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Review: With Urban Wu and Hai Authentic Chinese, two legit Sichuan restaurants arrive in town

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Review: Hai Authentic Chinese
Sichuan dumplings at Hai Authentic Chinese

Photograph by Cori Carter

The best Sichuan restaurants in the metro area have always been outside the Perimeter. There’s the trusty standby Good Luck Gourmet on Buford Highway; the O.G. “ma la” palace Tasty China in Marietta; and the aptly named Masterpiece way out in Duluth. Now come two new Sichuan options more proximate to intowners, which means many of us can more conveniently satiate our hot and numbing Sichuan desires.

The chefs/owners at both Urban Wu in Buckhead and Hai Authentic Chinese in Decatur claim similar bragging rights: They each worked with Peter Chang, the enigmatic former (and founding) Tasty China chef whose nationwide fanbase makes him a touchstone when it comes to Sichuan food. But these two Chang proteges aren’t ripping off the master; their takes on Sichuan feel all their own. Their restaurants have similar menus with long lists of traditional options, but dishes at each are differently and interestingly executed.

Located in the “Disco Kroger” shopping center, Urban Wu is notable for its restrained yet masterful use of Sichuan peppercorns. Dry-fried eggplant is a good litmus-test dish for Sichuan cooking, and Wu’s version is light and less oily than most, making the French fry–like batons crunch just so. The fish in red-hot chili oil is a showstopper that arrives in an enormous, stainless-steel mixing bowl, the slick and gurgling broth teeming with cilantro, dried chilies, and Napa cabbage. You’ll find a milder table fellow in the chicken with three types of mushrooms, a tender and earthy jumble that’s robed in a light and silky sauce.

Compared to Urban Wu, Hai Chinese is more salty and fiery, but it still puts out beautifully balanced food. Chef Hai Wang, who previously worked his way up to chef/partner at Chang’s Maryland restaurant, runs the restaurant with his wife, who’s responsible for the supple Sichuan dumplings that are a proper start to the meal. Noodles abound at Hai, and the dan dan noodles are peerless in Atlanta. When tossed, each noodle gets coated in the salty and umami-heavy sauce flecked with chewy bits of tofu and imbued with Sichuan cuisine’s signature, hot and numbing (aka “ma la”) flavors. Hai’s garlic cucumber salad differs from other versions—the sauce is a bright green puree (practically a pesto) of potent garlic that will knock any flavor out of your mouth. The dish is a fitting companion to the Sichuan chili chicken, whose dangerous-looking chili paste makes it one of the spiciest dishes on the menu.

If asked to choose between Urban Wu and Hai, I’d give the former a slight edge, given the precision of the execution. But since I can get to either in about 15 minutes, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t hit up Urban Wu one week and Hai the next.

Urban Wu
★ ★ ★ ★
(Very Good)

3330 Piedmont Road
404-816-8008
urbanwuga.com

Hai Authentic Chinese
★ ★ ★
(Good)

2641 North Decatur Road, Decatur
470-225-7172
haichinese.com

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.

Review: Little Rey, Ford Fry’s first fast-casual spot, proves there’s little he can’t do

Review: Little Rey
Little Rey’s counter usually has a line out the door.

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

Compared to the taco stands and chicken joints of his Texas childhood, Ford Fry’s new restaurant, in a former tattoo parlor overlooking the gnarly intersection of Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge roads, is a big-deal production—the Hummer version of a rusty taco truck.

Little Rey is Fry’s 16th restaurant in an empire that includes JCT Kitchen, the Optimist, No. 246, St. Cecilia, and King + Duke. Simpler than Superica and the El Felix, his other Tex-Mex blockbusters, this fast-casual spot primarily serves wood-roasted chicken, tacos, and margaritas on tap. Who knew what kind of people would show up in a neighborhood better known for sketchy strip clubs than gastronomy? Apparently Fry did. Ansley and Morningside families came rushing in, followed by a crush of outliers.

Review: Little Rey, Ford Fry
Of his inspiration for the new restaurant, Ford Fry says: “I wanted to cook over wood.”

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

THE TEAM

Fry, a Houston native who grew up as the not–especially academically oriented kid in a family of doctors and businesspeople, first appeared on Atlanta’s radar in the late ’90s, when he became the corporate chef for Eatzi’s Buckhead, the ahead-of-its-time gourmet grocery. With plenty of capital and an uncanny sense of which neighborhoods were ready for conquest, he went on to open one splashy and successful restaurant after another. Why Little Rey? “I wanted to cook over wood, and I thought the neighborhood needed help,” he told me, beaming about a $2.5 million investment that is already doing twice as much business as anticipated.

THE FOOD

There are many ways to cook pollo al carbon on both sides of the border. The chicken, typically grilled over charcoal, is wood-roasted at Little Rey, which uses natural birds—spatchcocked, brined aggressively for four hours, then marinated for 24 more with citrus and achiote. They’re cooked on racks in a custom-made, fully enclosed wood-burning contraption backed by a formidable exhaust hood. Throughout the day, the chicken, juicy and rosy from the smoke, is served family style, hacked into burnished and fragrant pieces, with tortillas, smoked onions, charred jalapeños, cilantro rice, and rancho beans.

The breakfast tacos, served on supple, homemade flour tortillas, are easily the best in town, filled with sliced skirt steak, potatoes, chorizo, and/or poblano pepper layered over migas (eggs scrambled with crumbled tortilla chips) and twice-fried beans. From huevos rancheros to pancakes with buttermilk syrup, the breakfast menu is deeply comforting.

