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Christiane Lauterbach

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Zen Tea, Dr. Bombay’s, Cafe 101

I didn’t grow up drinking tea. As a child, I had a big bowl of café au lait with plenty of sugar every morning, eventually graduating to espresso as a teenager. Until I was in my twenties, the closest I ever came to tea was soothing tisanes made with chamomile or linden blossoms when I had an upset stomach and couldn’t get to sleep. Tea was something the English did, and we, the French, would have none of it.
One summer, broke and between steady jobs, I worked in a small hotel in the mountains of Corsica, where I was something less than a waitress but more than a chambermaid. In the kitchen’s massive fireplace, there was a nail on which tea bags were hung to dry for reuse in case a customer was crazy enough to order this outlandish beverage. When I moved to Atlanta, I found that iced tea made my teeth hurt and gave me the jitters. And as a restaurant reviewer, I firmly believe that anyone who pays $3.50 for a tea bag dumped by a waiter in a cup of lukewarm water is the biggest fool.

Yet, thanks mostly to ethnic restaurants and a few inspiring shops, I have discovered my inner tea drinker. Moroccan mint tea, strong coppery Persian tea sipped through cubes of sugar, black Russian tea mixed with jam, Indian chai boiled with milk—I love them all and order them whenever I can. But the teas I truly worship and can’t live without come mostly from Japan and China.

Connie Miller of Zen Tea in Chamblee imparts extraordinary knowledge without a hint of geekiness. Official tastings are held every Friday, but Miller can’t help herself: She is like a Cheers barmaid with a hint of meditative enlightenment, shaking leaves into a canister lid, encouraging you to admire and smell the delicacy of a white organic pai mu tan (her favorite) or the brightness of matcha green tea powder mixed with green tea leaves and pearls of toasted rice. Before you know it, you will have five or six cups in front of you, perhaps alongside an iced green tea latte or a tea spritzer in a stemmed glass.

Miller brews her teas using two Japanese hot-water dispensers kept at constant temperatures and a little digital timer. Like her, I believe that infusing tea leaves too long or using too much heat results in the kind of bitterness people refer to when they say they don’t like tea.

In a totally different, less technical genre, Dr. Bombay’s in Candler Park offers more than forty teas and, every afternoon, a very British high tea with cream, jam, scones, cookies, cupcakes, and tea sandwiches. Katrell Christie, the shop’s co-owner, recently spent a month and a half in India meeting with fair-trade tea growers, pickers, and importers, as well as setting up charities to support a destitute school near Darjeeling and fund a college education for orphan girls at risk of entering the sex trade. Christie came back from her journey with a new perspective on life—and a duffel bag full of Darjeeling tea.

As for me, I am still learning new tastes every day. I follow in the footsteps of my friend Tze Fong Li, who knows to ask for premium teas in the Chinese restaurants he frequents (Cafe 101, for example, has an especially fine high-mountain Taiwanese tea from Jiangsu’s lake region and some exceptional oolongs).

Because of everything I’ve learned, I have one word for our fancy hotels who present an ornate wooden box of tea bags as if it were something special: Don’t.

Vital Statistics
Zen Tea 5356 Peachtree Road, Chamblee, 678-547-0877, ezentea.com
Dr. Bombay’s Under-water Tea Party 1645 McLendon Avenue, 404-474-1402, drbombays.com
Cafe 101 5412 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-458-8883, cafe101atlanta.com

Photograph by Emily Dryden

Rediscovery: Monday night BBQ at P’Cheen

Fans of the band Mike LaSage and the Stumbling Troubadours may be surprised to hear that, when not performing a mix of alt-country and rock, its young lead singer/guitarist cooks in a pub, where he is the resident barbecue idol. LaSage, who has been the sous chef at P’cheen in the Old Fourth Ward for the last three years, currently gets his moment of glory every Monday night, when he takes over the kitchen and puts his stamp on a special menu consisting largely of pulled pork, ribs, homemade sausage, and chicken with four classic sauces.

