When you’re looking for soup along Buford Highway, you’re looking for noodles and dumplings. My favorite? The stretchy noodles at New Lan Zhou Noodle at Atlanta Chinatown, off Buford on New Peachtree Road in Chamblee. New Lan Zhou is easy to find— just look for the young man vigorously kneading yard-long logs of ivory-colored dough, folding them against themselves, and intertwining the progressively thinner ropes in a cat’s cradle until he cuts free the dowel-thick strings hanging from his wrist. These he tosses into a vat of boiling broth, from which they’re fished out like squirming carp. Because watching the noodles being made is a show in itself, and the noodles give you a fight—as the toothless, if gluten-free, rice noodles in pho never do—the broth is secondary. Still, the duck soup ($9) has authority and depth, with generous chunks of roast meat.
Bo Bo Garden, a relatively upscale restaurant in Pinetree Shopping Center in Doraville, serves delicately flavored Cantonese soups. A dried scallop and shredded duck soup ($10.99)—with snow peas, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms—has the opaque, crunchy appeal of hot and sour soup, minus the heat. The standout is lobster congee ($29), the pureed rice giving heft to a marvelously flavored chicken broth with strong accents of ginger and scallion. The barely cracked lobster is so hard-shelled that it’s mostly a frustrating temptation, but the porridgey soup is both soothing and stick-to-your-ribs satisfying. (Restrain yourself from filling up on the fried peanuts that come free.)
For fragrant broth, be sure to stop by Tempo Doeloe, on the first floor of a BuHi shopping center, for soto betawi ($8.99), Indonesian coconut milk broth garnished with fried onion and fried tofu triangles, perfumed with coconut and cinnamon. (Be prepared for long waits on Sundays.)
For clockwork professionalism and tender, delicate dumpling dough that dissolves on your tongue, go to So Kong Dong Tofu House, a family-friendly Korean restaurant that blankets the tables with giveaways that include terrific sweet-and-salty sweet potato noodles. Along with the vegetable dumplings and tofu soups ($9.99) that arrive at a high boil, a pungent kimchi soup will clear your sinuses.
For mysterious, murky depth, go to Yet Tuh, a Korean restaurant tucked behind a mini-mall in Doraville, where the copious free appetizers include sweet, lightly pickled eggplant and celery salads. If you’re feeling carnivorous, there are peppery pork stews that can feed a family. But the soup to try is the mesangi guk fulvescens seaweed soup ($10.95): jade-green, grassy, thick, and with the depth of a forest though it’s from the sea, underpinned and amplified by a full-flavored chicken broth. It’s at once refreshing and satisfying—just the right comfort to turn to in times of need.
This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.
“The thing I love about Atlanta is it’s 45 minutes from the South,” my pal Kim Severson, the New York Times food writer, said as she drove us around Atlanta one spring day almost three years ago. My spouse had been offered a job at the Centers for Disease Control, but he had little sense of the city. I didn’t know much beyond Watershed, my touchstone for Southern food, whose history I had long studied and loved. As a restaurant critic in Boston and writer for many national publications, I’d written about Watershed, and so had Kim. The late Edna Lewis had made poetry of rural black post-Reconstruction life and particularly its necessarily seasonal, thrifty, and imaginative dishes. Watershed, under its founding chef Scott Peacock, drew directly on this heritage. I was looking forward to a stream of Lewis-inspired wild greens, ham hocks, and corn sticks. Kim told us to go to Miller Union for our arrival dinner, and then she’d take us to someplace called the General Muir.
The dinner at Miller Union was just the kind of taste of place and season I always want first in a new city. The sauteed field peas were later echoed by tender Sea Island red peas at the Pig & the Pearl, the first restaurant I reviewed. Red peas! We don’t have those up north. Or scuppernongs, which we found on our first foray to Whole Foods. This was all in the Edna Lewis universe. Todd Richards, the former chef of the Pig & the Pearl and now at White Oak, is black, and one of Atlanta’s great lures to my spouse and me was that it had been described as the most successfully diverse city in the country. Maybe we really had arrived in the South.
Or maybe not. The lunch at the General Muir, where I admired the subway tile and 1940s graphics as much as the matzo ball soup, was, ultimately, more typical than either of those Edna Lewis–territory dinners. I certainly knew at once that I was in an exciting city—one that in our two years here would grow before my eyes, with different neighborhoods getting colored in as anchor developments Krog Street and Ponce City markets finally filled up with tenants.
But it’s a city that looks outward far more than inward, or even nearby. Outward, say, to the Lower East Side (the General Muir’s pastrami), or to China (Gu’s Dumplings), or to Korea (Simply Seoul’s bulgogi bun), or to Basque country (Cooks & Soldiers’ tapas), or to France (Bread & Butterfly’s tender, airy omelets). Not as much to, say, Alabama for lady peas or North Carolina for barbecue. With the glorious exception of Ryan Smith at Staplehouse, I didn’t find a posse of young, or youngish, chefs all cooking as much for each other as for the public—as there has long been in Boston and is starting to be in Washington, D.C., another city where I work and eat. The priority in Atlanta is less innovation based on local ingredients, as at Staplehouse, than finding a formula that works and then pumping out food to fit it, as at the Barcelona/Bartaco empire that progressively took over a block of North Highland in Inman Park. This makes for generous, untweezed food. But it also means food that, once successful, can become rote. The hard work that drives the restaurants I was lucky enough to review here for the past two years—and every restaurant involves ridiculous amounts of work—seems centered more on hospitality (as at the ideal neighborhood bar-restaurant One Eared Stag) and design than on food you just have to eat again.
Saying that Atlanta brings both service and design to nationally competitive levels—and it does—is no backhanded compliment. Boston is facing a chef shortage of near-crisis proportions because living expenses are pushing both cooks and servers out of the city. So not just food but the level of service is dicey, as it is in New York City and San Francisco. In Atlanta there’s a general friendliness that’s more genuine than the bless-your-heart Southern charm we’d been bracing for. Seldom did we feel indifference from servers, or like they were counting the minutes till they punched out. Sure, the level of professionalism varied. But the air of welcoming willingness happily prevailed.
Partly because of high rents and difficulty finding professional servers, partly because of a hipster preference for beards and tats over ties and tablecloths, fine dining is in its death throes in many cities. Not here. It’s hard to think of a restaurant in the country as serene and sumptuous as Atlas, where the French doors that open onto a manicured garden can easily lull you into thinking you’re in Provence, and the collection of art lets you imagine you’re in your own museum.
Restaurant Eugene may be a bit stiff and bare, and Bacchanalia may be in need of freshening, but both have remarkably high ambitions and the staff to realize them. Bacchanalia, indeed, is set to reopen in a new location next year. (A sad casualty will be Little Bacch, which was one of my happiest discoveries as a critic: It was clubby but not pompous, and pretty much everything on its fine-honed menu was executed with calm, careful skill.) Even before Aria updated itself this year, I had the most polished dinner there of my time in Atlanta. Every course, every detail—the dark mahogany, melting short rib, the potato puree beside it, even the bread service—was impeccable and unshowy. If Michelin ever comes to Atlanta, Aria should get its first three stars.
