Photograph by Ted Golden.
2015 was punctuated with the December opening of Staplehouse, which has since been labeled by many as one of the best restaurants in the country. When I started making this 2016 list, I pinged my usually vocal friends for their favorite meals of the year. But most expressed how underwhelmed they were on the dining front beyond Staplehouse. Sure, there were plenty of openings, but the dining scene felt . . . slow. Maybe it was election stress, but looking back through my Instagram feed in an effort to jog my memory, the dishes that I loved the most tended to be more comforting rather than luxurious items featured in tasting menus (although there is one of those on this list).
As I look to the new year, I hope 2017 will bring more diversity in restauranteurs and culinary talent. It is time for fewer food halls and more small businesses like Spring in Marietta, the restaurant I reviewed for our January issue. Chef Brian So is certainly one to watch and easily landed a spot on my list below. Even though 2016 was an odd year for restaurants overall, these individual dishes—such as his Carolina gold rice with vegetables—grabbed my attention.
Editor’s note: This list is in no particular order, and some of dishes may not be available on the menu at press time due to seasonal offerings.
1. Carolina gold rice and vegetables at Spring
Chef Brian So’s elevated the vegetables he sourced from local farmers with restraint in this pairing of nutty Carolina gold rice (an heirloom rice) with charred vegetables such as onions and okra in a tart hot lemon vinaigrette, topped with a fried farm egg. So, who is of Korean descent, doesn’t cook Korean food at Spring, but this dish was reminiscent of bibimbop (a traditional Korean rice, vegetable, and meat dish served with an egg), but distilled down to its components and lightened. 90 Marietta Station Walk Northeast, Marietta, 678-540-2777
2. Toro uni ikura don at Brush Izakaya
This Decatur izakaya owned by Jason Liang has a huge sushi presence and an interesting menu where you’ll find treasures like his Toro uni ikura don. A shallow rectangular bowl of sushi rice sets the foundation for what look like a landscape except it is painted with uni (sea urchin), chopped toro (fatty tuna), ikura (roe), wasabi, and raw quail eggs, whose yolks act as a dressing. The dish comes with two slender wooden spoons so you can mix and scoop each bite of pure seafood decadence. 316 Church St, Decatur, 678-949-9412
3. Pepperoni and turnips with turnip green sauce at Staplehouse
Turnips aren’t the easiest sell, but chef Ryan Smith makes his juicy and sweet. In a ballsy and creative move, he paired the turnips with square chunks of spicy homemade pepperoni. The combination is accompanied by another layer of turnips and a bright, earthy sauce made from the greens, sweetened with slow-cooked black garlic. No other dish better shows off Smith’s sauce-making mastery and love for intense flavors. 541 Edgewood Avenue Southeast, 404-524-5005
4. The biscuit at 8 ARM. Yeah, that’s right, a biscuit made the list, but how wonderful that a simple bread item is enough to wow me. Pastry chef Sarah Dodge has made something so homey and craveable in her simple, flaky buttermilk biscuit, and there is no better breakfast indulgence than this crumbly, warm biscuit served either plain or as a sandwich made with pimento cheese and thick cut bacon. I grab one at least once a week. 710 Ponce De Leon Ave NE, 470-875-5856
5. Mushroom French dip at Bread & Butterfly
After a couple of bites of this vegetarian “French dip” sandwich, I forgot the traditional version was supposed to have beef instead of a mix of stewed mushrooms. Gooey strings of melted gruyere and caramelized onions round out the fillings, all sandwiched between two pieces of buttery, crackly rye bread. Not to be forgotten is the dip portion, a vegetarian red wine jus heady with earthy notes. 290 Elizabeth Street Northeast, Atlanta, 678-515-4536
6. Braised beef and hoisin rolls at La Mei Zi
The most wow-worthy dish at this self-proclaimed Asian bistro is actually an appetizer. Scallion pancakes act as wrappers for slowly cooked beef redolent with anise (but not too much), crunchy green onions, and a smear of salty and sweet hoisin sauce. 5150 Buford Highway, 770-626-0225
7. The Franky Pep round pie at O4W Duluth
It is hard to look past the fan favorite Grandma Pie at the new location of this former Old Fourth Ward pizzeria, but don’t let nostalgia stop you from ordering one of the menu’s stunning newcomers. This round Jersey-style thin pizza is cooked until crisp and topped with thin slices of salty prosciutto that acts as the seasoning for the pie. The real kicker is the fiery hot chili oil, whose intensity toes the line between pain and pleasure. 3117 Main Street, Duluth, 678-587-5420
8. Uni with uni rice at Sushi Hayakawa
There is no sushi bar I would rather be at than Sushi Hayakawa. (Chef Art Hayakawa recently dropped the “House” from its name.) During an omakase one evening where we requested all of the uni, he mixed sushi rice with uni, rolled it in rice paper, and then topped with, yes, more uni. The creamy seafood dream saturated my senses and cemented Hayakawa’s place as a sushi master in my heart. 5979 Buford Highway Northeast, 770-986-0010
9. Vegan noodle bowl at Ticonderoga Club
This funky pub where everyone will eventually know your name abounds with Asian-influenced dishes like the vegan noodle bowl, Chef David Bies’s take on Singapore noodles. Rice noodles spicy with dry Madras curry set the stage for an endless parade of fresh farm veggies and chopped fresh herbs loaded into a massive bowl (about the size you’d get at your favorite pho joint). Unfortunately, the restaurant has since taken this dish off the menu, but, to me, it remains one of 2016’s most surprising and enjoyable dishes. Krog Street Market, 99 Krog Street Northeast, 404-458-4534
10. Brisket at B’s Cracklin’ BBQ
When Bryan Furman opened his second location of B’s Cracklin BBQ in Atlanta (the first is in Savannah), Atlanta’s barbecue game got a new player. The most impressive of Furman’s Carolina/Georgia hybrid barbecue is the brisket, which is fall-apart tender with beautiful pink rings of smoke bordering the thick slices of beef. 2061 Main Street Northwest, 678-949-9912