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Christiane Lauterbach

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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.

Review: Redbird stands out among the Westside’s high-end restaurants

Redbird review: Zeb Stevenson sharpening a knife

The arrival of chef Zeb Stevenson’s Redbird—which has landed in the former home of fine-dining bastion Bacchanalia—signals a new era for the Westside’s restaurant scene. Back in the late ’90s, when Bacchanalia chef Anne Quatrano and her husband Clifford Harrison moved their six-year-old restaurant into new digs, they created a space posh enough to befit Bacchanalia but also more industrial than that of any Atlanta fine-dining establishment. And they did it in a part of town, the then sleepy Westside, where no fine-dining establishment had opened before. Industrial-chic dining rooms are now ubiquitous, and the Westside has become the epicenter of Atlanta’s high-end restaurant explosion. The neighborhood is so packed with options—Miller Union, Marcel, JCT Kitchen, the Optimist, Cooks and Soldiers, Le Fat, Aziza, Forza Storico, and, a mile west, Bacchanalia’s new digs—that, unlike in those pioneering Westside days, it’s hard for any new spot to stand out. Redbird does.

Given its pedigree, that’s not exactly shocking. Stevenson most recently helmed Watershed, and his former boss and current business partner, Ross Jones, was one of the four women who opened that iconic modern Southern restaurant more than two decades ago. (In 2018, she sold it to its new chef-owner, who just put it back on the market.) Stevenson’s famous Watershed predecessors include James Beard Award winner Scott Peacock, who helped redefine high-end Southern cooking on the national level. That challenge proved tricky for Stevenson. Though clearly gifted based on what he did at Watershed, he was never recognized for establishing his own style there.

Now, Redbird has freed Stevenson from the looming legacies of Watershed specifically and Southern cooking in general. What does he do with that freedom? Creates dishes that are simpler and healthier than you might expect but just as sophisticated. And that stripped-down deliciousness, coupled with a dining room high on style yet free of pretension, makes Redbird feel instantly essential.

Redbird review: Zeb Stevenson focusing intently in the kitchen

THE TEAM

Stevenson, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher in Warsaw, Indiana, rebelled against family traditions by becoming an artist and a cook. After dropping out of Cornell’s Fine Arts program, he moved to Atlanta, where he became sous chef and, a year later, executive chef at Livingston and its cocktail bar, Proof and Provisions, both in the Georgian Terrace. It was his first crack at directing a menu. He left that gig in 2013; the following year, Jones and her partner (now wife), Susan Owens, hired him to be chef at Watershed.

Redbird is the first restaurant where Stevenson has been able to create an entire concept from scratch. And with the help of chef de cuisine Christian Perez, formerly of City Pharmacy in Covington, his culinary vision is finally clear.

Redbird review: Chicken-liver mousse, pan-roasted fish, and crushed pecan ice on a table
Dishes such as roasted beets with endive, basil oil, blue cheese, and sourdough crumbles and slow-cooked chicken legs with olives, oregano, lemon, and toum showcase chef Zeb Stevenson’s mastery of simplicity.

Photograph by Martha Williams

THE FOOD

Redbird’s menu is composed of 16 or so reasonably priced small plates (most of them vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free, with few surpassing the $10 mark), and seven a la carte proteins. Extraordinarily beautiful offerings could include roasted beets with shredded endive glossed with basil oil and flecked with blue cheese and sourdough crumbles (which the chef makes with his own sourdough starter); unctuous chicken-liver mousse with black bread and muscadine jelly; and crushed fingerling potato tostones with almond mole. Stevenson loves textural plays in signature dishes, and that’s perhaps most apparent in a ravishing dessert of crushed pecan ice in the style of a Filipino halo halo, with shaved coconut, candied summer squash, mango, pineapple, tapioca pearls, and pomegranate seeds.

While I may not appreciate the blandness of a plate of cacio e pepe fritters inspired by a trip to Italy or the color of a grayish (but delicious) strawberry custard with meringue, I can’t argue with the mastery evident in tender, slow-cooked chicken legs, simply adorned with olives, lemons, oregano, and toum (Lebanese garlic sauce) or, in the similarly pared-down pan-roasted fish, topped with a contrasting, fresh and green, finely minced “sizzling scallion condiment” embellished with pea tendrils.