Design and restaurant as theater took me by surprise, and is something I mention first when telling out-of-towners about the dining scene. Just walk into Two Urban Licks or the Optimist, whose vaulted ceilings and spectacular stage-set design still take my breath away. Only two restaurant groups I know pay so much attention to the theatrical nature of dining: Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You and Philadelphia’s Starr Restaurants. Here, of course, the leader of the pack is Ford Fry, who seems to invest more money and thought into how a restaurant looks and feels than the food it serves. And so the strongest balance in his restaurants is where the menu makes relatively few demands on the cooks and can be mass-produced: the hot-out-of-the-pot green posole and pork shoulder of the El Felix and Superica, or the simple bar menu at the attractive, luxurious Bar Margot at the Four Seasons. (Superica, along with Hop City, brings Krog Street Market to vibrant urban life and marks it as a dining destination in a way no food vendors have yet done at Ponce City Market.) The best combination? Vibrant design married to an unusual concept terrifically executed: Cooks & Soldiers, exciting just to sit in, served us chuletón, a grilled and oft-basted steak for two that no steakhouse I tried ever beat.
Some gaps never really filled. One is ambitious Asian food outside Buford Highway, though Sushi House Hayakawa and Tomo can go up against almost any classically minded sushi restaurant in the land. Another is regional and ethnic cuisines translated for a broader audience in a finer-dining setting than is found on Buford Highway. Kyma does this for Greek food, Rumi’s Kitchen for Persian, and (less notably, except for the design) Le Fat for Vietnamese. Not just regional Chinese and Korean and Malaysian but Turkish and South American cuisines await their turn. I still look in vain for a far wider variety of artisan breads in restaurants and retail bakeries. There’s no Italian equivalent to the pitch-perfect Bread & Butterfly, Billy Allin’s homage to the French cafe (where people are ever so much nicer than in Paris): Bellina Alimentari is lovely as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough toward a varied menu. BoccaLupo is impossible to get into. Storico Fresco has fabulous carryout lasagna and pasta but needs to make the sit-down experience match the at-home one.
Most disappointing is not enough black chefs and owners, something I’d hoped would go with the diverse restaurant crowds and staff. Todd Richards turned out to be the only black chef whose restaurant I reviewed. What can be done to make the back of the house as diverse as the front? Culinary schools should recruit more diversity. And local business owners should give priority to chefs and restaurant operators of color when it comes to loans or small-business assistance. This is a problem by no means confined to Atlanta, of course. But it should be one Atlanta takes the lead in solving.
So, about that taste of the South. Straight-ahead Southern cooking—never mind reinventing it—just doesn’t seem to interest Atlanta chefs. Go to Mary Mac’s, most friends would dismissively tell me, and close the conversation there; only tourists and hicks would look for Southern food in Atlanta. Charleston’s Sean Brock, one of the Southern chefs I most admire and was excited to learn was coming to Ponce City Market, chose a taco-and-burrito formula to handle crowds—damn. Watershed, the first Atlanta restaurant to win my heart in its Decatur gas station, moved to a corporate room in south Buckhead, where it provides inconsistent pleasures.
Kevin Gillespie is the exception. He fills his very enjoyable Revival, which pays tribute to the meat-and-three, with pictures of his ancestors, who he says could never have been able to afford one of his restaurants. He stops short of marrying that cuisine to the freewheeling creativity of his Gunshow; may I suggest that as the concept for his next restaurant? Ryan Smith, the explosively creative chef of the signal restaurant of my time as a critic here, Staplehouse, is interested in reinventing the impeccably local ingredients he finds and features—but in a national and even international idiom that seldom has a strong Southern accent.
Which, as we very unwillingly leave Atlanta for Washington, D.C., and Boston, brings me back to that first meal at Miller Union, still our go-to restaurant for sampling what’s in season this week. Steven Satterfield is from Savannah, and some of his menu pays tribute to the kind of country food Edna Lewis immortalized. His is the food we’ll need to have first when we come back, often, to check in. It’s what I happen to like best. But that won’t stop me from also checking in on what Ryan Smith and Billy Allin and Kevin Gillespie are up to, and doing what I can do in no other city’s restaurants: appreciating the deep diversity other cities can only aspire to. Feeling like people are happy to see me, don’t want me to pay up and get out so they can turn my table, and want us to come back. Having my breath taken away just by walking through a restaurant door.
This article originally appeared in our December 2016 issue.
Noble Fin, a new seafood restaurant in Peachtree Corners, looks bland and anonymous, as if a developer got halfway through building an Olive Garden and decided to turn over the lease to a local operator instead. But looks, you might have heard, can be deceiving. Noble Fin turns out to be the city’s most assured and satisfying fish house since Ford Fry’s infinitely more stylish the Optimist. What’s more, Noble Fin serves a more succulent New York strip than most steakhouses inside and outside the Perimeter. It’s the rare restaurant that delivers more than it promises and makes you glad you walked through the door. A large party of old and new friends stayed and stayed, long after the last spoonful of the second order of sticky toffee pudding had been fought over. The droll, insinuating server who made us feel like regulars, the bussers who didn’t need to be asked for serving spoons or water refills—it all felt no-fuss and familial.
Two picky 12-year-old young men, for instance, wound up tasting everything, partly coaxed by the server, partly caught up in the congenial spirits. So, family-friendly it is. Also date-night-friendly, as the couples around us would attest. How did this happen? Jay Swift has certainly carved himself a big slice of Atlanta rep. In July he closed 4th & Swift, which for eight years brought a loose vibe to a neighborhood that badly needed one: across from Ponce City Market and the BeltLine, in the former engine room of the Southern Dairies building. When at last PCM opened and Inman Quarter took off, his business, he told Eater.com, “dived.” By then, fortuitously, Noble Fin had been open for two months.
Noble Fin draws on Swift’s Baltimore upbringing, his first job at a popular seafood restaurant, and his years working with chefs who knew their way around fish, particularly Lydia Shire and Robert and David Kinkead. The Kinkeads went on to open a Boston restaurant they called Sibling Rivalry, with each brother responsible for half of the menu. As it happens, Swift runs Noble Fin with his son, Jeb Aldrich, dividing labor in a more conventional way: father is owner and chef, son is in charge day to day as chef de cuisine. The guiding idea of the restaurant, Swift told me, was a traditional fish house that drew from not just his experience in Boston and Baltimore, but also Charleston and Florida. (Though the emphasis is on the Northeast; much of the fish, the servers will tell you, is flown in from Boston.)