Starting at 11 a.m., diners can gorge on chicken al carbon, regular lunch tacos (such as ones stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, mushrooms, and poblano peppers, or slow-smoked brisket and tomatillo) served on corn tortillas, or fancier al carbon tacos served on the house flour tortillas and available “rico style,” with grilled jalapeños and chili con queso. Among the sides, the creamy esquites-style corn off the cob with mayo and crumbled cotija is a big hit, but others, including the “super greens” with radish, pumpkin seeds, and lime vinaigrette, are merely trendy and ultimately boring. While the various house salsas in squeeze bottles (including a smashing creamy garlic one) are spot on, the weirdly seasoned, pinkish queso is not. And the arroz con pollo is a bland aggregate of chopped chicken and cilantro rice topped with super greens.

THE DRINKS

The chemical-tasting, relatively weak margaritas are served on tap out of plastic cups. There are no options for those who appreciate a fine tequila, and the margarita choices are limited to frozen or on the rocks; big or small; and with grapefruit juice or not. One of the biggest problems with counter service—the fact that nobody wants to stand in line to get a second drink—has been resolved with a separate, dedicated drink counter. The selection of beers, including some on draft, and wines (many canned) is better than decent.

THE VIBE

Loud and fun, the mood is modern-day Texas roadhouse—spectacularly organized to get you in and out with a minimum of fuss. You pour your own water (sparkling or still), grab your own salsa and cutlery, and find your own niche in a large, sun-soaked room that’s cheerfully and stylishly adorned with primitive art, Mexican festival masks, and touches of neon. The patio out front, edged with string lights, is perched high enough above the street to be desirable.

THE VERDICT

Don’t worry about the lines or the chaotic parking lot: Everything moves quickly in this high-style, fast-casual joint done right. The wood-roasted chicken is king, but the tacos (particularly the breakfast ones and the giant steak al carbon on a superb flour tortilla) also are worth the trip.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
(Very Good)

1878 Piedmont Avenue NE, 770-796-0207
littlerey.com

What to order

Review: Little Rey, pollo al carbon

Pollo al carbon
It’s the specialty of the house . . . er, roadhouse.

 

Review: Little Rey, soft serve

Soft-serve
The rotating flavors include chocolate, banana, and churros.

Review: Little Rey, bacon breakfast taco

Bacon breakfast taco
Yes, you have to drive to the dreaded intersection of Cheshire Bridge and Piedmont for the best breakfast taco in town.

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.

Review: At Cardinal in Grant Park, sip iced vermouth and soak up mystical energy

Review: Cardinal
Kathryn DiMenichi (left) and Holli Medley

Photograph by Cori Carter

For Several years, Kathryn DiMenichi and Holli Medley knew the name of their eventual bar would be Cardinal, a bird they believe watches over them along with the spirits of their ancestors. The eccentricity of Cardinal, which opened in April, hardly stops there—and you should thank your burning sage it doesn’t.

To think of Cardinal as a mere speakeasy doesn’t do justice to its extraordinary whimsy. Two friends have created a free-spirited space—hidden behind their small food market, Third Street Goods—not only for congregating over iced vermouth or CBD juice drinks but for highlighting priorities such as waste-reduction and locavorism. The community vibe inside Cardinal is a logical extension of the one that distinguishes the compound where it’s situated. The Beacon, a collection of low-slung former industrial buildings, now houses an art center, several restaurants, a brewery, and a “pinfall” (bowling-meets-football-meets-cornhole) parlor with sets by popular DJs. It’s looser and more nightlife-oriented than similar developments. The south Grant Park location, formerly known mostly to graffiti artists and mounted police whose horses still graze in a nearby pasture, is adjacent to a yet-to-be-completed portion of the BeltLine trail.

Finding Cardinal in all of this is part of the fun. Once you’ve arrived at the Beacon from the surrounding maze of one-way streets, you’ll make your way down the hall of the main building, a former commercial cinnamon-bun factory, and enter a mysterious corridor with a plush curtain, a scattering of herbs and dried flowers on the floor, and, painted on the wall, a pink triangle symbolizing nature’s golden ratio. Just be sure to consult your lunar calendar before going to all that trouble: The bar is never open when there’s a full moon.

THE TEAM

DiMenichi and Medley have worked as bartenders at beloved establishments including Leon’s Full Service, where they met. Medley, who went to culinary school in her native Alabama, and DiMenichi, an Atlantan with an art background, stick to a routine in which one of them is always behind the bar while the other runs the store or the kitchen. The cooperative approach helps make Cardinal feel more like an intimate experiment than a traditional drinking destination.

THE DRINKS

As befits a conscientious and creative joint like this, the cocktail menu offers low-ABV cocktails, sherry and vermouth bottle service, smartly curated wines such as a pungent red from Puglia with a beer bottle cap, and nonalcoholic drinks boosted with CBD oil. The eponymous signature drink, a riff on a gin martini poured in a classic small coupe, honors the South with delicate (and not too sweet) touches of honey and Georgia muscadine wine. The more daring Amiright (arak, rum, and lime) and Hip to Hip (bourbon, curaçao, coconut, lemon, and salt) serve to shroud Cardinal in additional magic.

Review: Cardinal
The snacky menu offers bites such as marinated olives with Caly Road feta that align beautifully with the cocktails.