Stevenson bakes his own bread, which shows up in various dishes, and he prettily displays a distinctly un-Southern, angelic-looking sugar cream pie, his mom’s favorite, on a marble slab in front of the open kitchen. The message is two-fold: an homage to his roots and a signifier of his straightforward cooking style.

THE DRINKS

Stevenson and Jones oversee Redbird’s wine program, and they’ve created a serious destination for oenophiles. Their exquisite taste is on display in rarely seen French and Spanish varietals—and the bar serves their selections at the proper temperature (you’d be amazed how often this is botched elsewhere). The superb list, with a significant number of offerings by the glass or half-bottle, boasts discoveries such as a blend of Roussane and Vermentino from the Languedoc, a Mencia from Spain, and unusual varietals from Macedonia.

Redbird review: industrial-chic design inside of Redbird
The space, formerly inhabited by Bacchanalia, is chic and unpretentious.

Photograph by Martha Williams

THE VIBE

Step inside and you’ll hardly be able to tell that this space ever belonged to Bacchanalia. With a new entrance and an altered orientation that takes better advantage of the large bay windows, Redbird is airier, the mood of the room more festive than rarefied. An informal chef’s counter, a lively bar, and splashes of color such as raspberry-red placemats on a green glass counter (the underside of which is hand-painted) also help lighten things up.

THE VERDICT

Redbird is that exceptional restaurant that makes you feel instantly at home—or, rather, at the home you wish you inhabited. That’s all the more impressive considering that this particular space is the former home of Atlanta’s grande dame of fine dining, Bacchanalia, and that it’s in a neighborhood crammed with worthy restaurants. Redbird is very much its own creature—simple, unpretentious, delightful—and it finally provides chef Zeb Stevenson a chance to soar.

Rating
★ ★ ★
(Excellent)
1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-900-5172
redbirdatl.com

What to order

Redbird review: Chicken-liver mousse

Chicken-liver mousse
Stevenson himself bakes the black bread served with it.

Redbird review: Pan-roasted fish

Pan-roasted fish
The “sizzling scallion condiment” that tops the fish is also offered as an a la carte sauce. Order three, and put it on everything.

Redbird review: Crushed pecan ice

Crushed pecan ice
Inspired by the Filipino dessert halo halo, this mashup includes coconut, candied squash, pomegranate seeds, and tapioca pearls—and it crushes the sum of its parts.

This article appears in our January 2020 issue.

The arrival (and revival) of Indian street food in Atlanta

People eating at wooden tables in Zyka

Old-school

In the 1970s, most of the clientele that showed up at Atlanta’s dark, stifling Indian restaurants had Birkenstocks on their feet and vegetarianism in their heart. Back then, there was no such thing as a fun Indian restaurant. One could catch a thin curry here and a biryani there, but it wasn’t until Robert Blazer opened Your DeKalb Farmers Market in 1977 that a significant Indian population, including many employees of the market, began moving to the area and later started cooking a huge variety of casual street food.

The Indian restaurant that ended the era of boring was Zyka. When it opened on Scott Boulevard in 1997, I no longer had to alternate between Haveli in Marietta (too formal) and the now-closed Calcutta in Little Five Points (not enough creature comforts). I immediately embraced the weirdness of a counter-service and Styrofoam-plate kind of place that shared a building with a Montessori school and a huge banquet hall. I devoted myself to its rich and spicy snacks and to its informal entrees.

Red hot chicken with jalapeno peppers and two dipping sauces
Spicy-hot Chicken 65

Photograph by Cori Carter

To this day, the menu remains unchanged and includes the overwhelmingly popular spicy-hot Chicken 65, the little fried nuggets sprinkled with fresh curry leaves; aloo tikki, plump potato and lentil croquettes; and dense, pistachio-flecked matka kulfi, a dessert that’s frozen in a small clay pot. There is golden naan or muthi paratha to wrap around the chicken seekh kabobs or to scoop up the chana masala. One doesn’t linger at Zyka—too much noise and too many children running around in too cavernous a fluorescent-lit space—but the take-out operation is astonishingly efficient. And as the crowded parking lot attests, the food is a hit not just with the local Indian population but with eaters from every background.