Maybe it’s the father-son combination that accounts for the easy mastery of such a wide range of dishes. Doubtless it’s due to Swift’s pedigree. I certainly haven’t had better crab cakes in Atlanta, and would have to think where I’ve had better ones anywhere: big flakes of crabmeat held together with minimal mayo and gently seasoned. I was sure the crisp crust with alluring black spots was a crumb topping, maybe the saltine served with the cakes. Nope, Swift told me: The crust is the little bread cubes that he uses as a binder, an essential component of “the oldest recipe I ever had.” Those cakes alone—hot, fresh, greaseless, crumbly—are worth a trip to Peachtree Corners.
Swift also understands texture—particularly important when it comes to fish. Soft: octopus first cooked sous vide (cheating, I know, but excusable for something so usually tough) and then broiled for some char, served with patatas bravas—tiny, irresistible deep-fried potato cubes with smoked paprika and cumin in a spicy mayo. Firm: grouper so white, dense, and cleanly striated when I cut into it that it could have been Dover sole. The grouper was meaty and compact, pan-roasted with a clean sauce of fresh corn put through a juicer and thickened over heat, served with wilted spinach, lightly cooked grape tomatoes, and roasted cipollini onions. The dish was late summer, distilled. Branzino also seemed like a new fish, with a crackling, fat-free skin and tender white meat I could have sworn had a gamy undertone, something you never find now in the invariably farmed fish. Or maybe it was the smoked eggplant puree hiding at the bottom of the plate, accentuated by the smoky notes of the Oaxaca, arbol, and pasilla negro chiles Swift puts into a homemade harissa and serves with cranberry beans. That combination, with the addition of fire-blistered shishito peppers and chunks of firm pattypan squash, made this one of the best conceived dishes of the year. “It flies out of here,” Swift told me.
Sides of wilted spinach and simple butter-braised multicolored carrots are the kind of respectful accompaniment most chefs shy away from charging for; as worth the price as they might be, they come across as too simple for most diners. Swift and Aldrich give their customers credit for recognizing real sophistication.
Not convinced by the vegetables? Steak removes any doubt about mastery. The New York strip, naturally saline and mineral, is served carnation pink inside and jet black outside over a perfectly classic, rightly sticky red wine–veal reduction. It was as good a steak dish as I’ve had anywhere in Atlanta, and reasonably priced at $39.95.
Noble Fin is not without missteps. Scallops were fine, but served over gloppy polenta with uncrisped pork belly “croutons” that seemed like ceaselessly chewy undercooked fat, and with a spiced tomato jam that was way too sweet. Rigatoni with clams was clotted with salty grated cheese that clumped together; combined with the broiled clams and al dente pasta, the dish was a study in rubber bands.
Desserts, while not quite as thoughtful as the sides, are still better than they need to be, and very satisfying. A thick Key lime tart is served on a thin crust; poached peach slices (not quite enough, truth be told) arrive with a sugar-crusted shortcake. As the server foretold, the toffee pudding—a holdover from 4th & Swift—was what we had to order again. It’s little more than a date-thickened batter baked in a cup, served with a caramel sauce. But the sauce, deep with the flavor of burnt sugar, is so thick it could hold up a spoon—if only there were enough of it to submerge the spoon.
A friend, reaching for a second spoonful of buttery and (very) sweet grits, pronounced this and most of the food at Noble Fin “comfort food.” That it might be. It’s also semi-spectacular for a place without a hint of pretension, a place that wants little more than to make you feel at home.
★ ★ ★ ★ (excellent)
Good to know
Why a fish house? With so many New England transplants in metro Atlanta, says Jay Swift, the decision was easy. Of course, a fish house here means you can dine on the patio more often than if you were in Boston. Noble Fin’s patio seats 20.
5260 Peachtree Parkway, Peachtree Corners
In almost every town in Italy—and especially in the north—pasta fresca shops are as ubiquitous as butcher shops or greengrocers. But seldom do the pasta makers grow their own herbs, or source meat for the fillings from local farmers, or look for heirloom grains to add different flavors. Michael Patrick, the chef and founder of Storico Fresco, does.
Under Patrick’s direction, the doughs are handmade. The sauces are hand-stirred. The lasagna is layered carefully into each individual takeout baking dish. The tenderness and toothsomeness of the plain, fresh egg pasta dough makes it impossible not to grab a raw ricotta-and-herb-filled tortelloni and pop it into your mouth as a pillowy, if inadvisable (you’re not supposed to trust uncooked egg), snack. I’ve never seen anyone gather so many kinds of pasta and make them so well. Food lovers across the country would kill for a branch of Storico Fresco in their town. It’s like a pasta theme park.
So when Patrick opened a sit-down restaurant in a renovated Buckhead strip mall, next to the Trader Joe’s, I assumed this would be one of Atlanta’s—if not the country’s—most genuinely Italian restaurants. Patrick’s business partner, Pietro Gianni, is a suave Rome-born and Monte Carlo–raised engineer and construction site manager. Gianni is so detail-oriented in his new role as front-of-house manager that on the afternoon I made a reservation, he called twice about a request I’d entered on the website for a quiet table. (His family back in Italy also produces a mozzarella that the restaurant uses for many dishes.) The request turned out to be particularly important because the long tables are bare wood, family-style, and the walls bare plaster. It gets noisy fast when it gets crowded, and it’s been crowded since it opened in late May.
But while Storico Fresco is a brilliant store, it’s not much of a restaurant. I had two meals from the menu and two others that sampled from takeout cases, and almost every single dish from the brown paper packages and plastic containers was better than the ones on the restaurant menu. Lasagne with a classic Bolognese sauce made of pork, veal, beef, and milk, and a plush béchamel sauce, for instance, is thrilling right out of its rectangular plastic tray heated at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Chickpea and farro tagliolini, coated with a cheese-packed kale pesto that unfolds like single-malt scotch when stirred over the pasta, is a revelation. Ready-to-cook meals like these need little skill—or time—and make you feel like a pretty talented chef.
Yet the pasta dishes on the menu, which presumably should be even better, are unexpectedly lifeless. Squid ink chitarra, the wide, thick linguine traditionally cut using taut metal wire that looks like the string of a guitar, is served with calamari rings and turnip greens. But the greens are limp, the rings tough, and the salt out of whack—likely because the guanciale (pork jowl that is the basis of most Roman pasta sauces) has been cured by a local artisan with too heavy a salt hand.
Aside from the guanciale, which the restaurant goes through in bulk, all of the meats are imported from Italy, as are most of the ingredients for sale: olive oil, tuna in oil, dried pasta from a small factory Patrick found in the pasta-producing mecca of Gragnano, south of Naples. The prosciutto, the culatello (a prized long-cured version of pork leg), and the bresaola (air-dried beef) are all of noteworthy quality, comparable to what you’d find in a fussy salumeria in Italy, and worth buying in the prettily cut and packaged meat and cheese plates in the case. Yet the initial menu didn’t offer a meat tasting plate—in fact, most of what was in the cases was absent from the menu.