Photograph by Cori Carter

THE FOOD

On the tiny bar menu, snack-sized mortadella sandwiches on potato rolls with tangy housemade mustard are the only hot food item. Beautiful, smoked Portuguese sardines are served in their tin can, along with pickled quail eggs from Alabama, hot piri-piri sauce, housemade pickles, and toasted rounds of baguette to sop up their rich oil. There’s also a generous helping of marinated olives tossed with mild Caly Road feta; a salad of peaches, blueberries, and freshly snipped herbs served with a mound of sumptuous housemade ricotta; and a simple cheese plate with a choice of Gouda flavored with nettles, buttery young cheddar (both from Working Cow Dairy in Alabama), Sweet Grass Green Hill from Georgia, or Point Reyes Original Blue from California. The sublime pointy baguettes accompanying both the cheeses and the Sparkman’s butter (churned in South Georgia) are from the best baker in town: Root Baking Company in Ponce City Market.

At peak strawberry season, the kitchen put out a strawberry salad, strawberry syrup, and strawberry leather—as unlikely to find in a bar as the house Bibb salad with lemon vinaigrette and homemade croutons.

THE VIBE

The space exudes its owners’ deep-held beliefs in planetary harmony and cyclical renewal: You can’t help but feel relaxed hanging out here. The walls are a seductive pool-table green, the old-fashioned horseshoe bar is crafted of rich walnut wood, large tables in various corners foster conversation, and the hypnotic lighting (the owners have been collecting vintage fixtures—most of them globes—and light bulbs over the past year) make it easy to fall under Cardinal’s spell.

THE VERDICT

Cardinal is not your typical bar. Ethereal cocktails, Southern snacks, and warm, artistic, female energy coalesce to create an idyllic refuge. The mood here is dictated not by the culture of excess or the lure of debauchery but by the bounties of nature and the cycles of the moon.

Rating
★ ★ ★
(Excellent)

1039 Grant Street
thirdstreetgoods.com/cardinal

Three of cardinal’s must-order cocktails

Review: Cardinal

Cardinal
This rumination on a gin martini has whispers of honey and muscadine wine.

Review: Cardinal

Amiright
Yes, you are—especially when you feed me this concoction of arak, rum, and lime.

Review: Cardinal

Hip to Hip
You’ll want to slow dance with this mashup of bourbon, curaçao, coconut, lemon, and salt.

This article appears in our September 2019 issue.

Review: Pancake Social—come for the pancakes, stay for the breakfast sandwich

Pancake Social review
Chocolate and buckwheat stack with dark chocolate sauce

Photograph by Cori Carter

Back in the early 2000s, Atlanta had meager options for those who use “brunch” as a verb. Sure, there were places to go eat breakfast on the weekend: Flying Biscuit, Thumbs Up Diner, Java Jive, Goldbergs. But they didn’t exhibit the same reverence for morning cuisine as the brunch specialists who’ve arrived in recent years.

And now we have Pancake Social, which slings bougie brunch options such as avocado toast with soft-cooked egg and a Dutch baby pancake with apple and Gruyère—not just at weekend brunch but all day every day.

That isn’t to say that Pancake Social, located on the southeastern edge of Ponce City Market, is breakfast perfection. With an all-star team stacked with Anne Quatrano (Bacchanalia), Tony Riffel (Octane), Dan Jacobson (Chick-fil-A), and Steven Chan (Tin Drum), the restaurant should be operating much more smoothly. One Saturday morning bottleneck was so maddening I found myself coaching the overwhelmed hostess on how to handle the crowd.

Once you finally get to eat, you’ll find that executive chef Evelyn Ling (sous chef at Bacchanalia) knows how to push breakfast boundaries while still hitting the sweet spot. The menu features 11 types of pancakes, crafted from, say, buckwheat or gluten-free ancient grain. The buttermilk pancakes are as good as they must be for a place that has “pancake” in its name; they’re fluffy and just sweet enough to keep from being cloying once dressed with syrup. The kitchen keeps said syrup hot in an electric warmer on the pass, ready to be poured into a ramekin. It’s a nice touch. And bread nerds will appreciate that the sourdough waffle batter uses a starter created more than 20 years ago at Bacchanalia, the fine-dining bastion.

You’re probably here for one pancake variation or another, but the best dish on the menu is the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a homemade English muffin. It might be the most sublime breakfast sandwich in town, with gorgeous, thick-cut Cheshire bacon, American cheese, and a meticulously folded egg (although you can get it sunny-side up, too) served on a near-pillowy English muffin that almost resembles a griddle cake. Amid a table groaning under the weight of the dishes we ordered—including middling beignets—I endured a battle of the bites with a seven-year-old over that sandwich. (She ultimately won.)

Rating
★ ★ ★
(Good)

Vital stats
675 Ponce de Leon Avenue
678-609-8696
pancakesocial.com

This article appears in our August 2019 issue.

Review: 8Arm is wildly different and as good as ever under new chef Maricela Vega

8Arm review
Chef Maricela Vega is known for her masa-making skills and her sense of food justice.

Photograph by Alex Martinez

The sudden death of Angus Brown in early 2017, four months after he and partner Nhan Le opened the endearingly weird and wildly good 8Arm, struck Atlanta like a thunderbolt from a vengeful god. The 35-year-old chef had culinary ideas that were revolutionary, and creativity like his was in short order in Atlanta at the time. In 2011, Brown had burst out of the gates at Octopus Bar in East Atlanta Village, the punk, late night–only spot he and Le had launched mostly for industry people to grab unorthodox food and clever drinks after their shifts. The two chefs then went on to start Lusca, an ahead-of-its-time and relatively short-lived seafood restaurant and raw bar that wasn’t adequately appreciated by its fancy South Buckhead neighbors. Then came 8Arm.

Located in a funky little free-standing brick building (a former dog obedience school and scooter shop), 8Arm helped expose Brown’s rule-breaking brilliance to the light of day—and to the right audience. The concept (eight or so simple, ingredients-driven dishes a day; frequent changes reflecting seasonality and availability) and the name (a reference to cephalopods) tied the new restaurant to both Octopus Bar and Lusca.

Brown’s untimely death was a major blow, but his sous-chef, Keith Remes, rose to the challenge. The menu lost some of its whimsy and creativity over time, but the January 2017 arrival of an outdoor bar helped stabilize 8Arm with an enviable drinking scene.

Then, this spring, the restaurant wisely brought on Maricela Vega to succeed Remes.

California-born of Mexican descent, passionate about plant-based cuisine and food justice, previously known for her masa-making skills, tamale delivery business, and pop-ups (under the name Chicomecóatl) that excavate the roots of her ancestral cuisine, Vega ripped the rear-view mirror off 8Arm.

The changes she’s implemented are profound. Caution isn’t part of her vocabulary. Her vision—stunningly beautiful gatherings of the best and freshest ingredients she can get, often from little-known local farmers and providers—and her use of seed pastes, nondairy creams, and chili oil may at first seem surprising in this context, but her ebullient talent is inescapable.

THE TEAM

Managing partner Le and creative/obsessive beverage manager Joshua Fryer (a hipster’s hipster who doubles as general manager) continue to operate one of the most impossibly cool restaurants in town—the indie response to Ponce City Market, the Goliath across the street. Co-owner Skip Engelbrecht, who also co-owns the adjoining Paris on Ponce bazaar, pops in almost every day to check on things at the restaurant, but you might mistake him for a barfly. Despite all that, service can be infuriating, with a young team that seems to have relocated here from the now-shuttered American Apparel. Their slackness can feel at odds with the kitchen’s dynamism.

8Arm review
The ingredients in a peach salad are meticulously sourced from local farms, many of them little-known.

Photograph by Alex Martinez

THE FOOD

Vega’s cuisine—highly influenced by her family history yet not full-on Mexican; mostly plant-based and vegan-friendly but not purely so; extraordinarily complex yet fresh and spontaneous—is unlike anything that you may have experienced outside of the world of private supper clubs and pop-ups. Many of the 12 or 13 dishes on the menu feel like a harvest of garden ingredients nestling among seed pastes, bean purees, scattered buds, petals, and maybe a holy basil cream or more than enough chili oil to set your mouth on fire. There’s a ravishing mingling of Sea Island peas with chard stems, celery, and golden raisins. One week she is completely focused on strawberries (red, green, fresh, pickled, in an aguachile with Zephir zucchini or in a salad with serviceberries, red butter lettuce, green peas, and toasted sunflower seeds). The next, she welcomes the ripening of early peaches, in a lustrous salad with three types of kale, or the opening of thyme flowers, deployed as deeply scented shots of flavor. She works with rarely seen ingredients such as okra seed oil and has harnessed the power of pumpkin cream with coconut milk and maple syrup.

Vega connected with many farmers when she worked at Empire State South, where she manned the cold station, and she has maintained those relationships. She knows how to select long komatsuma greens, medicinal-smelling mountain mint, and intact oyster mushrooms, and to forage tender bamboo shoots. They end up in plates that have no center and no anchor, but the way she mixes things brings the best of the season to your plate.

Proteins haven’t been forgotten. A supplier who goes spearfishing in mangroves brings Vega exquisite African pompano or snapper, which she transforms into colorful ceviche or crudo with kohlrabi, cashew cream, hibiscus buds, and those thyme flowers. She isn’t great with meat: Her little albondigas (meatballs) are too dry, her pork shoulder too fatty. But when it comes to something she calls an “assortedness,” fanning out nuts, seeds, infant radishes, shaved carrots, small wedges of Southern cheeses, creme fraiche with honey, blueberries, and a five-minute egg with chili oil and sunflower pesto, she has few equals.

8Arm review
The bar program is anchored by unusual and fortified wines.

Photograph by Alex Martinez

THE DRINKS

It has always been beverage director Fryer’s intention for 8Arm to focus on wines, fortified wines, and sipping rums. Yes, the 95-seat restaurant serves a handful of classic cocktails that change every day, but the most interesting thing about the drink menu are the vermouths and quinquinas (think Spanish vermouth on draft, expensive Matthiasson sweet vermouth from the Napa Valley, Casa Mariol Vermut Negre, or Byrrh) and the adventurous wines such as Malvasia, Touriga Nacional, and skin-contact Chenin Blanc meant to be drunk young and fresh.

THE VIBE

8Arm’s charming brick building is flanked by a bar fashioned out of a shipping container that opens onto a covered patio. Inside, the dining room feels like a little Scandinavian schoolhouse, with simple midcentury-modern tables and chairs and ample fronds and greenery. On the wall is a mural designed and painted by Engelbrecht: a banner held up by two mythical beasts bearing a Latin quote referencing an Aesop fable: “Nulla enim servientes, mercedem impii”—basically, “No reward for serving the wicked.”

THE VERDICT

It has been fascinating to track the three-year evolution of 8Arm. Though it suffered a great tragedy early on, it continued not just to survive but to smartly innovate—and, now, to reinvent itself entirely under a chef as gifted and individualistic as the one who was lost too soon. Maricela Vega and her joyously healthy food make 8Arm feel new again—a tough feat, given that it never felt old.

