Atlantic Station is a city within a city, built from scratch on a defunct steel mill, with main streets, side streets, parks, a “town center,” and an Arc de Triomphe. (A triumphal arch? Really?) I’m new in town and used to cities where the old-looking buildings actually are old—and, admittedly, sometimes decrepit—but the idea of a mall pretending to be its own downtown isn’t new. One of my favorite Los Angeles restaurants, Nancy Silverton’s diner-like Short Order, is in one (a mall built around the Original Farmers Market, itself an early mall).
Singing planters, though—those are new. Walking by cascading impatiens and hearing soft rock piped into your ear from strategically hidden speakers is Truman Show disorienting. This is Atlanta? I’ve got a lot to learn.
The Pig & the Pearl is a little disorienting, too—particularly when it comes to figuring out how the parts of the menu and the restaurant itself are supposed to go together. It’s a smokehouse that smokes its own ribs, brisket, and pork. That part I get: Much of what’s smoked is good, and some of it’s memorable. But it’s also a raw bar with a daily selection of oysters, hamachi crudo, smoked salmon, smoked trout spread, and yellowfin with ponzu gelée. That part I don’t, even after dining there three times and asking the owners and the chef about their concept. Why would you come to a smokehouse for sashimi?
Todd Richards, the chef, offered an engaging defense. The idea, he said when I called him, was to reflect Atlantic Station’s crossroads identity: “We’re between neighborhoods—West Midtown, Midtown, and Georgia Tech. We wanted to please all those groups. We didn’t want to be just highbrow or lowbrow; we wanted to be right in the middle.” Bar food, road-stand food, fancy food—they’ll offer it all.
Richards went further, though. He said that during his travels in the 1990s through West Africa, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, he was reminded of many similarities in the cuisines—raw fish in African port cities, the complex spice mixtures on pork he ate in Asia. “People wouldn’t expect that black and Asian food would be similar,” he told me. “But look at the cucumber, red onion, and tomato salad they eat in the South. It’s like the pickled daikon salad I’ve eaten in Asia. If people would sit down and eat together more often, the world would be a much better place.”
Agreed! Heartily. But it still feels more like a play for as much business as possible than any kind of natural combination. The decor doesn’t help clear up matters. It’s somewhere between the family style you’d expect from an informal menu—long, distressed wood tables—and plush business dinner, with cozy banquettes and a back section dominated by a shoji-like screen that feels like a steakhouse. Crates of oyster shells line the ceiling and a big, handsome raw bar dominates the room, even if oysters and raw fish don’t dominate the menu.
I was a lot more convinced by the easy, big-flavored dishes that reflect Richards’s Chicago childhood and—after he moved to Atlanta to pursue his career as a chef—his travels in the South researching African American food than by the perfectly fine but unremarkable dishes at the raw bar. The family-friendly, welcoming fare that he and the restaurant’s other owners, husband and wife Todd Martin and Cindy Shera, made popular at the Shed at Glenwood are what make Pig & Pearl a destination.
Anything with pork is a good choice, especially the “hot starter” of rib tips and grits, the tips trimmed from whole smoked ribs and arguably the best part—nubby, chewy, gristly blackened bits that demand to be picked up and gnawed, slathered in bourbon hot sauce (which isn’t really hot). The hot sauce defines the restaurant as much as the smoke, and much more than the oysters: Every table has three bottles, “hot,” “hotter,” and bourbon. They all struck me as subtle and deep-flavored, nicely thick and with gentle kicks. With buttery grits and a side of Edna Lewis–inspired cornbread in a small cast-iron skillet—the golden cornbread improbably butterless because its flavor is pure, nutty cornmeal, and its mouth-coating richness is thanks to the buttermilk—the rib tips felt like a welcome to the South.
Ribs themselves, in half or full slabs, were the simplest and best main course: dry, blackened with a terrific sear, lean enough but with a light pool of pork fat that collected on the bottom of the plate, and curry-colored from the dry rub. Pork shoulder was bland and fatty (the topping turned out to be fried pork skins, crumbled) and gelatinous, but the pork belly is worth a trip: cured in thyme and sugar as if it were gravlax, so the meat is sweet and true, and the skin gets more of that sharp sear. I’m a pork belly man, but I’m not used to it with this focus on sweet-salt porky purity or with such a mastery of crisp skin and melting fat.
But then there’s the rest of the sprawling menu, and it’s way too variable. The brisket was unforgivably dry and stringy, barely saved by lashings of hot sauce and not by the smoked butter Richards says he finishes it with. It’s at its best buried in a hot starter of shepherd’s pie, disguised by a winey sauce based on veal stock and the secret sauce of the whole place, the terrifically named “smoke stock,” which Richards makes from leftover bones and uses for many side dishes. The smoke, the sauce, and the trimmings make the pie a standout.
Sides are the safest bets: smoked sweet potatoes with cardamom, clove, and star anise, a combination ready for a recipe book; simple smoked onions that would be great on a burger; and the delicacy of Sea Island red peas baked just till tender with mirepoix, meat trimmings, and smoke stock. This is the kind of dish—made with plain, poor, but discerningly chosen and mixed ingredients—that Lewis ennobled in her classic The Taste of Country Cooking, a book that Richards was clearly inspired by.
Pork improves everything here, particularly “croutons” of crisped pork belly that are the best part of a kale salad. They and the green goddess dressing were so good one night that I was convinced a large order (it comes in two sizes) would, with cornbread, make a meal. The next time I ordered it, though, the pleasant memory was erased by grit in every bite; I stopped when I worried I’d lose a filling. But then the third time? Grit gone.
Desserts are largely missable. If you like chocolate frosting, you’ll be glad for a half-inch layer of pot de crème, like a thick pudding, at the bottom of a whimsical “camp fire treat” with a tepee of pretzel sticks standing in for the fire; it’s cute but the amount of icing wearying. Best to stick with the “frozen jars” of homemade ice cream, like the butter pecan. A chocolate malted milkshake with butter crunch and chocolate sauce is also good and kid friendly.
And another sign of the South: The milkshake comes with fries. Why fries? Because, Richards told me, when he was playing with it, every one of his cooks told him they dipped fries in milkshakes. I really do have a lot to learn.
Rating ★ (good)
1380 Atlantic Drive
Good to Know Ask to sit in the “inverted patio”—a glassed-in sunroom that doubles as a private dining room and the next best thing to sitting outdoors.
Update 12/2: This article originally stated that the restaurant serves sushi. It serves raw fish. The text has been updated to reflect this correction.
This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue.