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

The Ponce de Leon den of cool never stopped being revolutionary. With new chef Maricela Vega, it’s even more deliciously subversive.

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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.

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