For me, the highlight of Mike’s Bone Lick BBQ Mondays is the “one rib” option, which references the movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in which Chris Rock keeps asking, “How much for one rib?” One fabulous, deeply smoked, thickly cut baby back rib with a light squeeze of the “original” barbecue sauce made with cider vinegar and chile peppers is a perfect $3 snack. Of course, once I get the taste in my mouth, I may spring for more or branch out with the sausage special (house-made andouille or kielbasa, for example), slowly smoked over hickory and white oak in a custom-built contraption that began life as a propane tank.

As a barbecue aficionado, LaSage has the ultimate respect for the dry rub. His has sixteen ingredients, including orange and lemon peel, ground chipotle, and sugar. One of the many things I love about having barbecue at P’cheen once a week is the fact that the sides aren’t gunked up with seasoning and provide a nice contrast with the meat. The macaroni and cheese comes with fat raw slices of jalapeños; the coleslaw is chunky, crunchy, and vinegary; and the collards are stewed with tender morsels of pork.

For those who can’t free themselves on Mondays, P’cheen has pulled pork, chipotle-rubbed smoked chicken, and ribs nightly. LaSage and his boss Alex Friedman, a terrific cook who co-owns P’cheen with former DJ Brit Keiran Neely, have started smoking their own hams, and occasional treats such as barbecued goat keep the customers happy and interested in venturing beyond burgers, curries, and other standbys on the menu.

P’cheen, 701 Highland Avenue, 404-529-8800, pcheen.com

Photographs by Josh Meister

The Bookhouse Pub’s Julia LeRoy

What is a nice, delicate-looking girl like Julia LeRoy doing searing pork chops in a kitchen that often reaches 95 degrees? If you met her out of context, you’d be more likely to guess “writes poetry in the shade” than “heads kitchen in a busy gourmet pub.”

LeRoy is responsible for the food at The Bookhouse Pub, where she works for the two hipsters behind MJQ, who knew her as a friend from her clubbing days and trust her with this newer project. She may be the most talented young Atlanta chef whose name you haven’t yet heard.

In my career, I have grown pretty disenchanted with pork chops, frequently served too thin or too thick and often with cloying notes of bourbon or apple that hide a sour, watery flavor. The dish I recently experienced as part of LeRoy’s “Localvore” Monday prix fixe menu is in an entirely different league. Not only is the meat sourced from the best local provider (Riverview Farms) and pan-sauteed in a way that honors its rich, honest sweetness, but the simple pairing with Crystal Farms baby carrots and a charming pink torpedo onion stuffed with sausage is Southern without histrionics.

I met LeRoy in Cabbagetown a few years ago, when she was supplementing her income with what she called “bootleg bake sales” held on the street. Willowy and fair, she had a day job—cooking on the line at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead—that nearly wrecked her health. “I got mono,” she remembers, “and then my adrenal system collapsed.”

Peering over the rim of her big Buddy Holly glasses like an ingenue, the young chef summarizes for me a career she believes has been full of lucky breaks. Born in Detroit to Yankee parents, she grew up in Atlanta without much exposure to Southern food. While in high school, she often had to start dinner for her younger siblings while her mother, a chiropractor/kinesiotherapist/homeopathic practitioner, was seeing patients. Though she credits her upbringing for an early interest in food that is ethically raised and good for the body, LeRoy muses, “If my mom had ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, she wouldn’t have suggested that I become a chef.”

At twenty-one, LeRoy managed to get herself hired by Guenter Seeger, then the best and most demanding culinarian in town. As a condition for taking her on, he made her swear to go to culinary school after six months. She went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, returned, and resumed working at Seeger’s. When she took a job with Bruno Ménard at the Ritz, she felt conflicted about leaving the brilliant Seeger, whose obsessive standards—“he’d look under our cars to see how well we maintained them”—she still embraces.

