoulade was decadently effortless on one visit and wildly (and inappropriately) spicy on the next.

I also have a hard time trusting a kitchen that sends limp fries to the table or calls a squishy foie gras mousse a terrine. And when a massive wedge of pâté en croute with bitter greens and porcini dijon hit the table with a thud next to a far too dainty plate of minuscule steamed Sapelo Island clams on a film of nearly invisible pastis broth, the erratic scale of the dishes confused me. Grilled langoustines bristling with legs and intimidating little beady eyes hardly merit their price tag (a stiff $36), not to mention the effort it takes to rip the not especially flavorful flesh from their shells. Steak Diane, requested medium rare but arriving near raw, was served with a thin potato puree and a mildly alcoholic sauce; it may not be the ultimate in nostalgic Continental cuisine, but at least it won’t foul your palate the way a leathery rendition of calf’s liver does.

Nicole Bernier’s pastry and bread kitchen can be as uneven as much of the rest of the menu. There are wide variations in the execution of her deeply caramelized tarte Tatin (which sometimes achieves a heavenly texture and sometimes doesn’t), and her Paris Brest with hazelnut cream is occasionally stale. But her creme brulee, which hides a smooth custard under a wonderfully thin crust of torched sugar, is consistently perfect.

By George Review Atlanta Hugh Acheson Bar
The bar at By George

Photograph by Martha Williams

THE DRINKS

Acheson’s longtime, trusty, nationally renowned beverage team, the daring sommelier Steven Grubbs and innovative cocktail maven Kellie Thorn, make regular appearances at the restaurant, and they’ve expertly steered the near-flawless bar program. The drinks based on French spirits such as cognac, Calvados, and Pineau des Charentes fortified wine are beguiling in range and composition, and the wine list, mostly French and full of surprises, highlights interesting small producers of such rarities as mature Muscadets, Loire Valley light-bodied Bourgueuils, and lesser known Beaumes de Venise.

THE VIBE

Located in Candler Building’s former bank hall, a cavernous space punctuated by massive, gray-veined marble columns, By George could have been intimidating. Yet the dining room, whose somewhat staid decor would benefit from a little more glamour and warmth, nonetheless manages to comfortably occupy the outsized room. The immense windows on one end and, on the other, the well-lit, vintage-looking bar help tame the space.

THE VERDICT

Downtown needs a restaurant like By George, one where the business-casual set can entertain clients, hang with friends, or just unwind at the bar. Food enthusiasts, on the other hand, may be less excited about By George’s high-priced French classicism. Still, Acheson’s concept befits the historically significant structure it occupies—and By George is an indisputably regal addition to the neighborhood.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
Very Good
127 Peachtree Street, downtown
470-851-2752

What to Drink

By George Review Atlanta Hugh Acheson Rhum Agricole DaiquiriRhum Agricole Daiquiri
If you want classic simplicity, order this mix of rhum agricole, sugar, and lime.

By George Review Atlanta Hugh Acheson Inside KickInside Kick
If you’re seeking spice, get this blend of cognac, cranberry, maple, lemon, ginger, and cardamom.

By George Review Atlanta Hugh Acheson La Bonne LongueLa Bonne Longue
Want something refreshing? Go for gin, Calvados, Chartreuse, spiced honey, lime, and sparkling cider.

This article appears in our March 2020 issue.

How to find the best cocktails in Atlanta—and what to avoid

Aziza cocktails
Demario Wallace of Aziza puts the finishing touch on the Bird and the Maccabees, a mix of pisco, Campari, pineapple, and labneh.

Photograph by Martha Williams

The first cocktail I ever drank was at the top of the Champs-Élysées. As an 18-year-old passionately interested in the taste of all things, I walked to splashy Le Drugstore, now in its sixth decade, and sat at the counter by myself. “I’ll have the Pimm’s Cup,” I said, without the faintest idea of what was coming my way. It was summer, and I remember being struck by the coolness and beauty of that tall, icy glass; the dark amber, mildly alcoholic liquid tasting of cucumber and fruit; the clinking of the cubes and the feeling of sophistication, of who I wanted to be.