This would be understandable if the dishes on the menu were somehow more special than what’s in the cases. But they’re not. Salads are anonymous and lackluster. Antipasti that sound terrific are just okay. Callipo tuna, for example, an excellent brand of underbelly tuna, could have been an ideal small meal with white cannellini beans, olive oil, red onion, and parsley. But the tuna was cold and the beans hard capsules. Squash blossoms in light flour batter stuffed with mozzarella di bufala are cool, oily, and have little of the herbaceous and vegetal flavor you’d expect. The restaurant kitchen, unlike the production kitchen, has an erratic hand with seasoning. Aside from the guanciale, salt is more often absent than excessive, a welcome change from most kitchens. Peperoncino vinaigrette clobbers too-cold shaved zucchini rounds, arranged on the plate with (nearly unfindable) squash blossoms and fresh ricotta. A “gently spicy” tomato sauce with the non-squid-ink classic version of chitarra isn’t at all mild; the heat masks the sweetness and freshness of the house tomato sauce, which otherwise makes everything taste better.
Main courses are plain and a letdown after pastas, but they always are in Italy. Veal breast, a favorite Italian cut, is stuffed with pork sausage and served in a very plain jus; there are no fireworks, but it’s worth having for the quality of the meat. The most successful main I tried was scallop, gulf prawn, and expertly seared red snapper over swiss chard and comfort-food chickpea puree. The mix of seafood and the expertise of the saute, unusual for the spirit of the menu, hinted at what’s typical of professional restaurant kitchens rather than home ones, and made me think that the line cooks under Patrick’s supervision could be given a freer hand with the mains.
The desserts—a mixture of homey puddings like flan and small, brownie-like chocolate fondant tortinos—also betrayed a professional touch. The torched fresh figs with toasted walnut and vanilla gelato arrived pastry-chef pretty. Fanciest-looking and also best was a “floating island,” piped-out meringue torched to a marshmallowy crisp with a light vanilla sauce and fresh red berries.
When Pietro Gianni told me he came to Atlanta to open an outpost of the Eataly chain at Ponce City Market (the deal faltered and finally fell through), the idea of the restaurant clicked: a place that harnesses the engine of a production facility so high-powered it supplies more than two dozen restaurants and hotels (and Delta business class, if you please). The enthusiastic service and familial welcome, along with the customers popping in to order a half dozen casonsei or to sample white bean spread at the cash register, bring some of the happy semi-chaos of PCM, which of course has its own home-grown mini Eataly, Bellina Alimentari.
What will make Storico Fresco soar as high as the spectacular, mile-high timballo—a savory pie with a sweet-salt crust and stacked-high layers of cheese-filled tortelloni, a dish usually reserved for Christmas and special occasions—is to embrace the store and the cases and bring them to the tables. When I convinced a server to bring us a taste of the royal-looking timballo tempting us from the case, or to serve us a pleated, marvelously black-crusted individual burnt ricotta pie even though it wasn’t on the menu, I thought I was in Italy. Indeed, Patrick told me that the next version of the menu will offer many of the takeout dishes, including that burnt ricotta pie. I’ll hope for a wide selection of the imported cured meats and the several kinds of lasagna. And maybe, maybe the timballo. Now that will be worth pulling up a chair for.
Good to know
In Italian, storico fresco means “fresh history.” Michael Patrick traveled throughout Italy to research pasta-making methods and recipes.
3167 Peachtree Road,
Just try to get into Sushi Hayakawa. That’s not as much of a taunt as it sounds, but it’s definitely a challenge.
I couldn’t do it at the end of last summer. I called every Monday, when the restaurant’s website said it started accepting reservations for the week, hoping for a callback and never getting one. Finally, the third week, someone actually answered the phone. It was the chef himself, Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa, who then embarked on a nearly 40-minute cri de coeur. Every night, he said, he had to turn down people like me who called or people who showed up at the door without reservations. He didn’t have the space to seat them. His staff didn’t have the capacity or time to serve more customers. Nor could he find any quality sushi chefs who could match the standards and technique he learned when he started training at the age of 15 in the city of Sapporo on his native island of Hokkaido. He made offers to chefs in New York City, but they kept falling through because nobody wanted to move here. He himself had offers to move to New York City, but no, Atlanta was his adopted city. Still, he wasn’t sure he could stand the pressure much longer. If I were serious about trying his sushi, I’d better get there soon. He was thinking of closing, maybe for a long break, maybe forever.
That break turned out to last five months. The event that precipitated it, he told me when he finally reopened, was when a woman sat down with her party, calmly took out a bag from McDonald’s, and started eating while her companions ordered off the menu. He closed the next week to reevaluate and to renovate in the same strip mall up Buford Highway. He resolved to build an atmosphere that would be sufficiently meditative that diners wouldn’t flinch at spending $100 a head. No crying babies—children under 12 would be banned, as would California rolls, rocket rolls, and those other fusion crowd-pleasers. In the new place, no one would think of yelling into a cellphone or, well, opening a McDonald’s bag.
He reopened in March with just five tables of four and a sushi bar that seats six, built from a slab of maple he spent months tracking down in remote sawmills and doing a fair amount of the construction himself. No need for another skilled sushi chef—he would be the sole artist, with a second chef preparing cooked dishes in an adjoining kitchen.
So how hard is it to get in now? Plenty. The wait for a reservation averages three weeks, but at least now people actually answer the phone, usually starting at 3 p.m., and return messages. Thinking about walking in? Don’t bother. I watched as aspirants were turned away each evening I was there. Is all this worth the trouble? Yes. Hayakawa’s skill—his calling—is working with raw fish, much of it from his native Hokkaido. But be ready for a spare aesthetic. Sushi Hayakawa is not out to entertain you, like Craft Izakaya or MF Sushi. It has no rough or rowdy edges like most other sushi restaurants. Like the tea-green walls and framed pieces of black-and-white calligraphy, the feel is monochromatic. The spotlight is on the fish.
The revelations, too, are quiet, and found in the fish that diners often pass over in favor of surefire hits like bluefin and fatty tuna. Succulent amber-toned shima aji (striped jack) had a powerful near-tuna flavor I’d never noticed. Unless you’ve been to Cape Cod in the height of deep-sea scallop season, you won’t know how sweet and candy-like scallops can be. Hayakawa’s were so fresh and meaty, sliced for sashimi or for nigiri, that even at a second dinner we had to order more. His octopus proved that today’s de rigueur charring in cast iron and slathering with barbecue sauce is overkill, at least if the octopus comes from Hokkaido. He serves his raw, either as sashimi or carved into tiny cubes soaked with wasabi, and it’s more tender than most chefs realize is even possible.