From the very beginning, LeRoy had to claw her way out of “the pastry ghetto,” where female chefs tend to be relegated. “I had no interest [in sweets], but I learned a lot,” she says. It is, in fact, one of her desserts, an infinitely witty and delicious funnel cake served on a paper plate, that made me fall in love with The Bookhouse Pub.

Few chefs get to see their names at the bottom of a menu when they are barely twenty-eight. “People have been struggling much longer than me,” LeRoy tells me modestly. But what I see in her is a stable mix of sincerity, enthusiasm, and discipline. She loves the South, telling whoever’s listening, “I want to be from Georgia so much.” And she has wasted no time establishing strong relations with local farmers whose struggles she supports.

The Bookhouse Pub may be a casual place (LeRoy won’t hear of me calling it a gastropub), but she makes room for Decimal Place Farm goat cheese, White Oak Pastures beef, Moore Farms and Friends produce, and Logan Turnpike Mill cornmeal and grits in her kitchen. After working for imperious chefs who always told her to “do it my way and do it now,” she gets to use her brains and her soul. That she has a conscience makes her even better!

The Bookhouse Pub, 736 Ponce de Leon Avenue, 404-254-1176, thebookhousepub.com

Photograph by Audra Melton

Pine Street Market’s Rusty Bowers

I don’t wear a hairnet for just anybody. But when Rusty Bowers, the baby-blue-eyed young owner of Pine Street Market, handed me a white coat and something even more hideous than a shower cap, I suited up without a whimper in order to follow him into the back room where he turns hogs into artisanal sausages. We had just met: him behind the counter; me in front, eyeing the samples fanned out on a carving board in the small store he operates with the help of his wife and a part-time worker named Jose, who is a whiz with the knife.

Bowers calls what he does salumi (not to be confused with salami, which is one specific style of sausage), and I call it charcuterie. Atlanta’s newest full-time producer of cured meats was far into his twenties when he had his first meaningful encounter with Italian sopressata. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and working as a sous chef at Pano’s & Paul’s, he found his calling.

You don’t need a quarter of a million dollars to start making salami, as one consultant told Bowers, but you do need a lot of refrigeration equipment, several fans, a cold humidifier, a combination grinder and mixer, a smoker, and several gizmos, including something that looks like a cheap gadget but costs $2,000 and measures the “water activity” (professional speak) within a drying sausage. You had also better be prepared for daily visits from a USDA inspector who will look at your drains and take temperature readings in your coolers.

I have become an enthusiastic consumer of the product I buy at Pine Street Market. My favorites are the coppa (a dry-cured whole pork collar spiced with chiles and black pepper), the spicy Hungarian-style paprika salami, and the tiny picnic salami whose fine grind and kaleidoscopic structure I especially like.
Now that I have spent some time with Bowers, standing on the sealed gray concrete floor in the rear of what used to be an upholstery shop, I know a lot more about what makes a great salami. Bowers’s process starts with fresh hams and shoulders from slightly older pigs (“better flavor,” he told me) brought in from a farm near Raleigh, North Carolina. The fat is harvested first. Butchering is next, followed by grinding, salting, spicing, adding a German yeast culture, and stuffing into all-natural casings, aka pig guts. Careful aging and drying transforms a simple sausage into an inspiring salami. The magic happens in a walk-in cooler where fennel-scented finocchiona, robust peperone (whose spicy nuances could never be confused with vulgar commercial pepperoni), and traditional pancetta rolled by hand all dangle from metal racks. The tangy odor and fine white mold that accrue on the surface of the more mature specimens gave me the same frisson as being in a cave where cheeses ripen to perfection.

My only criticism of Bowers is that his salumi tends to be a little soft—in Europe, you should be able to clobber someone with the salami you take home in butcher’s paper. What you buy at Pine Street Market will last up to six months uncut in your refrigerator (longer for the sliced, stacked, and vacu-packed applewood-smoked bacon), but why would you want to wait that long to enjoy it?