Rating
★ ★ ★
(Excellent)

Vital stats
710 Ponce de Leon Avenue
470-875-5856
8armatl.com

This article appears in our August 2019 issue.

Review: District M brings ambitious, high-end Japanese to Sandy Springs

Review: District M
Otoro tartare

Photograph by Savanna Sturkie

Every few weeks, we offer our “B Review,” a short take on restaurants that are (sometimes) casual and (typically) not too pricey—and occasionally neither.

Sandy Springs used to be a culinary wasteland. But in recent years, restaurateurs eager to capitalize on the city’s many well-heeled residents have opened places that are finally kind of exciting. (See: Peter Kaiser and Kevin Rathbun’s Kaiser’s Chophouse, L.A.-based Jinya Ramen Bar, and il Giallo from the Veni Vidi Vici team.) To that list, you can add sushi and omakase spot District M.

Located in the slick Modera complex, District M was a smart move by chef Jackie Chang, who previously worked at high-style, minimalist Umi in Buckhead and dramatic, crowd-pleasing O-Ku on the Westside. Chang has replicated a little of each of those vibes at his new, industrial-ish restaurant.

The 16-seat sushi bar surrounding an expansive, open kitchen offers a front-row view of the small staff that turns out the ambitious menu. It’s not common in Atlanta to see Edomae-style sushi (a precise preparation served within 45 seconds) and uni tastings featuring three varietals (which could be from California, Japan, and Maine). A beautiful serving of Otoro tartare is packed into a bamboo box, artfully arranged on a bowl of ice alongside vessels of black caviar, wasabi, creme fraiche, puffed rice, toasted sliced white bread, and truffle yuzu sauce.

The fish is flown in daily from Japan and elsewhere, and if you’re looking to lay down some serious cash, a single piece of nigiri (live scallop, for instance) can go for $15. You can also take the omakase route, starting at $60 for a four-course meal, $90 for six courses or for 14 pieces of nigiri, and upwards of $120 for the Benzaiten (“chef’s freestyle”) feast.

It’s clear Chang hopes to capture some of the sushi fanatics who frequent Umi. The difference in the quality of the actual sushi is negligible, although Umi gets the edge on design and service (the tempo of District M’s service can be clunky). Still, for northsiders looking to avoid the Buckhead throngs, District M is a destination sushi restaurant in a part of town that’s no longer a culinary snooze.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
(Very Good)

Vital stats
6125 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs
678-974-2820
districtmatl.com

This article appears in our July 2019 issue.

Review: At Lazy Betty, a modern tasting-menu restaurant finds a home in Candler Park

Review: Lazy Betty
An artistic take on steak and eggs

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

The new luxury is nothing like the old luxury. Dress codes and starched tablecloths have given way to tank tops and exposed ductwork, and informality rules in today’s temples of high gastronomy. Some of the customers at the envelope-pushing Lazy Betty, which executive chef Ron Hsu recently opened in hippie-ish Candler Park (where new restaurants are as scarce as Kemp supporters), show up for the $165, 10-course tasting menu wearing shorts and flip-flops.

The inauspicious entrance to the fine-dining establishment is in the drab lobby of a squat brick building that houses social services and chiropractors. But as soon as you step inside, you’ll be struck by Lazy Betty’s (casual) opulence, which first hits you in the form of the spare-no-expenses open kitchen. Located right up front, where you’d expect the bar to be (and easily mistaken for one), the kitchen features such marvels as a custom hearth that resembles a sink on fire. The most desirable spot in the restaurant is a seat at that bar—er, chef’s counter—where you can watch Hsu, chef de cuisine Aaron Phillips, and the rest of the team hunched over intricate presentations of ingredients such as fermented mango, preserved gooseberries, and aji potato foam.

Hsu, who competed on the recent Netflix show The Final Table, spent more than seven years at Eric Ripert’s three-Michelin-star Le Bernardin in Manhattan, first as an executive sous chef, later as creative director. The Le Bernardin influence is obvious, but Hsu’s food also speaks—in a tone more playful than stiff—to his experiences beyond that elite dining room, including growing up in Stockbridge as the child of immigrants.

THE TEAM

The Hsu family traces its roots to South China and Malaysia, and its matriarch, cheekily nicknamed Lazy Betty because she worked all the time, owned multiple Chinese restaurants in the Atlanta area. Hsu grew up in those restaurants and got his culinary degree in Australia. Upon his return to the States, he became a line cook and later chef de cuisine at the former Dish in Virgina-Highland before moving on, at age 24, to one of the country’s most iconic restaurants.

At Le Bernardin, Hsu met Phillips, who would become not just his chef de cuisine at Lazy Betty but his business partner. They experimented with their modernist tasting menu in a yearlong series of pop-ups, hosted at the Poncey-Highland Coffee House & Cafe. The pop-ups helped Hsu and Phillips build a clientele and develop Lazy Betty’s three menus: a reservation-only chef’s tasting at the counter; a slightly shorter tasting menu offered in the dining room; and an a-la-carte one offered in the lounge (and eventually on the patio). Hsu’s siblings, who own Sweet Auburn Barbecue, are also partners in the restaurant, and his mother’s influence extends beyond the name; she showed him from a young age that hard work is the key ingredient in a true, family-run restaurant. The “family” here includes a young, savvy staff, from beverage director to pastry chef, with an abundance of talent and enthusiasm—and it shows in the quality of the food and the overall experience.