Purists judge the skill of a sushi chef by the nigiri—slices of fish laid over seasoned rice—and, by extension, the rice. And Hayakawa is nothing if not a purist. Lavishly thick slices of fish—tuna, salmon, horse mackerel, red snapper—were curvily tucked beneath clouds of turnip threads. That thickness is particularly luxurious given the simple presentation: fish served over rice with a dot of wasabi. Nothing more. The house recommendation is a rarely seen premium wasabi of tiny jade-green shoots suspended in a clear soy brine. Be careful. It’s potent.
Hayakawa is also an artist. A broad oval platter of sashimi came grouped around a whole fish frame curled with toothpicks as if just leaping out of the sea (the kitchen later sectioned it, deep-fried it, and brought it back to the table as a separate course). This artistry took time, and Hayakawa does everything, which explains why the platter took a full hour to arrive after we were seated. Fatty tuna, a super-rich and generally inert luxury elsewhere, was sheer opulence here: delicate but authoritative, providing a backbone for the foie gras–like texture of the light mauve strips. Uni (sea urchin) was lush, fresh, and sweet. Hayakawa will sometimes offer you the chance to compare uni from northern and eastern Hokkaido. Never say no.
The few rolls that bordered on the gimmicky, which Hayakawa had supposedly sworn off, were the weakest items on the menu: Panko-fried jumbo shrimp plunked indecorously tail-up in the middle of a cut roll were blown out with sesame mayo. Lobster salad draped with pink soy paper and cut into a rectangular “box roll” was pretty, like a ladies luncheon loaf, but the rice was cool and hard, the lobster undetectable under yet another mayonnaise cloak. Cooked food, too, is light on revelations, but I did want several dishes again—and soon. Japanese eggplant chunks were grilled and then pan-fried so that the flesh was as firm as custard. Impossibly tender, somehow fatless pork belly squares in a dashi broth were the most original and persuasive take on an overused cut I’ve ever tried. Sansai mozuku, a deceptively simple “mountain vegetables” cold appetizer, turned out to be a beaker of deep-brown, translucent liquid with nail-thin mushrooms. Made with several kinds of vinegar, the deeply fungal broth was cool and mysteriously refreshing, like something that would teleport you into a Japanese print of the mid-1800s.
It’s hard to imagine someone matching Hayakawa’s skill, or at least his sense of duty. His impassioned odes to his art and his adopted city demand local attention. We should go well out of our way to celebrate this sometimes tormented, driven artist. The question now is how much longer he’s willing to wait for the rest of Atlanta to figure that out.
★ ★ ★ ★
Good to know
Reservations to dine and for omakase are required.
5979 Buford Highway
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the name Sushi House Hayakawa was retired in 2016 and replaced with Sushi Hayakawa.
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.
After 15 years of commuting from East Cobb to work in high-end ITP restaurants like Nava and Bluepointe, Doug Turbush decided in 2011 that it was time to open a chef-driven restaurant close to home. The local dining landscape was, as he told me recently, “kinda bleak”—a place with great schools and an affluent population, but with no place he and his wife wanted to eat. So when an East Cobb shopping center put up a sign touting Whole Foods as an incoming tenant, he called the leasing agent. If their demographic research suggested that the mall was the place for Whole Foods, it was good enough for him. After some cajoling, Turbush got the Turnip Truck, which delivers produce from about two dozen area farms, to add a distant stop to its regular ITP route.
The strategy worked, and the crowds poured in. Indeed, when I visited Seed last year, I could see from the eccentric felicity of the decor alone that it was different from the kind of restaurant you usually find in a strip mall. It has a clean, Nordic look, with white bentwood chairs tipped with deep-orange feet, oversized stylized pictures of flowers and plants, and bright hardwood floors. The menu wasn’t matchingly eccentric, though straightforward American dishes like steak frites and chicken and dumplings sometimes came with the happy surprises of subtle Thai spicing, a nod to the year Turbush spent cooking in Bangkok and the home cooking of his Thai-born wife. A recent look at the menu suggests that Seed is more streamlined than it was a year ago, showing the fine-tuning Turbush told me he does regularly. The only hint of exoticism was pan-roasted blue cod with a Thai herb vinaigrette.
Turbush engineered Seed to such success—he opened Stem wine bar two years later next door—that he started looking to open a third restaurant in East Cobb. He found a yet more upscale mall a few miles away and designed a large space in a prime corner location with 200 seats, as many as Seed and Stem combined. In February he opened the doors to Drift Fish House & Oyster Bar. The decor is beige and plain, bordering on a corporate retreat, but Turbush knows his audience, and business, he told me, has been “gangbusters.”
That may be so, but over the course of three meals, I kept writing in my notes, “Doesn’t trust the ingredients.” However high the quality of the fish and seafood, Turbush seemed compelled to cloak it in a comfortingly familiar blanket. After a server took us through the day’s oyster selection, I asked if I could pick a certain one for the appetizer of wood-roasted oysters. “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you choose,” he said. “You can’t tell the difference.” So why does anyone order them? “People like the anchovy butter and the breadcrumbs.” I saw what he meant; anchovy butter woke up a piece of disappointingly mealy wood-grilled swordfish with caponata, and toasted breadcrumbs make everything taste better. But roasting the oysters with crunchy, pungent toppings relegated them to slightly chewy blobs of gray protein—so why bother starting with oysters at all, unless maybe to show how ingeniously Nature designed individual baking dishes.
When Turbush didn’t play it safe, he overreached. There were two sauces where one would do and stray flavors that clashed rather than melded. An appetizer of charred octopus was glazed with black pepper jam made with sweet soy sauce, fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger; set over a Meyer lemon puree bound with olive oil; and served with sweet-and-sour braised onions cooked down in plenty of butter. Try saying that 10 times. Several of the components, like the onions, stood out, but the octopus was almost completely lost. She-crab soup should be rich, but Drift’s version seemed to be all cream, without enough Tabasco or chili oil to cut through it—let alone room for the flavor of the crab meat to register.
Yet it’s clear that there’s real expertise lurking in Drift’s uneven kitchen. A special of deep-fried soft-shell crabs with peaches was one time crisp and spare, with a few sweet-tart slivers of peach to set off the natural juices of the crab. But another time it was buried in a down coat of weirdly sweet batter that masked the crab, all of it doused with breakfasty syrup. Other dishes were right on target. An appetizer of barbecue wild shrimp made the case for spice, butter, and cream to lift superior seafood, and I’d try those Georgia head-on shrimp with anything. (They were far more impressively flavored than the bigger, sometimes frozen ones the kitchen served me with sludge-thick smoked tomato grits or as a stone-cold peel-and-eat appetizer.) Bay of Fundy salmon was succulent and slow-roasted, with perkily fresh sides of spring onion, fava beans, and shiitakes. A special of Copper River king salmon, a beautiful piece of fish, was even better: tender and moist, with a ragout of just-crunchy lady peas and grilled morels.