For those who live far from the Avondale Estates neighborhood where his shop resides, Bowers sells his line of products under the name Cured Foods at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market in the Cathedral of St. Philip parking lot, and restaurants such as La Tavola and Ecco are starting to use it on their charcuterie platters. One can also order online and receive a shipment anywhere in the United States. At $13 a pound, a salami perfumed with toasted fennel, Pinot Noir, or even truffle is a bargain and a sexy masterpiece crafted by the hands of a local artist/artisan.

Pine Street Market, 4-A Pine Street, Avondale Estates, 404-296-9672, pinestreetmarket.com

Photograph by Joe Martinez

Discovery: Breakfast at Northern China Eatery

What does the rest of the world eat for breakfast? Such a question may not keep you up at night, but even the most active ethnic buffs often draw a blank when it comes to other cultures’ ways of starting the day. Breakfast central for the local Beijing community is Northern China Eatery, a sweet, unadorned dining room on Buford Highway that sits in the shadows of Italy Optical, a fancy Asian-owned establishment whose sign you should watch for in order to make the proper turn. There is no need to scramble out of bed early for hot soy milk; crisp, long crullers served plain or folded into thin egg cakes with hot sauce; dumplings; savory cakes; and other unexpected, delicious treats. Breakfast is served all day between 9:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. (except Thursday, when the restaurant’s hours are shorter) alongside dishes such as pig’s feet, pig’s ears, noodles with preserved vegetables, and hot pots filled with stewed oxtail or (I kid you not) ox penis.

Unlike the Cantonese, who eat mostly rice, seafood, and lots of vegetables, the northern Chinese subsist on a hearty wheat-based diet. They love hot spices, mutton, and pork meat. Their dumplings are nothing like the ones you know from going to dim sum, a Cantonese practice. Order a plate of pan-fried pot stickers barely bigger than Italian agnolotti, a bamboo steamer with a layer of soup dumplings replete with rich broth, a couple of pastries such as chive pies, wheat cakes stuffed with beef, or a large Mandarin pork cake divided into wedges, and you will have a feast.

In order to taste other items, such as brilliant pork buns, boiled fennel dumplings, and fish fillet hot pot with tofu and cabbage, it is best to gather a group. I’d be surprised if you managed to spend $10 per person on a memorable meal. The staff isn’t used to having a Western clientele, but they rise to the occasion in sometimes-limited English. I have eaten almost everything on the menu, even the delicious shredded potatoes (cold Chinese hash browns?) and the “crispy rice” dish consisting of wet, long strips of something that looks like wheat pancake in a dark bean-paste sauce. I am not giving up bacon and eggs quite yet, but I crave the tastes offered at this restaurant. 5141 Buford Highway, 770-458-2282

Photograph by Amy Herr

Shaun Doty fries solo

As funny as it is to hear a youthful forty-year-old describe himself as “a product of an earlier era,” I knew exactly what chef Shaun Doty, the owner of Shaun’s in Inman Park, was trying to communicate when we sat down for a chat at Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points. I thought he would be mad at me for starting the conversation by calling him “the king of french fries.” Au contraire! He reminded me that, although he grew up in Oklahoma, he had lived in Belgium, where frying potatoes is an art form, and that he had once been married to a Belgian woman.

There is nothing easy about making french fries. I remember being at Joël Robuchon’s famous L’Atelier in Paris and watching the master send the same line cook crying back to the kitchen six times in a row until he finally gave his approval to a simple plate of golden fries. Doty’s pommes frites graisse de canard are as good as any I have had in my life. “It takes a hundred dollars to fill the fryer [with duck fat],” he told me, bragging that he could make them in the restaurant and still deliver them crisp to me half an hour later. He is particular about his spuds (Kingston Idaho) and his technique (two dips into the hot fat), and it is “as serious a business as making a terrine.”