Review: Lazy Betty
White Pekin duck, sweet potato­–daikon terrine, hoisin-spiced jus

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

THE FOOD

Atlanta isn’t much of a tasting-menu town. There are prix fixe–only places, like Bacchanalia, that offer fewer courses of more traditional portions, and other spots that offer a tasting menu as an option, but until Lazy Betty, the only tasting-menu restaurant in town was Staplehouse. Do we need another? I suppose those who can afford it might—especially one as charming as Lazy Betty. The $165 chef’s tasting menu (gratuity included) is the best way to experience Hsu’s gifts, but the $125 option (seven courses, also inclusive of gratuity) is still plenty prestigious.

Glorious, steamy biscuits served with aromatic kumquat butter appear on all three menus. Depending on the depth of your pockets, you can roam through sumptuous salmon tartare with Persian cucumber; sturdy little quenelles of Madras-spiced duck rillettes with sour cherries; “marrow bones” (actually crisp shells of sourdough) stuffed with smoked cauliflower puree and onion marmalade; an oyster topped with osetra caviar on a locally made pottery shell of glazed Georgia clay; a harvest of minute root vegetables strewn atop edible “soil,” with a layer of black truffles buried underneath; and a charred Spanish octopus with fermented black beans and slivers of Bartlett pear that takes two days to prepare.

Most dishes are highly technical and inventively deployed, such as scales-on black bass that the kitchen cooks by gingerly basting it with hot oil in a wok before serving it with a gentle pour-over of chorizo broth. Spring onion agnolotti, with peas and young garlic, is so pure and delicate it’s barely there (not a complaint). And a witty rendition of steak and eggs, composed of dry-aged strip steak alongside a slow-cooked yolk in a little package of collard greens, made me gasp in admiration.

Hsu dodges the usual criticisms directed at chefs whose meticulous garnishes and intricate plating sometimes trump their cooking prowess and a dish’s overall flavor. This is food that tastes as good as it looks. The only real exception is a fussy cucumber cannelloni with horseradish panna cotta, borscht, and fennel foam: Its muddled taste betrays its outward beauty.

Review: Lazy Betty
Georgia shrimp causa, aji potato foam, pepper relish

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

The a-la-carte menu is mostly snacks and bites, albeit refined ones such as the cult-worthy Georgia shrimp in a Peruvian-style causa with avocado mousse, aji potato foam, and piquant pepper relish. You might not be able to make a full meal from it (at least not without paying about as much as you would for the less expensive of the two tasting menus), but it’s a good way to sample Lazy Betty’s innovations.

Pastry chef Lindsey Davis’s dazzling work is a fitting finale to the meal. It’s hard not to ogle her splashy trompe l’oeil rendition of a giant fresh cherry, built from coconut cherry mousse and glossy chocolate ganache, or of a dewy, rosy peach, crafted with peach yogurt and jasmine sorbet (each with their own chocolate stem). Her exquisite mignardises (a collection of miniature sweets, served at the very end) will leave you wondering whether she arrived here straight from Paris. (Answer: No, but close—she formerly worked at Atlas.)

THE DRINKS

The cocktails are as clever as the food (have you ever before seen a giant cube of port wine dropped into artisanal American grappa?), and the small but growing wine list includes such delightful oddities as a Basque txacoli that doesn’t fizz and a brilliant Pinot Blanc from Alsace. You will drink as well as you eat.

Review: Lazy Betty
Lazy Betty’s lounge offers the restaurant’s best seating

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

THE VIBE

Local firm Praxis3 took the funky digs of Radial Cafe on DeKalb Avenue and transformed them into an elegant post-industrial space. The neatly folded shawls draped over the back of the midcentury dining chairs are there to provide warmth, literally and decoratively. Tucked away in the back of the restaurant, the dining room can feel a bit unresolved, with a flock of three-dimensional clay birds hovering midflight on the walls and banquettes strewn with odd, fuzzy-shiny pillows. The lounge and its chef’s counter are more posh and cheerful, with the luxe leather bar stools providing an ideal perch for surveying the kitchen’s imaginative work.

THE VERDICT

Lazy Betty specializes in the thrill of high-end sensory delights—at an equally high price tag. One might wonder whether Atlanta needs another tasting-menu restaurant (we argue that it does), but there are a few things we can all agree on: the impressive level of skill and creativity among Lazy Betty’s staff, the meticulousness of the restaurant’s sourcing of ingredients, and the brilliant results when those two things come together under the watch of executive chef Ron Hsu. Atlanta should be proud to welcome him home.

Rating
★ ★ ★
(Excellent)

Vital stats
1530 DeKalb Avenue
404-975-3692
lazybettyatl.com

This article appears in our July 2019 issue.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of Hsu’s pop-up. 

Review: Japanese barbecue chain Gyu-Kaku gives Atlantic Station some dining cred

Review: Gyu-Kaku

Every few weeks, we offer our “B Review”—a short take on restaurants that are casual and (typically) not too pricey.

It used to be easier to find parking at Atlantic Station than a decent meal. The recent arrival of Gyu-Kaku has changed that. The Yokohama-headquartered chain, which operates more than 700 restaurants globally and nearly 60 in North America, has the concept of Japanese barbecue down to a science (even if it can feel a little canned at times). Now, if only they could help me score a parking spot.