With so many customers to serve every night, it’s no surprise that the simplest dishes were frequently the most successful. Three thick and generous slices of cast-iron-seared tuna steak, served very rare and tiger-striped with white lines of fat, were painted with a citrus-soy glaze that let the succulent meat shine through. The lobster roll was a very plausible Southern contender for a sandwich that’s the pride of the North. The generous four ounces of lobster meat were moist and sweet, and whether you pick the cold version with lemon mayo or the hot one napped with melted butter, the roll will go down all too fast.
Drift, then, is for now a confounding restaurant. It has a chef-owner who knows how to tool his menu to what people will order, which perhaps isn’t necessarily what he wants to cook. When Turbush offered a well-priced, seldom-seen-in-the-suburbs skate-wing schnitzel, customers, to his disappointment, ignored it wholesale. That shouldn’t deter him, and Turbush should continue to tune every dish to the standouts like the wild salmon and lobster roll—dishes you’d have to travel far to beat. And to achieve the same thriving, chef-driven success that he reached at Seed, Turbush should fly with his skate-wing instincts and wait for his gangbusters crowds to get onboard.
Good to know
Gluten-free diners should ask for the special (and lengthy) menu designed around their dietary needs.
4475 Roswell Road, Marietta
This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.
In the year and a half that I’ve lived in Inman Park, I’ve watched restaurants pop up like mushrooms at the main entrance to the Atlanta BeltLine. Where there was Sotto Sotto, Fritti, and Barcelona Wine Bar, there’s now Barcelona’s yet-hipper sister, Bartaco, with its outdoor fireplace and sweeping terrace. There’s MF Sushi and BeetleCat, all going for the same trendy crowds that flood the street nightly. A wine shop (VinoTeca) and a cocktail bar (Amer) have opened next door. What more could anyone want?
Billy Allin knew, as he usually does. When the area around Decatur Square seemed chockablock with restaurants, he relocated Cakes & Ale there from a few blocks west and included an all-day bakery-cafe next door as a hangout alternative to Starbucks. In May of last year, he opened Proof, a sandwich shop and bakery in another corner of Inman Park. Again he knew what the neighborhood needed—a place for a quick lunch on an otherwise empty block, save for the terrifically welcoming neighborhood bar and restaurant One Eared Stag.
It turns out that Bread & Butterfly is just what Restaurant Row in Inman Park needs. Not just because it looks like Paris for the French-deprived, with its marvelous mirrored bar, black-and-white Provençal-tiled floor, bronze stamped-metal ceiling, and gleaming chromed espresso machine. An all-too-tempting pastry display by the cash register and arty magazines hanging on poles inside the door make it clear that leisurely loafing is permitted. It’s the all-day-and-night, something-for-everyone welcome that sets B&B apart and makes it settle in so snugly. I kept finding reasons to drop by, even if just to drink from the short and careful list of wines that’s very French and unusually well priced (ask sommelier Jordan Smelt what’s good from the Loire Valley). A few weeks after B&B opened, a fellow Flywheel spinner I’d seen at the restaurant the evening before admitted that he’d met someone for morning coffee and ended up working there the whole day. I wasn’t surprised.
The food, under the guidance of executive chef Bryan Stoffelen, took longer to bring into focus than the space and the feel, but I soon enough surrendered to its simplicity. B&B, I would argue, is more fully realized than Cakes & Ale or Proof: the sunny design warmer and less stark than the former and less do-it-yourself rustic than the latter. The food is more cohesive and of a piece because of its clear inspiration from classic bistro menus. Restraint, freshness, and unfussy visual appeal have always been Allin’s hallmarks—something lacking in B&B’s neighbors, however fun and fine they may be. What B&B offers is food you can like not just any time of day but every day: clean, undemanding, not special occasion, and not exotic. No, the food isn’t flawless, but who wants flawlessness? It’s irritating.
So when the streamlined cafe classics at B&B are better than they need be, as is frequently the case, they’re a particular delight. Shrimp remoulade might make you crave mayo as much as Allin says he does. He flecks the remoulade with parsley, and it coats without burying the simmered, cooled shrimp. The only way New Orleans might top it is with fresher shrimp. A chicken liver pâté (no longer on the menu) became wondrous through Allin’s attention to ingredients: The liver is from poulet rouge; the baguette is the superior airy, slightly sweet one from Proof; and the chicories and sherry-pickled raisins are part of the sparkling, judiciously portioned salads he serves next to most appetizers.
Eggs are the most reliable strength, as they should be on a menu meant to carry you through the day or night. Buttery, pillowy eggs were particularly lush in a breakfast soft scramble with a folded slice of smoked salmon and crème fraîche laid over giant-sized squares of under-toasted brioche. An early omelet was dense, weighted with clumpy, melted cheese, but a later version dotted with emerald-green turnip-top pistou was shiny, soft, and just savory enough—far lighter on the cheese and sauteed with only enough butter to let it slide out of the pan.
Not everything is as surefooted. The burger isn’t up to the standard of the Cakes & Ale version that took Atlanta by storm such that Allin tired of making it. It’s a bit dry, much like the homemade bun. Fish in parchment might be so bland that only a very good breadcrumb and black olive relish rescues it. But then there are hits like a special of scallops with sauteed spinach that was bull’s-eye precise, the warmed center of the scallops so sweet that I hope they come back to the menu. Homemade tomato soup, just thick enough and not the usual salty red sludge, was an ideal early-spring warmer under a crackling square of light puff pastry, far from the greasy, corrugated Pepperidge Farm cardboard that other restaurants bring out with a flourish.
As with the homemade puff pastry, the breakfasts are as good as you’d expect from a place with its own sister bakery. Even in the first three months, the croissants became lighter, heading to the level of the Little Tart Bakeshop to vie for best in town. A simple plate of Many Fold Farm‘s sheep’s-milk farmer’s cheese with granola, jewel-toned apricot preserves, and more of that Proof baguette is as close to morning heaven as you’ll find in Atlanta.
Desserts, though, aren’t on the same level as the croissants, brioche, or, for that matter, the baguette. The baking forte is bread, not pastry. A bland Linzer torte had too few of the defining ground nuts in the crust. Spritz cookies were lovely to look at but a bit heavy and oversized. One standout: the Meyer lemon tart, which arrived in a flaky shell with a thick, marvelously grainy custard filling colored a wonderful sunny orange. Don’t miss it.
But again, who wants flawlessness? Even with the occasional deflating, Bread & Butterfly is the reliable all-day restaurant the neighborhood needs. The servers and the yellow neon “Merci” in 1950s script radiate an easy warmth that’s a fairly sharp contrast to the heat next door. Six months in, I already can’t imagine Inman Park without it.
★ ★ ★ ★ (very good)
Good to know
B&B doesn’t take reservations. Weekend brunch, which starts at 10:30 a.m., is wildly popular.
290 Elizabeth Street
This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.