I’ve had much experience with cocktails, exhilarating and otherwise, in the decades since. And I’ve realized that, for me, there are only three kinds: classic, magic, and a waste of money.

When ordering a classic cocktail, consider the genre of the restaurant or bar. You definitely want a martini or a Gibson at Bones and a Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s, not the other way around. Save the Bellini for Italy, and drink margaritas only in places that squeeze their own juice and have a great choice of tequilas. What is wrong with bartenders who want to put their own twist on something as timeless as an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan, a Sazerac, or a Negroni? Nothing, as long as they don’t usurp the name.

When it comes to creative cocktails, some bartenders are far more talented than others. You probably already know the names of the city’s most seasoned magicians, bold and inventive practitioners such as Greg Best, who revolutionized Atlanta’s cocktail game a dozen years ago at Holeman & Finch and now owns Ticonderoga Club with two other top bartenders; the unflappable Miles Macquarrie of Kimball House and Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits, whose seasonal creativity and mastery of absinthe have no equal; Mercedes O’Brien, who dazzles with daring, textured, and layered drinks, formerly at Gunshow and now at Cold Beer; Kellie Thorn, who has been creating low-proof, high-intensity, beguiling drinks for all of Hugh Acheson’s restaurants, including the latest, By George.

Once a rarity, female teams such as Kathryn DiMenichi and Holli Medley at Cardinal and Faielle Stocco and Katie McDonald at Banshee are mixing some of the finest drinks in town. A new talent to watch is Demario Wallace, who leans on the Middle East with ingredients such as orange flower, resinous herbs, sumac, and yogurt to great effect at the newish Israeli restaurant Aziza in Westside Provisions District.

Aziza cocktails
The Bird and the Maccabees at Aziza

Photograph by Martha Williams

If Paper Crane Lounge (above Staplehouse) and Himitsu (the Umi-adjacent, reservation-by-approval speakeasy) aren’t in your budget, you can turn to a new trend: high-octane and high-quality canned cocktails, available from two local companies. Post Meridiem’s smooth Mai Tai and its vodka gimlet with lemongrass deliver instant and effortless class to your dinner party or tailgating spread. And Tip Top Proper Cocktails, whose recipes were crafted by Macquarrie, manages to capture the brilliance of an Old Fashioned in a can. The result is equal parts classic and magic.

This article appears in our February 2020 issue.

Review: Chirori is ambitious about Japanese food—and even more ambitious about sake

Chirori Atlanta Takashi Otsuka front and center behind the counter
Takashi Otsuka front and center behind the counter

Photograph by Martha Williams

When Takashi Otsuka opened his Home Park ramen restaurant Wagaya in 2015, the path he chose was a relatively easy one. Ramen was becoming wildly popular, his mostly student clientele loved Wagaya’s low price point and casual vibe, and he was able to expand two years later with a second location in Emory Village.

With his new restaurant, Chirori, Otsuka now embarks on a different, more complicated path. Unlike other notable Japanese places such as long-timer Nakato on Cheshire Bridge, luxe Tomo and Umi in Buckhead, and lively Shoya Izakaya in Doraville, Chirori was conceived primarily as a place to experience sake. Even though it serves some of the same food as those splashy sushi bars and that riotous izakaya pub, the central idea here is to explore sake’s full potential, including its ability to match with a variety of ingredients not commonly found in Japanese cuisine, such as prosciutto, blue cheese, tomatoes, chocolate, and strawberries (all of which make an appearance on the menu).

The result is part high-end sake bar and part intimate, robata-style restaurant (which emphasizes traditional Japanese charcoal-grilled seafood), with a dash of multicultural small plates. If it sounds a little all over the board, it is. But Chirori also is an exciting place to eat—one that embraces a style of dining many Atlantans haven’t yet experienced.