Tow people sitting at the bar at Chai Pani
The bar at Chai Pani

Photograph by Cori Carter

New-school

If you are an environmentalist, Curry Up Now—a small, fast-casual California chain that specializes in modern Indian street food and just opened a location near the epicenter of Indian food along Scott Boulevard—is the antithesis of Zyka. There is no single-use plastic anywhere. As for the street food it serves, expect plenty of healthy and unorthodox twists: deconstructed samosa, paneer quesadilla, kathi rolls made on whole-wheat paratha enriched with a layer of egg, Naughty Naan that looks like a pizza topped with spicy cubed chicken or paneer. The mango lassi, including one flavored with rose essence, comes in a mason jar. Snacky options include kachori chaat (a hard-shelled puri stuffed with lentils, potato-garbanzo mash, and masala yogurt), and many items are vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free.

There are several better options for modern Indian street food, starting with Meherwan Irani’s Chai Pani in Decatur and Botiwalla in Ponce City Market and, as of recently, on the green in downtown Alpharetta. Irani’s delicious rolls (sandwiches) on hot, buttered naan and his crunchy bhel puri made with puffed rice, flour crisps, and crunchy chickpea noodles drizzled with green chutney are at the apex of the snacky Indian-food scene.

Crunchy bhel puri
Crunchy bhel puri

Photograph by Cori Carter

There’s also the joyous Masti Fun Indian Street Eats, which also has expanded to the suburbs. Like the original Toco Hills location, the second outpost in Duluth properly channels what’s happening at the street level in contemporary Indian cuisine. The suburban menu also happens to be wilder and broader, with butter chicken tacos on uttapam “pancakes,” spiced keema burgers on soft buns, and both kabob and paneer dogs. We’ve come a long way since ’97.

This article appears in our December 2019 issue.

Where to find great old- and new-school Chinese food in Atlanta

Golden Buddha's interior
Golden Buddha’s interior

Photograph by John Song

Old-School

Gilded and Americanized

Discussions have long raged about what is and isn’t authentic Chinese food and whether or not Chinese restaurants are allowed to evolve with the times. Meanwhile, one proudly old-school place on Clairmont Road near Toco Hills has for 44 years served a loyal clientele—a solid mix of Westerners and Asians—in a low-ceilinged dining room guarded by an enormous gilded statue.

When Been Lee opened Golden Buddha in 1975, there was no doubt that his kitchen had to please locals who would eat pretty much anything as long as it was fried, sweet, and came in large portions. Generations of Atlantans made a ritual of these Americanized Chinese dishes, from sweet and sour chicken to pork with broccoli, egg drop soup to (of course) fried rice.

Sweet and sour chicken

Photograph by John Song

But Lee, who is Chinese and was born and raised in Korea, also offers a far spicier and more distinctive Korean menu with hallmark dishes such as jjajangmyun (flour noodles with a thick, salty, smoky sauce made from fermented soybeans) with shrimp, squid, pork, and onions; a bright-red jjamppong (a seafood noodle soup with scallops, squid, and shrimp in a broth spiked with hot chilies); and colossal Empress Chicken Wings with a rich, garlicky lacquer coating flesh that’s been partially flayed from the bone, to facilitate otherwise messy eating.

Bossy, well-dressed waiters deliver dishes in minutes, telling you how much sauce to put on your noodles, and a constant scrum of business reminds you why a place like Golden Buddha can’t be improved upon.

Urban Wu's modern interior
Urban Wu’s interior

Photograph by John Song

New-School

Minimalist yet still transportive

Part of a new generation of Chinese restaurants, Xiao’s Way Noodle House, which opened this spring in Johns Creek, is embracing a modern aesthetic and an impersonal style of service. To order, you pencil in what you want from a printed list and wait for a buzzer’s summons. If you order correctly, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous, handmade soup dumplings (xiao long bao) served hot in a steamer; Chinese pork, chicken, or beef burgers (rou jia mo) on crisped steamed buns; and, for lunch, Taiwanese bento boxes with pick-your-own proteins and veggies.

When it comes to choosing from the huge selection of noodles, however, the process easily goes off the rails. How are you supposed to know that the stir-fry you ordered is, in fact, a deep-fried basket of thick noodles with seafood inside? And what about the beef noodle soup versus the spicy beef noodle soup? Discussing the merits of both with a real human could have helped you make a better choice.