For the uninitiated, Japanese barbecue (or yakiniku) is similar to Korean barbecue, without the complimentary side dishes. You can order a bunch of different cuts of meat (as well as seafood, tofu, and vegetables) that you cook yourself on a gas grill with ventilation built into the table. Small plates like salty and spicy pickled cucumbers, fried pork dumplings, and surprisingly tasty Japanese fried chicken brightened with a squeeze of fresh lemon are also on offer.

Gyu-Kaku’s prix-fixe meals are a convenient way to explore the different cuts and marinades. Meals start at $48 for two people during happy hour; the $170 Shogun option feeds six. Some of the meats served in the prix-fixe meal taste like they’ve sat in the marinade a little too long, but they’re generally tasty. (You can skip the marinated meats by ordering plain premium cuts like filet mignon from the a la carte menu, but that can get expensive.) The prix-fixe option also comes with a selection of starters—edamame, the fried chicken, watery miso soup, house salad bathed in a creamy dressing—and ends with a s’mores kit you roast over the grill on a bamboo skewer.

Kirin beers on draft come in comically oversized mugs, and the service is friendly though sometimes takes a minute to find its rhythm. Given the dearth of decent dining options at Atlantic Station, which is currently being revamped and renovated, Gyu-Kaku stands out from the other chains. It’s your best bet for a pre-movie steak and beer.

Rating
★ ★ ★
(Good)

Vital stats
265 18th Street,
404-253-2989
gyu-kaku.com

This article appears in our June 2019 issue.

Review: Nina & Rafi’s Detroit Red-Top is Atlanta’s new pizza obsession

Review: Nina & Rafi, Super Margherita
Nina & Rafi’s Super Margherita

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

For the last decade, Atlanta has been largely fixated on Neapolitan pizza, with one notable exception: a square, pan-baked curiosity that hails from New Jersey and goes by the name “grandma pie.” That pie, initially served at the modest O4W Pizza near the BeltLine in Irwin Street Market, is to the Atlanta pizzascape what the Clermont Lounge is to the city’s strip-club scene—a delightful nonconformist that creates an entirely new experience out of a formulaic one.

Then, after just a year and a half, O4W Pizza closed shop in 2016 and decamped to Duluth. Grandma-pie enthusiasts unwilling to make the trek had little choice but to return to their Neapolitan comfort zone.

Now, O4W owner Anthony Spina has returned to the old neighborhood with a new concept: Nina & Rafi. Atlantans had been eagerly anticipating grandma’s homecoming, but to their surprise, the beloved pie didn’t materialize on Nina & Rafi’s menu. Instead, Spina made the ballsy decision to introduce yet another pizza style to Atlanta’s Neapolitan-crazed masses. Could his Detroit Red Top possibly live up to grandma’s hype?

THE TEAM

If you didn’t know that Spina was pure Jersey, you could probably figure it out by his accent and the way he dresses: black Givenchy T-shirt, lots of gold jewelry, baseball cap at a rakish angle. His business partner in Nina & Rafi, Billy Streck—who launched Cypress Street Pint and Plate near Georgia Tech nearly 12 years ago and later opened, with his wife, the slick Hampton and Hudson sports bar in Inman Quarter—is a little more difficult to figure out. (He’s actually from New York.) Spina and Streck have been friends for years, but Nina & Rafi, named after Streck’s grandmother and Spina’s great-grandmother, is their first joint business venture.

Review: Nina & Rafi, Detroit pie
The Detroit pie, margherita-style

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

THE FOOD

Yes, the Detroit Red Top is meant to be the game-changer, but there are two other styles of pie on the menu: a Neapolitan-ish classic round pie and, more impressive, a Jersey-style, thin, square pizza called Old Fashion, which is similar to the grandma pie.

But you’re here for the Detroit.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Detroit pie is its over-the-top thick crust, which requires that the pizza arrive on a cooling rack nestled into a pan, lest the crust become soggy. Its dough, essentially a baguette dough, is made by hand with the simplest of ingredients and rises for two days. Unlike a Chicago deep-dish pizza, which can weigh a ton, a proper Detroit pizza feels light but hearty. That’s exactly what you get at Nina & Rafi—if you’re willing to wait the minimum 25 minutes. Rectangular and crispy around the edges, with a raised lip of insanely delicious burnt cheese at the crust’s perimeter and a heavy load of marinara ladled atop the cheese, the Detroit Red Top is indeed an object worthy of widespread desire, as Instagrammable as it is tasty. Grandma would be proud.

Don’t sleep on the giant meatballs engulfed in red sauce and the golden fried rice balls oozing soft mozzarella, though you might want to skip the fairly pedestrian salads. And beware the soupy lasagna slopped onto a plate and the grilled artichoke appetizer, which left me choking on a bundle of abrasive scorched leaves.

THE DRINKS

Nina & Rafi’s wine list is unusually ambitious (what pizza place in Atlanta pours unfiltered Arneis and esoteric Sicilian reds?), and its entrancing collection of European aperitifs, amari, and fortified wines is further proof that this is a serious drinking destination. Italian cocktails include riffs on Negronis and spritzes, and the craft beers and Italian lager come in tall, distinctive, bulbous glasses.

Review: Nina & Rafi, meatballs
The meatballs are among a few stellar appetizers.

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

THE VIBE

Located in the still-somewhat-mysterious SPX Alley development, at the bottom of the hill that flanks the Studioplex parking lot, Nina & Rafi can be hard to find. There is no street access; instead, it sits directly on the BeltLine, catty-corner from Bell Street Burritos.