The menu at Shaun’s, a compendium of wide-ranging, educated bistro dishes, is right up my alley. The fettuccine with chicken livers, the Sardinian flatbread with wild arugula and argan oil, and, more recently, the incredible pork schnitzel with grilled Vidalia onion salad, peanuts, and parsley have cast a spell on me. The brunch, now available on Saturdays as well as Sundays, is one of perhaps two in town I consider getting up for: I am a huge fan of the cheddar waffles with poached kumquats and a new pure cane syrup less sticky than maple.

Because of the level of creativity, I consider the early-bird special ($29 per person for three courses, available from 5 to 7 p.m. and all evening at the bar) a better deal than the Sunday pasta dinner ($12 with salad and homemade gelato), which draws folks who don’t necessarily know what the restaurant is otherwise capable of.

I have had my eye on Doty for many years, first when he was chef Guenter Seeger’s right hand at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, then as the co-owner of several flashy operations that ultimately closed. “Patience,” I have always thought. “He will be great some day.”

When he opened Shaun’s in October 2006, Doty finally shed the mantle of the protégé. Now that his famous mentor and friend has left town, no one calls him “Little Guenter” anymore. He has made a cocoon for himself in a place that feels like an extension of his culinary personality and socializing habits. A wild card no longer, he credits his young son, Dante, who has been diagnosed with autism, for forcing courage upon him.

I am a big proponent of restaurants (and businesses in general) where the owner puts his or her name above the door. I trust Shaun’s implicitly, and I know that it takes a brave man to stake his reputation on chopped liver—a signature dish Doty describes as “a perfect representation of what I do”—and glorious french fries.

Shaun’s, 1029 Edgewood Avenue, 404-577-4358, shauns­restaurant.com

Photograph by Joe Martinez

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Atlanta magazine

Cacao’s Kristen Hard

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like the fierce, bitter taste of dark chocolate. Like all French children, I grew up on chocolate croissants, peeling off the buttery dough to access the vein of pure delight. Later on, I pressed my face against the windows of Paris’s most renowned chocolate artisans, anticipating the one truffle or glossy bonbon I would buy with hoarded money.

When I moved to America, I didn’t even understand why Hershey’s called its product “chocolate.” I subsisted on care packages from my family and the occasional box of Belgian truffles. In 1977, the opening of Maison Robert by Robert Reeb, a third-generation confiseur who set local standards for old-school chocolate work, rescued me from the doldrums.

Compared to Reeb, Kristen Hard, the young owner of Atlanta’s newest and most unique chocolate boutique, is a maverick: an obsessive, self-taught micro-entrepreneur with New Age concerns for the health benefits of carefully sourced cocoa beans. Her early passion for making lollipops in her mother’s Dunwoody kitchen haunted her as she went back and forth between academic studies and cooking on sailboats owned by rich Europeans. Hard’s awakening as a chocolatier took place in Martinique, where she badgered local women to share their secrets for transforming rough batons of cacao sold at open-air markets into an arousing beverage.

Almost two years ago, I ran across Hard’s name and that of her company, K Chocolat, in restaurant circles and became a fan of her distinctive truffles sold in various venues. The recent opening of her exquisite little factory shop in Inman Park (she calls it “a laboratoire du chocolat”) has me sinning left and right in an attempt to dig deeper into her all-encompassing magic.

Cacao doesn’t even have a proper sign (the first time, I had to look for the word “Chocolate” on a row of former warehouses), and its entrance off a garden path ending in silvery steps is part of the romance of a small tasting room designed with an artful blend of modernism and femininity. I am no longer intimidated by the glass shelves, the white display drawers, and the gleaming counter in a place that looks more like a jewelry shop than a specialty food store. I hop onto a stool and run my eyes over fragile edible arrangements of cocoa nibs in test tubes, marshmallows dipped in chocolate, miniature cupcakes topped with silver dragées, toffees in twists of waxed paper, and improbably pretty chocolates.