Chirori Atlanta Cracked king-crab legs with sake pairing
Cracked king-crab legs with sake pairing

Photograph by Martha Williams

THE TEAM

Born in the Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo, Otsuka knew no English when he came to the United States at age 18. Back in Japan, he had wanted to study psychology but didn’t get into the school of his choice; in Atlanta, he ended up majoring in hospitality at Georgia State. Now 35, he considers himself as much a “restaurant producer” as a chef, and he takes his place manning the grill behind Chirori’s sleek counter.

THE DRINKS

Sake can be intimidating to Westerners. Outside of Japan, it’s commonly described as “rice wine,” despite being brewed like a beer. The strain of rice used, the place where it’s grown, and the degree to which it is polished all have bearing on the finished product, including whether it’s an easy-drinking honjozo, a premium ginjo, or a superpremium daiginjo. Adding to the confusion, the labels are written in Kanji, Hiragana, or Katakana.

The good news is that Chirori makes it easy to figure out which sake goes best with what food. Just look to the page across the menu from a given dish, where the corresponding sake is listed in pours starting at 1.5 ounces, with symbols indicating whether it should be served cold or warm. There are 20 or so sake pairings listed on the menu, selected by Otsuka, who trained as a sake sommelier.

Depending on your choice and the size of the pour, the cold sake—chilled to an ideal 37 or 38 degrees—is served in an appropriately sized wine glass or in tiny cups made of ceramic or glass. Warm sake (and some cold) is served in the restaurant’s namesake chirori: a small pot with an insert that allows the sake to be gently heated or cooled in warm water or an ice bath. If the precision of the sake service doesn’t entice you, the sakes’ poetic names might: Nightingale’s Garden, Dance of the Demon, Ogre Killer, Chrysanthemum Mist, Japanese Forgotten Spirit. The flavor profiles are poetic, too, with delicate aromas, earthy notes, and minimal sweetness.

Chirori Atlanta Live scallop risotto
Live scallop “risotto” comes with rice, soy sauce, a quail egg, and Parmesan, which you mix together.

Photograph by Martha Williams

THE FOOD

The lengthy menu is dense with options, which can make ordering a bit daunting—and can muddle the profound simplicity of the dishes themselves. (If you have the money and an adventurous spirit, you can skip the menu and opt for the $75 omakase.) But once you get past the awkward ordering and delve into the homestyle Japanese food, the journey brings many rewards. Robata dishes are grilled in front of the customer over a bed of white-ash Japanese binchotan charcoal that burns without flame and reaches fierce temperatures. Among the robata selections, you’ll find a pleasantly chewy, whole bronzed squid; cracked king-crab legs with tender flesh displayed; a delicately saline red-snapper collar; zen-like arrangements of mushrooms; and exquisite clam or oyster gratin with bechamel. Elsewhere on the menu, which is organized in categories including Green, Raw, Fried, Simmered, and Rice, you’ll find Japan’s classic steamed and savory custard (chawan mushi) with crab meat and, if you so choose, tongues of sea urchin, and Chirori’s star attraction: live scallop “risotto,” a deconstructed dish in which the bivalve is served on the half shell with rice, soy sauce, butter, quail egg, and Parmesan. You stir it all together in the shell over a tiny burner.

Other, less elegant dishes—fingers of nigiri sushi, sashimi arranged around a martini glass gushing dry-ice fumes, kushiyaki skewers—come across as desperate maneuvers to impress a more mainstream audience. But that effort is perhaps excusable, a safety net of sorts, given the leap Otsuka is attempting to make from one customer base (students) to another (more moneyed and experienced eaters).