If you want a transcendent meal, stop reading, go to the Staplehouse website, and book a tasting dinner for the first open evening on your calendar. Then book another for a special occasion. Then tell your friends to do the same thing.
Why would I urge you to try a new system of reservations that demands you pay in advance for a multicourse tasting menu you don’t even get to choose? Because Staplehouse is the rare—and I mean really rare—restaurant where the menu devised by the chef, Ryan Smith, served with the balance and in the order he wants, provides a dining experience subtler and more seductive than what you could create for yourself from the a la carte menu.
Take the guinea hen, previously offered on both menus. A la carte it was the leg, whose blackened, crisp skin and gamy dark meat was the result of simmering in a winey stock and flash-frying. Each time I dined, the server said it might be the last of the season. The threat worked: One night, overcome by the fear I might never have the dish again, I ordered a second leg (a good thing, too; it was soon replaced by duck).
Yet on the tasting menu, the hen was of a focus and elegance that bespoke the greatest sophistication: a thin triangle of delicate breast meat served beside a cylinder of lean sausage made from leg meat and rolled in charred onion powder so as to resemble a stuffed grape leaf. The elegance was all the more striking for being the fourth course of a carefully paced series of dishes, including a surprise sampling of sourdough potato rolls, adapted from Smith’s Pennsylvania grandmother’s recipe, and home-cured pork loin sliced thin, the fat delicate and irresistible as lardo. These unexpected, virtuosic touches come like gifts. They add up to a whole greater than its parts.
The talent and generous spirit Smith unfolds course by course is enough to make you think, Here’s a chef worth making a trip for. I mean a plane trip. But the real question is whether the diners who can and should keep Staplehouse alive will drive from Buckhead, Alpharetta, or Johns Creek to the Old Fourth Ward. In the restaurant’s rocky first few months, as dining editor Evan Mah recently chronicled in a Q&A with Smith, the answer was, maybe not. In November, mere weeks after opening, sometimes only four tables were full. When I dined in subsequent months, I was alarmed to still see empty tables on weeknights (business picked up on weekends, Smith told us, and the restaurant has stayed crowded). Let me say: This is a restaurant that should never be anything but fully booked—and with a line out the door.
What’s holding Staplehouse back? First, the format. Staplehouse adopted a tasting menu just as the concept is going out of vogue. In New York City, one of its best-known exemplars, Eleven Madison Park, drastically scaled back theirs at the beginning of the year. Bacchanalia, which offered a particularly stuffy, no-changes-please version, gave it up soon after. Then there are the tickets, which allow restaurants to lock in the quantity of ingredients they need by asking diners to pay upfront. In theory, restaurants will variably price tables depending on demand, selling off excess inventory at lower prices, like airlines; in practice, few do. (And so far, neither does Staplehouse.) Atlantans took to it about as warmly as they did to tasting menus.
But the main reasons for the slow start, I think, are diners’ fears of venturing into a still slightly edgy neighborhood and the clear mismatch of the room to the food. The homemade-looking banquettes along the exposed brick wall of a century-old factory makes the long, narrow room feel like a friendly, hipsterish pub. The staff is welcoming and informed, and the open kitchen is fully integrated into the restaurant. The chef silently raises a tattooed forearm to signal food runners when a dish is ready, since no one can shout without disrupting the diners. But the food (and the prices: $85 before tax—not including alcohol—and a 20 percent mandatory tip) is of a seriousness that suggests, perhaps even demands, white tablecloths and a hint of formality.
Staplehouse certainly has the winds of goodwill in its sails. The story, if you don’t recall: Ryan and Jen Hidinger, a couple who had been sweethearts since she was 17 and he 22, arrived from their native Indiana in 2004 to conquer Atlanta, where Ryan had gone to culinary school. To build an audience and raise money for an intimate restaurant they dreamed of opening, the young marrieds hosted ticket-only dinners at their house.
Their plans were upended when Ryan was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer and, at age 35, given six months to live. Jen quit her job to become a full-time caregiver. The restaurant community raised $275,000 for aggressive, advanced medical care and to support the couple while they continued planning for the restaurant. Friends and family members vowed to keep the dream alive. Ryan Smith, Ryan Hidinger’s friend and fellow chef who worked at Empire State South for a time, married Hidinger’s sister, Kara. The fundraising shifted to a new charity called the Giving Kitchen, which assists restaurant workers during health and personal crises. Today the charity lives far beyond Ryan Hidinger’s tragic death in 2014, 13 months after his diagnosis. “Team Hidi’s” fourth annual fundraiser, in January, raised nearly $400,000.
As captivating as the Staplehouse story is—all after-tax profits go to the Giving Kitchen—the food is why you need to go. The ingredients are impeccably local; the casually passionate servers reel off more farm and dairy names than you’d hear at the Grant Park Farmers Market. The cooking techniques sound much more complicated than food ought to be, as if the chef got stuck in a molecular gastronomy time warp. Smith sticks to sous vide and gelling agents like pectin and carrageenan that other chefs played with and put back in the toy chest. He uses seven techniques in one dish when two would seem to suffice—apparently Smith’s exploratory yin to Hidinger’s straightforward yang. But Smith delivers flavors that can be revelatory.
Beef tartare arrives as a wide flat disc of glistening hand-chopped beef covered with what looks like beige curls. The beef is unctuous, with a mysterious saline depth that turns out to be “sake bushi,” home-smoked and dried salmon flakes made from leftover bits of summer salmon, cured and shaved like bonito. And the beige curls? They’re grains of cooked Carolina rice, rinsed of their starch and deep-fried to puff them, a texture contrast that plays against the meat’s silken texture. (Smith also deep-fries beef tendon, an ingredient of the moment, to give it the crunchy puff of chitlins.)
Creating this kind of flavor from home fermenting and smoking, and never letting one scrap go to waste, is, unlike the molecular toy chest, up to the minute. While Hidinger was fighting cancer, Smith became focused on health and lost weight; his dishes are noticeably light, with meat frequently used as a condiment and fermentation rather than fat used for flavor.
More important than being on-trend is what Smith achieves, with perhaps too many techniques but not, thankfully, too many ingredients. He roasts broccoli with bits of home-cured bacon, roasted peanuts, and a smear of ivory-colored béchamel flavored with a rich soy sauce; the flavors are bright, distinct, and deepened by the soy, with staccato notes of salt and smoke from the bacon. Just-softened baby collards and kale appear as components of other dishes, in a light sauce of oil and butter emulsified with pan juices. Along with the hen, the broccoli goes on my list of dishes of the year.
Smith also gets away from butter and cream by using nut purees and oils, like a creamy sunflower seed vinaigrette over farro and sauteed black trumpet mushrooms; the farro nestles a sous vide–poached egg that’s breaded and quickly deep-fried, the yolk still runny. Or he doubles the umami for the same black trumpets in a sauce of oil made from steeping foraged maitake mushrooms, emulsified with milk. He even emulsifies aged beef fat from ribeye trim with milk, aerating the warm liquid in a charger—a process that sounds yucky but yields a light mayonnaise that melds memorably with green-gold roasted Romanesco florets, tiny radishes, and spinach.
