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.