But once you’re finally inside, it’s a welcoming space. The design by Smith Hanes, including a splendid pattern of penny tile in the bar area, is expensive-looking but low-key. Plush red leather banquettes, distressed mirrors, custom-made industrial light fixtures descending from a shiny tin ceiling, hand-blown globes, and simple, sturdy schoolhouse chairs evoke 1930s New York.

THE VERDICT

Anthony Spina earned a name for himself with his Jersey-style grandma pie at the original (and now-shuttered) location of O4W Pizza. His return to the neighborhood with a splashier pizza place—and without grandma—might have been a letdown if not for his equally impressive Detroit-style pie. All in all, this marriage between a relaxed but stylish pizza place and a fun but sophisticated bar is a sure thing.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
(Very Good)

Vital stats
661 Auburn Avenue,
404-549-8997
ninaandrafi.com

This article appears in our June 2019 issue.

Review: Aix is inspired by the South of France but feels like Westside Atlanta

Aix review
An unusual interpretation of bouillabaisse

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

The resurrection of historic properties such as the White Provision Co. building and the Miller Union Stockyards have transformed the former industrial neighborhood along the Westside’s rail lines. One of the most recent restaurants to arrive, next to Donetto and catty-corner from Miller Union, is Aix, built on the loading dock of those former stockyards.

Like the Meatpacking district in Manhattan, the tony development that houses Aix (called—surprise, surprise—the Stockyards) makes us forget its blood-soaked past with flashy architectural features and large bay windows. Aix and its adjacent sister operation, the more casual, wine-oriented Tin Tin, were both conceived as an homage to the South of France. But, as anyone who’s visited the charming town of Aix-en-Provence can tell you, there’s very little about the Stockyards that projects the warmth and relaxation of that beloved region.

The most Provençal detail at Aix may be the wall of cochonnets—small wooden balls used as targets in the game of Pétanque—strung on wires between the dining room and the bar. Other intended nods to Provence are lost in translation.

THE TEAM

Born in Bermuda to a half-French, half-British mother and an American father, executive chef Nick Leahy is more of a modern-leaning cook than a guardian of traditions. Yes, he spent many vacations at the homes of his parents and his great-aunt near the French Riviera, but a peripatetic cooking career that took him to London and Atlanta is as important to his development as his early encounters with duck confit and Mediterranean lamb. Last seen running the kitchen at Saltyard, the globe-trotting small-plates restaurant in Buckhead, Leahy has now acquired a deep-pocketed silent partner, whom he met doing charity work. Completing the team is general manager Pat Peterson, an advanced sommelier.

Aix review
Aix’s poisson du jour

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

THE FOOD

Rather than trying to procure ingredients indigenous to the South of France, Leahy embraces the philosophy of all local, all the time. The results vary. His riff on bouillabaisse—clams, fish, scallops, and shrimp arranged on the plate, with a fish fumet reduction perfumed with saffron poured over them tableside—is far from faithful to the dish that embodies the Mediterranean, yet it’s a valid reinterpretation. On the other hand, his cassoulet—a fussy, dry landscape of red and white Sea Island peas, crisped pork belly, and breadcrumb croquettes flavored with duck broth and topped with carrot fronds—boggles the mind of anyone expecting the rich, unctuous, white bean casserole au gratin.

The well-composed poisson du jour, often snapper, served with Hakurei turnips, balsamic beets, and sun-dried tomato relish, doesn’t feel particularly like regional cooking. Neither does the fancy duck confit crepe with a soft duck egg, roasted grapes, and foie gras brown butter, nor the crispy chicken livers “à ma grand-mère” with fried polenta, marinated mushrooms, and dark chicken jus.

Aix review
The bread service is one of the best things to emerge from the kitchen.

Photograph by Iain Bagwell

Bread service is important at a French restaurant. Aix bakes its own, delivering crusty epi and sourdough on a board alongside housemade cultured butter and a whole head of roasted garlic. It’s one of the best things to emerge from the kitchen. Also impressive are the classic foie gras au torchon with brioche, raisin jam, and red onion and the grilled lamb loin with chestnut dumplings and cabbage puree, both of which have a convincing Gallic accent.

Pastry chef Kendall Baez bakes a limited number of tartes tropeziennes made of sweet brioche filled with creme patissiere each day, because they are highly perishable. Grab one if you can. Aix’s unorthodox, cookie-like tarte au citron decorated with dots of meringue or its almost unspeakably rich and deconstructed Ferrero Rocher should also be on your list.

THE DRINKS

Order a Pernod on ice before your meal and a sweet Banyuls as a digestif, both delightful reminders of Provence. Intelligent cocktails, including a Last Train to Paris with a warm breath of cognac and star anise–flavored pastis, are among the high points on the drinks list. Aix’s wine list offers unusual bottles from southern France, and every wine available by the glass next door at Tin Tin can be ordered as well. Trust Peterson to recommend and persuasively describe the wines he’s curated.

THE VIBE

Popular design team ai3 uses materials such as white plaster, gray stones, and copper accents to evoke historic Provence, but the overall feel is decidedly of the moment. The private wine room and the prettily lit bar offer pockets of intimacy in a space that’s more glam than cozy.

THE VERDICT

Either you know Provence and question chef Leahy’s exactitude, or you don’t care about faithful renditions and enjoy a restaurant that speaks French with a strong American accent. Either way, expect to drink better than you eat—and don’t be surprised if the atmosphere more closely aligns with Westside Atlanta than the South of France.

Rating
★ ★ ★ ★
(Very Good)

Vital stats
956 Brady Avenue,
770-838-3501
aixatl.com

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