All these dishes appear periodically on the a la carte menu. So does a masterful chicken liver mousse tart, the mousse using every French trick in Le Guide Culinaire (brandy, cream, butter, burned shallots) yet as light as it is smooth, topped with a burnt honey gelée. Wine and cider pairings, from beverage director Stephen James, are as original and calibrated as the dishes, particularly a tart but full-bodied naturally fermented Normandy cider, Cave de la Loterie.
My invitation to try Smith’s open-hearted food doesn’t blind me to its limitations. Some of the gelled dishes, like the chicken liver mousse cut into strips served on the first tasting menu, are gummy. The monkfish’s lemon and peppercorn dressing has an unpleasant acidity.
But that’s small change. One taste of the sorbet—made with Cruze Farm buttermilk as pure, fresh, and perfect as that cured loin—will make you wonder when you can come back. And once you experience Smith’s food, you’ll fill in the white tablecloths for yourself. Staplehouse is a restaurant that’s genuinely exciting, and the rest of the country should and will discover it. Don’t let out-of-towners anoint it. Make Staplehouse the hometown-conquering hero it deserves to be.
★ ★ ★ ★ (Superlative)
Good to know
This is the magazine’s first four-star review since 2010.
541 Edgewood Avenue
This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.
It was New Year’s Eve. Adam Evans, the chef of Brezza Cucina at Ponce City Market, had planned the menu months in advance, and the planning was evident. My first sip of celery root soup, creamy like a French velouté and dotted with crisp golden croutons on top, made me sit up, startled. A frisée salad had French finesse, the bright chicory and crisped lardons tossed in a vinaigrette with just enough acid to cut the pork. Roast chicken came covered in a meaty porcini ragu rather than the salsa verde of chopped herbs and oil that blankets the one on the regular menu. What would be by any standard a very good fire-roasted chicken suddenly acquired Michelin-star elegance.
That elegance turned out to be the exception, not the rule. Evans may be the chef of Brezza, but he’s there to execute someone else’s vision: New York-by-way-of-California celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman. He would seem to be the perfect occupant of the space, even if he has no plans to be there himself. Waxman’s California-casual sensibility and his ability to transform edgy urban areas into places that attract sophisticates made him attractive to the market’s developers. Barbuto, his Cal-Ital restaurant in Manhattan, is in a former garage, with paned glass similar to the windows at Ponce City Market. Adele’s in Nashville is in a former auto repair shop, whose exposed brick walls also recall Ponce City Market. Both restaurants border on Spartan but still manage to evoke an under-control party atmosphere, and both menus go with the shirtsleeves feel: simple Italian dishes that always deliver more than you think they will—particularly his kale salad, which helped start the green tide, and that roasted chicken.
Does Brezza deliver, too? Hard to say. With a menu of standards that doesn’t vary much, execution needs to be consistent. But keeping track at Brezza was like watching a slide show where pictures go in and out of focus and pass by too fast. One night salads were sparkling and distinct, pastas served hot with just enough sauce and kick. On other nights—and I went five times—dinner was so sloppy and nondescript (faded salads, cold pasta with no al dente bite or spice) that I forgot what I’d eaten before the dessert menu came. Potato gnocchi were unseasoned, oily, lukewarm pillows that couldn’t compete with the roasted hen of the woods mushrooms that dress the dish, which at least tasted like something.
The contrast between that sparkling New Year’s Eve night and the other generally nondescript dinners is a byproduct of Brezza’s design, which is to keep the Waxman vision—which Evans studied for 10 days in New York while training at Barbuto—at the core. That vision starts with what servers say is the holy Waxman trinity of jw kale salad, roast chicken, and fried jw potatoes with pecorino and rosemary. The chicken, with tender flesh and crisp, fatty skin, is failsafe, though less interesting than Evans’s ragu variation. The kale salad, with an anchovy vinaigrette and breadcrumbs, was indeed a fresh change when Waxman brought it to greens-starved New York. But even with the local kale Evans orders, it’s a chore to chew. And the potatoes, hand-smashed into irregular but roughly tater tot–sized blocks, taste just of the deep fryer—all crunch and no floury flesh. Better to try the braised lamb shank, served on a bed of polenta and dotted with chopped black olives, pine nuts, and rounds of Calabrese peppers. It’s the most focused of the current entrees: the polenta not too creamy, the meat browned and beefy with actual chew, like brisket ends.
What refused to come into focus were the pizzas and pastas. Bucatini all’Amatriciana, which should be as failsafe as the chicken, is like a volume-cranked-down imitation of the soulful version found on the other side of the food hall at Bellina. Pizzas are technically well-made—tender, resilient crust; lightly melted burrata—but little more. None of the vegetables had the vibrant flavor and color of those I’ve eaten at Barbuto and remember still, like the roasted Brussels sprouts or escarole with chile that’s like something a beaming Sicilian grandfather might bring to your table.
Brezza’s menu is largely limited to a list that gives Evans little room to show his considerable skills, but when he does the dishes acquire some of that New Year’s luster. Anything with fish is a good bet: Evans worked at the Optimist, where Ford Fry encouraged his love of fish. Charred-outside, tender-inside octopus with yogurt that Evans ferments himself; delicate but focused crudos of gulf snapper and hamachi dressed with pistachio, fennel, and orange; a spectacular whole fried snapper with broccoli and calabrese sausage—you could tell his heart was here more than in the jw trinity, and it’s where plates picked up interest.
Evans also came up with a clever vegetable preparation that I’d order again and again: melting chunks of Japanese sweet potato with spiced butter. The subtle kicks of cinnamon and allspice, the potatoes themselves harvested at a farm near Athens, had me vowing to start buying more of this supposed nutritional powerhouse.
I’m happy to have reliable roast chicken available just a short walk from my new house, but I wonder how much more we could savor if Waxman let Evans loose and gave him the autonomy to design and personalize the menu. Atlanta has a history of greeting visiting celeb chefs with a loud meh. Evans’s mentor Tom Colicchio, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Emeril Lagasse all noisily moved to town and quietly folded their tents within a few years of opening. They likely assumed that their names alone would be enough to bring in customers. With Evans at the helm, Waxman, who is opening a similar restaurant in San Francisco under the same name, has the chance to break that streak. Evans may not have the souls of California and Italy running through his hands, as Waxman does, but he understands seafood and brings a set of skills that are more frankly French and elegant than those of his boss. Which is to say, a united philosophy and menu will make Brezza its own genuinely interesting restaurant. Given the wait for and investment in Ponce City Market, I think we’ve got it coming.
Good to know
This is the only restaurant in PCM that takes reservations.
675 Ponce de Leon Avenue
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.