What interests the owner—single-origin chocolate, a precise artisanal process, the use of medicinal herbs and beneficial spices—is reflected in the intense, austere taste of her creations. Like all customers, it is with barely contained excitement that I receive my props (a stretchy white cotton glove and a small silver tray) to pick out my own truffles. The shapes are relatively familiar, but I know that combined notes of Caribbean rum, Saint-John’s-wort, and peppermint; green tea with ginger; or pink peppercorns and rosewater are about to create mysterious harmonies on my tongue. I am mesmerized by the smooth, shapely treats bearing names such as Italian Cowboy and Aztec Aphrodisiac.

Since I have watched Hard—a pretty, blue-eyed blonde who wears a lab coat to temper and hand-mold her product—dust pure gold onto her Chocolate Diamonds filled with Veuve champagne ganache encapsulating an elderflower liquor gelée, I no longer agonize over the prices she charges ($2.25 for single bonbons; boxes priced accordingly by piece). Cups of hot Mexican cocoa perfumed with chili powder, handmade chocolate ice cream, and crystallized ginger dipped into chocolate complete the seduction of a meticulously crafted substance whose journey from a plantation in Ecuador to Atlanta makes my heart beat faster.

Cacao
312 North Highland Avenue, 404-221-2626
cacaoatlanta.com

This review originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Atlanta magazine.

Method Coffee: A scientific attention to detail

It isn’t easy for independent coffee shops to fight corporate giants that crowd the market and deliver a uniform taste. Some independents rely on the personality of their baristas, the quality of their furniture, the ease of their Internet connections, and the extent of their merchandising. Many pride themselves on having better, more ethical beans. But what distinguishes a newcomer in the Emory Village, a place so focused and so good that some coffee nerds are waving bye-bye to their usual haunts, is primarily a technique.

Donald Nathan Lowell, the uncannily quiet owner of the aptly named Method, relies on the Chemex, an hourglass-shaped, heat-resistant glass carafe invented by a German chemist in the 1940s. I am from a generation that discovered the Chemex in the 1970s, when it still sported a wooden collar and a leather lace with a wooden bead, and have loved the process ever since. Method uses an elegant, contemporary version of the Chemex that is manufactured with a slim handle.

When a customer places an order, the coffee is ground and tipped into a special filter inserted in the upper third of an individual Chemex. The attendant draws water kept at 201 degrees and carefully pours it over the grounds. The whole transparent process takes no more than two minutes, including the dripping time.

The store sources its coffee from Intelligentsia, a Chicago roaster that specializes in direct trade and single-origin beans of an exceptional quality. The company also supplies impressive teas brewed in individual glass teapots. The desire for quality extends to the milk (organic, from grass-fed cows), the atmosphere (subtle and relaxing, with a remarkable absence of clutter), and the culture (monthly cuppings).

If you are an espresso fiend, Method serves perfect shots from a traditional machine, and the employees know how to transform a simple cappuccino into a piece of art. There isn’t much to eat at Method, save for a few bagels, cookies, and, recently, cute cupcakes by a local baker. But Method scores major cool points for being the first coffee shop in America to take the Chemex out of its normal home setting.

Method
1593 North Decatur Road, 404-549-8942
methodcoffeebar.com

This review originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of
Atlanta magazine.

L5P’s The Porter

There are more than ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall behind the bar at The Porter (I counted). There are tap handles by the dozen. The bar could overwhelm even the most dedicated beer drinker with the depth and breadth of its inventory. But instead of just playing a numbers game, the young owners display a curatorial finesse. Better yet, without gloating about running a “gastropub,” they serve pretty remarkable casual food to go along with the lagers, pilsners, Belgian whites, and, of course, their favorite porters.