Hunan Chicken

Photograph by John Song

Sleek, modern places such as Xiao’s, Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen in Midtown, Gu’s Kitchen in Chamblee, Urban Wu in Buckhead, and Hai Authentic Chinese in Decatur may feel emotionally cold to the Golden Buddha crowd, but all five are true to their culture and backed by serious kitchens. The food will transport you to Taiwan or Sichuan, even if the dining room doesn’t. So, while you may like the pomp and showmanship—not to mention the community vibe—of the old-school Chinese restaurants, you’ll likely find a more enlightened menu at the minimalist places that eschew the red and the gold.

This article appears in our November 2019 issue.

Find great Southern seafood, highbrow and low, at these Atlanta restaurants

Whiting fish sandwich
Whiting fish sandwich at Merkerson’s Fish Market

Photograph by The Sintoses

Lowbrow

Fish fry

Few things feel more Southern to me than a fish fry. You can locate some of the best by following a sign advertising one at a local church—but if that doesn’t pan out, you’ll find a similarly iconic Atlanta experience at the somewhat decrepit-looking, old-fashioned Merkerson’s Fish Market, a longtime fixture on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard near West End. Merkerson’s offers fresh porgys, sheepheads, snappers, mullets, and catfish whole at the counter, which you can cook yourself. Better yet, have them fried on the spot while you sit on one of the benches, waiting for your order to be called.

A scant $7 will buy you three pieces of deftly fried flounder, two thin slices of wheat bread, some fries, and a few jalapeño hushpuppies. The hot sauce waits for you at the counter. The whiting fish sandwich, priced as low as $3.49, trumps anything you could ever purchase at a fast-food restaurant. Eat your fish burning-hot at a long folding table overlooking a broken Pac-Man machine or in your car with the windows open.

The selection of fish is more limited at Trederick’s on Whitehall Street just south of downtown, but the place is a real restaurant. Opened in March by the owners of the now-closed Blue Ivory club next door, it even has a small patio and keeps later hours on the weekend. The catfish and whiting fillets in a light coating of cornmeal batter are especially splendid, and don’t forget the baskets of huge, sweet shrimp, the crinkly fries, the thick homestyle chips, and the sweet coleslaw.

Snow crabs, king crabs, and lobster at Soul Crab

Highbrow

Crab legs and lobster

In addition to its inexpensive fried offerings, Trederick’s offers more decadent options such as crab clusters and lobster tails. That also earns it a spot in the growing ranks of Atlanta restaurants serving higher-end Southern seafood.

Last year, the influential chef Darius Williams—who in 2017 helped energize Westview’s dining scene with Greens and Gravy—opened Soul Crab in College Park, specializing in seafood by the pound. Located in an attractive historic storefront, the restaurant serves fruit-forward cocktails and draws well-dressed crowds that rip into crab clusters (both snow crabs and king crabs), lobster tails, and shrimp paired with a choice of melted butters, including ones flavored with Hennessey or jerk seasoning. Expect the bar scene to be hectic and your manicure to be ruined.

New Orleans–inspired Bon Ton is rightly lauded for its applewood-smoked snow crabs and a $33 mixed-seafood boil, and Krab Queenz Seafood, the wildly popular minichain out of Louisiana, is replacing the downtown location of Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles. Both are further proof that spicy, buttery Southern seafood works as well in roadside dives as it does in elevated dining rooms.

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.

Review: Kevin Gillespie’s Cold Beer is the BeltLine’s most experimental restaurant

Steak tartare

Photograph by Cori Carter

Cold Beer, Kevin Gillespie’s new BeltLine-adjacent restaurant in the shadow of the Edgewood Avenue bridge, isn’t any more about cold beer than Gunshow or Revival—his other high-profile restaurants—are about firearms or religion. Gillespie, who was born in Henry County, an hour south of Atlanta, is working on an emotional oeuvre about his roots.

Despite, or maybe because of, a cancer battle last year that cost him a kidney, Gillespie is more willing than ever to double down on innovation. Cold Beer makes a powerful statement about the BeltLine and its maturation: More than a place for casual noshing, our all-important ribbon of concrete has come of age with a restaurant that (almost) captures its ambition.

Not everyone turns down a scholarship from MIT to study cooking, but Gillespie’s instinct was right: His calling was elsewhere. Ten years ago, when he was chef at Woodfire Grill, he competed in season six of Top Chef. He became a finalist, was named Fan Favorite (as much for his intelligence and charisma as his culinary prowess), and has been one of Atlanta’s splashiest, most experimental culinarians ever since.