THE VIBE

Located next to the original Wagaya location (in the space that formerly housed the unfortunately short-lived Better Half), Chirori is small and outfitted simply with blond wood, bright green accents, and bamboo pendants. The dining room is pleasant enough, but the best seat is at the counter, where you can enjoy the spectacle of the grill and the interaction between the chefs, both of which are crucial to the robata experience.

THE VERDICT

There is currently no better place in Atlanta to explore Japan’s national beverage than Chirori, where small-pour sake offerings sync with often delicious small plates that range from exquisitely traditional to brazenly modern.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
(very good)
349 14th Street, Home Park
470-427-3171
chiroriatlanta.com

What to drink (sake, sake, sake)

Chirori Atlanta SakeJapanese Forgotten Spirit
A fruity, semi-dry sake from the Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo, served in a chirori, a vessel that gently warms the liquid

Chirori Atlanta SakeNightingale’s Garden
A dry, fruity, and crisp superpremium daiginjo from Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture; available in Georgia only at Chirori

Chirori Atlanta SakeSeven Rice Fields
A juicy, acidic, semi-dry sake from the Saga prefecture, cooled in a chirori with an ice bath

This article appears in our February 2020 issue.

Is it Google-able? Memorable? Easy to pronounce? How to name a restaurant.

Naming a restaurant: Alons, Sushi Hayakawa, Kaiser's, Fox Bros, Gu's Bistro

Old-school

Like naming a baby, picking the right name for a restaurant can trigger high-level anxiety. How can you make sure the chosen moniker will properly sum up your progeny? Will the name be easy to pronounce and remember? Will it stand out from the others?

On top of that, restaurateurs must ask themselves: How Google-able is it? And what if it has been registered by an entity that will sue you if you try to infringe on its rights?

One reliable, old-fashioned solution: Go the eponymous route. Alon’s Bakery is named for Alon Balshan, Gu’s Kitchen (and Gu’s Dumplings) for Yiquan Gu, Kaiser’s Chophouse for Peter Kaiser, Sushi Hayakawa for Atsushi Hayakawa, Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q for twins Jonathan and Justin Fox, and, back in the day, Seeger’s for Günter Seeger and Pano’s and Paul’s for Pano Karatassos and Paul Albrecht.

Occasionally, though, a “junior” can cause confusion. In the early aughts, some people meaning to eat risotto at Sotto Sotto wound up at Soto, chef Sotohiro Kosugi’s sensational (and, sadly, now shuttered) Japanese restaurant.

Naming a restaurant: Red Bird, Poor Hendrix, Octopus Bar,

New-school

When it comes to newer restaurant names, the prevailing sentiment is to name them not as if they’re children but as if they’re animals. Poor Hendrix is both a beloved rescue pit bull and its owners’ delightful bar and restaurant in East Lake. Little Bear, a fluffy Great Pyrenees belonging to chef Jarrett Stieber and his wife, will soon have his name above the door of the couple’s Summerhill restaurant. Birds are in, too, as evidenced by Cardinal, a secret bar in Grant Park, and Redbird, Ross Jones and Zeb Stevenson’s restaurant in the former location of Bacchanalia. Cephalopods (8Arm and Octopus Bar) and game (The Deer and the Dove) also get a nod.

Today’s non-animal names are just as whimsical. Vietvana sounds hippy-dippy, but it may turn out to be a better name for a Vietnamese restaurant than Buckhead’s Le Colonial, which could be construed as glamorizing a regrettable chapter of French history. Japanophiles will get a kick out of the name of Michael Lo and George Yu’s latest production, Salaryman, and people who love their mothers will appreciate chef Ron Hsu cheekily calling his place Lazy Betty (for a mother who was anything but a slouch).

And while there’s no denying that the name Slutty Vegan adds to the wild popularity of Pinky Cole’s plant-based burger joint, more polite terms—say, ex–Gunshow chef Joey Ward’s new Poncey-Highland spots Southern Belle and Georgia Boy—make a case for manners.

This article appears in our January 2020 issue.

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