Without an ounce of snobbery, The Porter will get you interested in trying an elegant Scottish ale that tastes like liquid butterscotch or a German smoked beer with the aromas of hops and wood stove. The staff is there to encourage those who have never, ever paid eight dollars for a glass of beer to move beyond the thirst-quenching product of the big breweries. The helpful beer list—large enough to require a clipboard—is arranged by category rather than region and includes alcohol content and tasting directions.

Thanks to co-owner Molly Gunn and her intelligent questions (“What do you normally drink?” is one of the first things she asks those who hesitate), initial bewilderment soon subsides, replaced by a sense of wonder and adventure. Seasonal casks, monthly beer dinners, and unusual pairings with, for example, earthy truffles or artisanal chocolate maximize the cultural impact of The Porter on a growing community of beer fans, myself included.

Customers who understand descriptions such as “bready malts, caramel center, touch of sour at the end” or “dark with cinnamon and fig notes” are probably the minority at The Porter, and fewer still could instantly think of how to match those tastes with food. But the menu offers revelatory pairings of, say, St. Ambroise Apricot ale with the smoked bacon hushpuppies and organic applesauce or yeasty, effervescent Berliner Weisse with crispy calamari and preserved lemon aioli. (The latter revelation is equivalent to discovering that champagne is the ideal companion to many fried foods.) You may be interested to know that brandade, a Mediterranean dish consisting of creamy salt cod and potatoes, doesn’t have to be served with red wine. Beer brings out its assertive personality just as well and does wonders, too, for fun specials such as meatballs stroganoff or a superlative lemon-marinated shrimp BLT with shaved fennel.

The secret behind The Porter is the pedigree of its owners. Fresh-faced Gunn, who at twenty-six still gets carded when she drinks outside her own establishment, and her husband, Nick Rutherford, the executive chef (a funny title in a beer bar), met when working at the former gourmet gold standard Seeger’s, where a passion for excellence was drilled into them.

Rutherford’s brisket pot roast with mashed potatoes and organic carrots has as elegant a texture as anything I have experienced in the world of slow cooking. A few judicious drops of truffle oil and a saute of cremini and portobello mushrooms give glamour to an impeccable rendition of shrimp and grits. When it comes to more classic bar food, simple items such as the organic bratwurst with kraut and Fuji apples, the fresh Angus cheeseburger on tomato focaccia, and the mussels steamed in beer have been composed as carefully as the above. I’d prefer thicker-cut potatoes in the fish and chips (but I appreciate the Terrapin Rye beer batter), and I am amused by the misspelling of crisp, golden potato rissoles (offered as “resole”), but The Porter’s authority in culinary matters, including beer and cheese pairings, is generally amazing.

A thirty-six-foot unpolished concrete bar backed by plywood shelves loaded with specialty glasses (flutes, tulips, goblets, pints, and the occasional glass boot), mason jars (for the cocktails and beer tastings), and other paraphernalia occupies the long, narrow front room. A huge space at the back offers more conventional seating as well as a mishmash of vintage suitcases alluding to the other meaning of the word “porter.”

Yes, The Porter is noisy (it’s a bar!), and though a special effort is made to attract women, there is more testosterone than perfume in the air. But it’s great news for everyone that, after a long period of drought, Little Five Points should once more offer destination-­worthy meals.

During one of the most magical moments I have experienced at The Porter, I happened to glance at the bar, where every seat was taken and every glass featured the same basic beverage in an astonishing range of colors: chocolate, straw, caramel, tea, ruby, sunshine, amber, toffee, honey, cinnamon. “I am going to try them all,” I thought. “It will take me years.”

The Porter
Rating **
1156 Euclid Avenue, 404-223-0393
theporterbeerbar.com

This  review originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Atlanta magazine.

JCT Kitchen & Bar

Wishful thinking goes a long way toward explaining why too many Atlantans, some of them respected colleagues of mine, speak of JCT Kitchen & Bar as if it were a dyed-in-the-wool Southern restaurant, the deluxe meat-and-three of their dreams.