THE TEAM

Once a competition chef, always a competition chef: Gillespie is constantly pushing the envelope, as if trying to impress judges with a dazzling array of as many skills as possible. His drive to differentiate himself from the fray is both his greatest strength and his vulnerability. At Cold Beer, he and chef Brian Baxter, a veteran of Husk and Bastion in Nashville, have the same impulses: Explode and recreate dishes with no undue reverence for classic ingredients. Beverage director Mercedes O’Brien, Gunshow’s former cocktail maven, pushes as hard as her boss to make a statement. Service at the restaurant is much friendlier than at comparable hipster spots and much more capable of supplying adequate explanations of a slew of ingredients unfamiliar to the average diner.

The interior of Cold Beer, with wooden chairs, white cloth booths, and hanging lamps

THE FOOD

After an early period at Cold Beer when every small plate felt too much like stunt food designed to stimulate the intellect rather than the taste buds, Gillespie’s creations are starting to relax. The thick cover of flowers and herbs blanketing a shrimp pancake now looks less like a floral centerpiece and more like something you’d like to eat. The lamb ribs no longer hide under an overwhelming layer of cashew yogurt and instead are presented as a fetching little rack of Kentucky-style barbecue, plunked sauce and all onto a thin slice of housemade white bread.

There is much to admire at Cold Beer. A cross-cultural dish of fried okra is pungent with hot-and-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and mellowed by a smooth labneh blackened with eggplant powder. The aged beef steak tartare, mixed tableside with a plethora of microdiced, pickled, and fermented ingredients, as well as Russian dressing with a pineapple-ketchup base, becomes a kind of Reuben sandwich–flavored quenelle, with thick planks of potatoes fried in beef fat serving as bread.

But the food often can be overwrought. A thick slice of beef belly, blanketed with watermelon hoisin sauce and served with little gem lettuces, fried shallots, and crushed peanuts, and the popular but weirdly bland smoked and fried chicken wings don’t even amount to elevated bar food. The desserts—ranging from an unexpectedly dull, overbaked pavlova with mulled wine and fig-leaf anglaise to a stale funnel cake with equally unpleasant toasted hay cream and hyssop ice cream—are good in theory and letdowns on the table.

THE DRINKS

O’Brien’s talent behind the bar is undeniable, but some of her ideas work better than others. Why make your own (acrid-tasting) Chartreuse? Why add avocado to the frozen margarita when it serves only to make it weirdly thick and less refreshing? On the other hand, the Eastern Trinidad Sour with fermented cashew and sour mango is an unusual little jewel. And a multilayered ice cube composed of frozen melon and mezcal that graces an herbal cocktail redolent of Alpine spirits and elderflower is great fun. One can always seek the restaurant’s namesake refuge in its excellent German beers, including the Helles Vollbier from Mahrs Bräu. Also, $2 will buy you a small beer while you wait, a practice more restaurants should embrace.

THE VIBE

Prestigious local firm Ai3 did a bang-up job with the sleek architectural interior (for the ambitious eaters), its relaxed patio (for the people-watchers), and its vibrant rooftop (for the partiers). In the dining room, a photo of chef Gillespie’s torso that shows his tattooed arm but not his head symbolizes, according to him, the lack of ego to which he aspires, while a giant oil painting of a standing polar bear lords over the scene.

THE VERDICT

The philosophy of the restaurant is, in Gillespie’s words: “Just because something hasn’t worked yet doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to do it.” In practice, such an approach demands a lot from diners who may have expected more straightforward pleasure. Yes, you likely will experience flavor combinations in the dishes and the cocktails that feel new, and, yes, most of them will delight rather than confound. But not all of them. Cold Beer is a restaurant that deserves your support—as long as you’re willing to be patient while it pursues its aspirations.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
(Very Good)

670 DeKalb Avenue, 404-254-1032
coldbeeratl.com

What to drink

An Avocado Margarita cocktail

Avocado Margarita
Okay, so maybe it’s not for everyone (including the writer of this review), but others (including the editor of this review) swear by it.

The Palette of Arabia Mountain cocktail

Palette of Arabia Mountain
You had us at “Arabia Mountain,” but white whiskey, spruce, juniper ice, and lacto blueberry dust are pretty convincing, too.

The Tropical Grains cocktail

Tropical Grains
A rye drink that includes not just koji pineapple and barley almond orgeat but a rye crisp with pineapple butter? Into it.

This article appears in our December 2019 issue.

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