Come on, now. Where are the biscuits, the pimento cheese, the rich taste of pork fat? There is fried chicken on the menu as well as mac and cheese, but the way they are prepared in this upscale new dining room is more slick than rustic. As much as I love Chef Ford Fry’s chicken and dumplings, his version tastes exactly like a French-country coq au vin over soft, pillowy Italian potato gnocchi.

Perhaps the disconnect can be explained by William “Ford” Fry’s origins; he is after all a native of Houston, and as we all know, Texas may be geographically in the South, but its cuisine and culture are not truly Southern. That said, Fry’s JCT Kitchen & Bar is a classic contemporary bistro with a clever but light Southern spin.

The budding owner was so afraid of the ill-fated location at the very back of the Urban Westside Market that he persuaded the landlord to let him build a silo that could be used as a landmark in the parking lot. I feel about the silo the way I feel about the restaurant: It isn’t fake (a small group of Mennonite workers came to erect it on site), but it isn’t quite the real deal, either.

Fry’s concept is impeccably clever. He worked for nine years as the executive chef of Eatzi’s, the now-closed upscale grocery and takeout shop, and he knows exactly how the local upper middle class lives—and what it likes to eat. Beautiful ingredients, none of them particularly rare, rich buttery flavors, and lots of fresh vegetables strike just the right note in an airy dining room that resembles a wine country inn or one of those fabulous Alpharetta home kitchens meant for entertaining.

Many of the dishes could be served at a tony dinner party. The crispy oysters Rockefeller, without the shell and with plenty of leafy spinach and bacon under (rather than atop) the oysters, show a sense of humor. The thin, nearly liquid shrimp-and-crab cocktail, formerly and more truthfully known as a “Bloody Mary,” exemplifies Fry’s modern ways. His white bean bruschetta with Georgia green garlic comes as a delightfully unexpected dip, served with thin rusks of country bread.

If you don’t count your calories, there are plenty of dishes, such as overwhelming truffle-Parmesan fries, listed as an appetizer, and slow-cooked beef short ribs with “pot roast vegetables,” that will fill you up. But it would be a pity to go all meat-and-potatoes. A crisp chopped vegetable salad with Green Goddess dressing and blue cheese “snow” (very fine shavings), followed by a grilled, farm-raised Georgia trout with al dente tiny garlicky green beans, constitute a lighter meal.

There are two dishes that make me want to hug the chef. One, served as a generous side, is a bowl of glossy, amazingly lively collard greens bathed in potlikker and doctored with hot pepper vinegar. The other is a dark square of gingerbread pudding as light as a custard and served with a perfectly tart and sweet lemon cream.

Evidence of clear thinking can be found in everything from the restaurant’s design to its wine program. The wines are food-friendly, and many selections can be ordered by the half-glass. The formerly dark dining room (some described it as “a dungeon” in its former incarnations) is now flooded with natural light thanks to five new windows cut right into the thick brick walls. At night, enormous ecru lampshades mounted on the ceiling bathe the dining room in creamy light. The servers beam with good humor. They’ll even help you fill your pockets with Lemonheads (made in Chicago rather than Dixie!) disbursed by a gigantic, somewhat temperamental gum ball machine near the door.

If you’re wondering what to wear, think Southern prepster and you’ll fit right in. The restaurant is every bit as good for lunch as it is for dinner and is less noisy then. A cute upstairs bar with a secluded terrace serves raw oysters and light bites. The only access, up a steep outdoor staircase, is a bit dodgy, even with the handrail, but the view of Midtown is breathtaking enough for you to make the climb.

JCT Kitchen & Bar gets almost everything right. Its name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue (Junction—“JCT” in railroad speak—may have had a better ring, since the place does overlook active tracks), but so what? Ford Fry has a runaway success on his hands. Better get on board! —Christiane Lauterbach

Photographs by Lauren Rubinstein

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